THE MAN WHO MADE HUSBANDS JEALOUS
with love and gratitude
for so much happiness
One of the delights of writing The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous has been the kindness and enthusiasm of the people who helped me. These include in particular John Lodge, Managing Director of Lodge Securities, who initiated me into the mysteries of highly sophisticated security systems; trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies and his wife Cathy, who took me racing and allowed me to spend several days at their yard; Emily Gardiner and Alicia Winter who advised me on the pop music front; and Ian Maclay, the former Managing Director of The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the orchestra themselves, who provided me with much joy and enlightenment, both at rehearsal and concerts.
I should also like to thank Martin Stephen for telling me about headmasters; composer Geoffrey Burgon and master cellist Bobby Kok for talking to me about music; Andrew Parker-Bowles and John Oaksey for being brilliant about racing; Shirley Bevan for advising me on the illnesses of horses; Simon Cowley for walking the Cheltenham course with me in a deluge; and Raymond and Jenny Mould for inviting me into their box to see Tipping Tim win gloriously at Cheltenham. Peter and Alexandra Hunter and Sally Reygate also told me wonderful stories about their horses Esperanta and Regal, both now sadly departed.
Many other people helped me. Like those referred to above, they are all skilled in their own fields, but as I was writing fiction, I only followed their advice as far as it fitted my own story, and their expertise is in no way reflected by the accuracy of this book. They include:
Anthony and Mary Abrahams, Richard Bell, Sebastian Birkhead, John Bowes-Lyon, Charlie Brooks, Peter Cadbury, Edith and Jack Clarkson, Peter Clarkson, Father Damian of Prinknash Abbey, Jim Davidson, Herbert Despard, Fiona Feeley, Dennis Foot, Miriam Francombe, Susannah and William Franklyn, Judy Gaselee, E. W. Gillespie, Managing Director, Cheltenham Racecourse, Tony Hoskins, George and Huw Humphreys, John Irvin, Geoffrey and Jorie Kent, Carl Llewellyn, Roger and Rowena Luard, David Marchwood, Managing Director, Moët & Chandon (London) Ltd., Pussy Minchin, Sharon Morgan, Lana Myers, Peter Norman, Managing Director, Parfums Givenchy, Rosemary Nunneley, Guy Ralls, Henry Sallitt, Lottie Sjögren, Edward Smith, Pauline Stanbury, Diane Stevens, Harry Turner, Barry Watts, Madeline and Malcolm White, Kate Whitehouse and Francis Willey.
I should also like to thank the National Canine Defence League and in particular Mrs Clarissa Baldwin for allowing me to use their slogan — ‘A Dog is for Life… Not Just for Christmas’.
The subconscious mind works in strange ways. Almost from conception, The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous was set in Paradise, a mythical village in the mythical county of Rutshire. Paradise Village in the book has a population of around eight hundred, an Anglo-Saxon church, a pub, a restaurant, a handful of shops and lies on a river at the bottom of a beautiful valley surrounded by steeply sloping woodland studded with beautiful houses.
During a driving lesson, when the book was well under way, I told my instructor, Peter Clarkson, about my fictional village. Did I know there was a Paradise in Gloucestershire, he asked, and promptly drove me to a tiny hamlet which looked down into a valley, even more beautiful than the one of my imagination. Charles II is alleged to have named the place Paradise. Arriving by night while escaping from the Roundheads, he gazed out of the window the following morning and asked in rapture if he had arrived in Paradise. As I had written so much of the book by then, and because the two ‘Paradises’ are totally different, except in their rare beauty, I decided to keep the name, but would stress that no-one living nor any of the locations in Paradise, Rutshire, bear any resemblance or are based on anyone living or any of the places in Paradise, Gloucestershire.
I must also reiterate that The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous is a work of fiction and none of the characters is based on anyone. Any resemblance to any living person is purely coincidental and wholly unintended.
An author is only as good as her publishers. Mine have been magnificent. I would like to say a massive thank you to Paul Scherer, Mark Barty-King, Patrick Janson-Smith, of Transworld Publishers Ltd., and all their staff for their continued encouragement and advice while I was writing the book. Once it was delivered I had marvellous editorial advice from Diane Pearson, Broo Doherty and Tom Hartman. Nor could anyone have a more charming, merry or skilful agent than Desmond Elliott. I also owe a special debt of gratitude to my son Felix, who in January 1992 restored the gazebo at the bottom of the garden so I was able to write in blissful seclusion uninterrupted by doorbells or telephones.
Finishing a big book is tremendously exciting and consequently I owe a further huge debt of gratitude to my friends Annette Xuereb-Brennan, Annalise Dobson, Anna Gibbs-Kennet and Marjorie Williams for entering into the spirit by working late into the night typing huge chunks of the manuscript, and often correcting factual mistakes and fearful spelling. Ann Mills was equally marvellous at clearing up after us all without throwing away any vital scribbling.
Nor could the book have been written without the wonderfully soothing presence of my PA, Jane Watts, who listened when I was in despair, provided numerous funny lines and spent hours collating and photostating the manuscript.
Finally, I would most of all like to thank my family, Leo, Felix, Emily, Barbara and Hero. All provided comfort, tolerance and inspiration. Few writers are as privileged.
EDWARD BARTHOLOMEW ALDERTON
A significant grandchild.
Landlord of The Pearly Gates Public House and captain of Paradise Cricket XI.
A passionate painter.
Her husband — a caring beard in computers.
A comely Palm Beach groom.
A temp with tempting ankles.
A fair flautist misused by Rannaldini.
A very smooth private doctor.
A Palm Beach polo groupie.
Headmistress of Bagley Hall — a less caring beard.
Larry Lockton’s gardener.
An ace Gloucestershire vet.
Multi-millionaire owner/ trainer, ex-world show-jumping champion, Mecca for most women.
His second wife — an angel.
His son — an embryo concert pianist.
His daughter — a teenage tearaway.
SEB AND DOMMIE CARLISLE
The heavenly twins. Vastly brave professional polo players, whose serious wildness has been tempered by the recession.
Talented mezzo-soprano and Boris Levitsky’s mistress.
Rupert Campbell-Black’s first jockey.
An old boot and a pillar of Paradise.
Rannaldini’s sinister black-leather-clad henchman.
David Hawkley’s secretary — nicknamed ‘Mustard’ by the boys because she’s so keen on him.
A talented television termagent.
Winner of the home-made wine class at Paradise Church fete for ten years running.
One of Rupert Campbell- Black’s stable lads.
Rupert Campbell-Black’s head groom. A glamorous divorcee.
Fat Ferdie. Lysander Hawkley’s best friend and minder. Estate agent and fixer who is riding the recession with a cowboy’s skill.
Polo captain of England.
His painter wife, a friend of Julia Armstrong.
Guy Seymour’s London secretary.
Chairman of the New World Philharmonic Orchestra.
Rupert Cambell-Black’s first wife.
Orchestra manager of the London Met. A saint.
His seriously tiresome wife. Rannaldini’s mistress. One of the world’s leading sopranos and an applause junkie.
LITTLE COSMO HAREFIELD
A four-year-old fiend.
A hero of our time.
DAVID ‘HATCHET’ HAWKLEY
Lysander’s father and an unmerry widower. Headmaster of Fleetley — a top English public school.
An old soak, and the widow of David Hawkley’s much older brother, Alastair.
A colourless assistant conductor at the London Met.
THE REVEREND PERCIVAL HILLARY
A portly parson who confines his pastoral visits to drinks time.
His wife. A bossy boots.
A seductive, totally unprincipled journalist.
Electronics supremo and director of Venturer Television.
A glamorous, temperamental composer who defected from Russia in the eighties. Assistant conductor at the London Met and lover of red wine, red meat and red-blooded women.
His English wife. A concert pianist who has sacrificed her career to bring up two children: Vanya and Masha. Performs under her maiden name, Rachel Grant.
Chief Executive of Catchitune Records and a rough diamond.
His once-ravishing wife, who is finding to her cost that rough diamonds are not for ever.
A brilliant jump jockey.
A ravishing neglected American wife.
A sixties singer/songwriter and sex symbol. Slightly long-in-the-capped tooth, but poised for a massive come-back.
A rock star.
A susceptible divorcee, one of Rupert Campbell-Black’s owners.
A colourful guest conductor of the London Met.
Another of Rupert Campbell-Black’s owners.
Georgie Maguire’s daily. Nicknamed Mother Courage because of her fondness for a pint of beer.
One of the world’s greatest conductors. Musical director of the London Met and a very evil genius.
His much younger third wife who runs his life like clockwork.
Rannaldini’s son from his first marriage, a good sort.
Rannaldini’s daughter from his second marriage: a handful in all senses of the word.
Rannaldini’s second wife and a world famous diva. Given to throwing plates and tantrums.
A bishop’s son and Georgie Maguire’s very decent and rather unlikely husband. Owner of London art gallery and nurser of talent.
Guy’s and Georgie’s wild child.
A highly expensive gay interior designer, known as the Ideal Homo because he’s always being asked as a spare man for deserted wives at Paradise dinner parties.
American Security billionaire. Chief executive of Safus Houses Inc. and a philandering Palm Beach polo patron.
His ravishing neglected second wife.
Lysander Hawkley appeared to have everything. At twenty-two, he was tall, broad-shouldered, heart-stoppingly handsome, wildly affectionate, with a wall-to-wall smile that withered women. In January 1990 at the finals of a Palm Beach polo tournament, this hero of our time was lying slumped on a Prussian-blue rug in the pony lines sleeping off the excesses of the night before.
The higher the standard of polo the better looking tend to be both grooms and ponies. On this punishingly hot, muggy day, all around Lysander beautiful girls in Prussian-blue shirts and baseball caps were engaged in the frantic activity of getting twenty-four ponies ready for the match. But, trying not to wake him, they swore under their breaths as they bandaged and tacked-up charges driven demented by an invasion of mosquitoes. And, if they could, these beautiful girls would have hushed the thunder that grumbled irritably along the flat, palm-tree fringed horizon.
But Lysander didn’t stir — not even when an Argentine groom working for the opposition jumped a pony clean over him on the way to the warm-up area, nor when two of his team mates, the Carlisle twins, Sebastian and Dominic, roared up in a dark green Aston Martin yelling in rage and relief that they’d finally tracked him down.
People loved doing things for Lysander. The grooms had kept their voices down. In the same way Seb and Dommie, both England polo internationals, had persuaded Elmer Winterton, the security billionaire who employed them for the Palm Beach season, to fly Lysander out as a substitute when the fourth member of the team had broken his shoulder in the semi-finals.
‘The little fucker,’ howled Seb, leaping out of the car, ‘after all the trouble we took getting him the job.’
‘He rewards us by getting rat-assed,’ said Dommie.
Together they gazed indignantly down at Lysander, sprawled lean-hipped and loose-limbed as a lurcher puppy. Lazily he stretched out and raked a mosquito bite in his sleep.
‘No-one looking at that angelic inertia,’ went on Dommie grimly, ‘could imagine his ability for wanton destruction when he’s awake.’
‘Well, if he channels some of that ability against the opposition we’ll be OK,’ said Seb, and, picking up a Prussian-blue bucket, he dashed the contents into Lysander’s face. ‘Come on, Mr Hawkley. This is your wake-up call.’
‘What the fuck?’ Leaping as though he’d been electrocuted, frantically wiping dirty water out of his eyes, Lysander slowly and painfully focused on two, round, ruffian faces and four dissipated blue eyes glaring down at him from under thick blond fringes.
‘Oh, it’s you two,’ he groaned. ‘For a terrible moment I thought I was seeing double. What the hell are you trying to do to me?’
‘Nothing to what you’re doing to yourself,’ said Seb briskly. ‘Game starts in half an hour. Get your ass into gear.’
‘Did you pull that blonde?’ asked Dommie, unbuttoning his grey-striped shirt and selecting a Prussian-blue polo shirt from the back of the Aston Martin.
‘I’m not sure,’ Lysander’s wonderfully smooth, wide forehead wrinkled for a second. ‘I went back to her place, certainly, but I’ve got a terrible feeling I fell asleep on the job. I’d better ring and apologize.’
‘Later.’ Seb chucked him a polo shirt.
‘I bloody can’t,’ complained Lysander, taking a sodden piece of paper from his shirt pocket. ‘She gave me her number but the ink’s run. I’d like a tan like that,’ he added, admiring Dommie’s solidly muscled conker-brown back.
‘Well, you won’t get one unless you play bloody well this afternoon,’ said Seb, stepping out of his jeans. ‘Elmer’s threatening to send you home on the next plane. The fax in the barn is for business use only. Elmer is desperate for details of some massive Jap deal, and all morning the machine has been spewing out the racing pages of every English newspaper.’
‘Oh, great! They’ve arrived.’ Leaping to his feet, Lysander tore off his shirt without bothering to undo any buttons. ‘If I get changed quickly, I can have a bet. If Elmer won’t let me use the telephone in the barn, can I borrow yours?’
‘No, you cannot!’ Grabbing Lysander’s arm, Seb yanked him back. ‘Bloody get dressed and warmed up. We didn’t bring you all the way from Fulham to make fools of us.’
‘Foolham,’ said Lysander. For a moment, his head went back and his big mouth stretched in a roar of laughter showing off wonderfully even teeth. Then he looked perplexed.
‘Now, where did I leave my polo gear?’
The opposition team, who were called ‘Mr Beefy’, consisted of a fast-food tycoon, Butch Murdoch, a good consistent player, and his three Argentine professionals, one of whom, Juan O’Brien, was the greatest player in the world. Wearing red shirts, they were already hitting balls across a field which rippled beneath its heat haze like a vast green lake. A red mobile canteen was handing out free hamburgers to Mr Beefy supporters. Inhaling a waft of frying onions, as he and the twins rode onto the field, Lysander retched and clamped his mouth shut. Unable to find his kit, he was wearing boots that wouldn’t zip up, borrowed knee-pads and a too-large hat which kept falling over his perfect nose and which did nothing to deflect a white-hot sun from his murderous headache.
An utterly instinctive horseman, Lysander’s polo career had been held back in the past by his ability to be distracted during matches.
‘Oh wow, oh wow,’ he was now muttering as he took in the glamorous, gold-limbed female supporters, crowding the stands and lolling on the burning bonnets of the Cadillacs and Lincolns lining the field.
‘God, I’ve got a hangover. This horse is so over the top,’ he grumbled, trying to stop a madly excited chestnut mare taking off as Butch Murdoch’s private ambulance manned by an army of paramedics, stormed past to take up position at mid-field.
‘Kerr-ist!’ Lysander nearly lost his hat as he swung round. ‘Look at the legs on that brunette in the pink skirt.’
‘More to the point,’ Seb lowered his voice, ‘see that man in the panama in the second row of the stands. He’s an England selector flown specially over to watch you.’
‘Really!’ Lysander’s blue-green eyes widened in wonder.
‘So get your finger out.’
‘You bet!’ Squeezing the chestnut, Lysander galloped off in a cloud of dust, tapping a practice ball effortlessly ahead of him.
‘That’s not true,’ said Dommie who had slightly more principles than Seb.
‘Of course it’s not,’ said Seb. ‘But it might take his mind off fieldside crumpet!’
The twins were basically amused by Lysander’s antics. In their youth, when they had made more money ripping off rich patrons than by their polo skills, their own wildness had been legendary. But the chill hand of the recession was making patrons more parsimonious and hot horse deals less easy and, as Elmer Winterton paid them a long salary and picked up their expenses, it was very much in their interest that Lysander distinguished himself that afternoon.
And here at last, trailing security guards, and perennially late because he liked to give the impression of being delayed by matters of state, came Elmer Winterton. He was followed by a private ambulance even larger than Mr Beefy’s and manned by more paramedics.
Elmer’s company, Safus, not only produced the Safus House which was allegedly so well secured that no intruder could break in, but also specialized in screening high-risk computers for the American government and industry. Elmer could frequently be heard boasting that only he knew the passwords to the nation’s most crucial secrets.
Having flown several senators and their wives down from Washington by private jet to watch him play, he was desperate that his team should win the cup under the Prussian-blue Safus colours.
Dark, swarthy, squat, with eyebrows that without ferocious plucking would have met in the middle, Elmer had mean, small eyes and a long nose that jerked up at the end like a white rhinoceros. He also displayed the rhino’s erratic belligerence and was so unable to control his overbred ponies that he was as likely to crash into his own side as the opposition.
It would be hard to have been uglier or a worse rider than Elmer, as he lumbered on to the field intolerably pounding the kidneys of his delicate dapple-grey pony, but such were his power and riches that the gold-limbed girl groupies licked their lips and rolled their shorts up an inch or two higher as he passed.
The heat was stifling. To the west, sinister black clouds advanced like a procession of Benedictine monks. Shaggy palm trees quivered with stillness above the mushroom-brown houses that flanked the outfield. As sweating ponies lined up and the umpire chucked the ball into a shifting forest of legs, Lysander could be heard saying, ‘I wonder if Elmer’s paramedics have got any Fernet-Branca.’
By half-time, Safus was trailing 2–8 and Lysander was dying of shame. Not having played since last summer, he was scuppered by hangover and the cauldron heat of Palm Beach after a freezing English winter. Unused to such fast well-bred ponies or such hard dry ground, he had had a terrible three chukkas. Mr Beefy’s three Argentine hired assassins hadn’t allowed him near the ball. Nor were matters helped by Elmer barging around like some geriatric in an ancient Mini, who keeps pulling in front of faster drivers on the motorway. Of the eight goals scored by Mr Beefy, six had been penalties awarded against Elmer. Elmer was also aware that a photographer, hired by the Safus PR Department, was videoing the entire game to show at the sales conference next month and he hadn’t touched the ball once.
‘I pay for this fucking team,’ he was now yelling at Seb and Dommie in the pony lines, ‘and I’m going to fucking well hit the fucking ball as much as I fucking well like, and as for him,’ he stabbed a stubby finger at a cringing Lysander, ‘hired assassin indeed. Hired asshole more likely, that son of a bitch couldn’t assassinate a fly.’
Matching Elmer’s mood, the black clouds now hovered above the pony lines like a vast impenetrable yew hedge. Lysander’s eyes and throat were lined with dust. He’d towelled off a bucket of sweat as he came off the field, and now he was wringing wet again.
Comfort, however, was at hand from a honey-blond groom called Astrid.
‘Don’t listen to Elmer,’ she told Lysander, ‘and don’t be fooled by this mare. She doesn’t have brakes, but she sure is fast,’ she added as she pulled down the stirrups of a mean-looking yellow pony, whose coat quivered irritably against the flies.
‘What’s she called?’ Lysander asked listlessly as he put his foot in the stirrup.
‘Mrs Ex, after Elmer’s ex-wife,’ said Astrid, jumping to avoid the mare’s darting teeth, ‘because she’s always bombing around causing trouble.’
‘Surprised he got anyone to marry him,’ shuddered Lysander, gathering up his reins and his stick.
In defence of her master Mrs Ex put in a terrific buck. Next moment Lysander was sitting on the ground.
‘See what I mean,’ bellowed Elmer, ‘that asshole can’t even stay on a fucking horse. Get the paramedic. He’ll certify the guy injured and we can put in a sub.’
But the fall had sobered Lysander. Vaulting on to Mrs Ex, he galloped back into the fray. In the fourth chukka, Dommie and Seb both scored twice, and Lysander once. Then Mr Beefy’s Argentines rallied and Lysander was so transfixed with admiration for Juan O’Brien’s forehand pass that he completely forgot to mark the number two player to whom Juan was passing.
‘Take the bloody man, Lysander,’ screamed Dommie. But he was too late, the number two had scored.
Three minutes later to placate Elmer, who was bellyaching about being the only member of the Safus team not to have scored, Dommie dropped a ball a foot in front of him and bang in front of the goal.
‘Take your time, Elmer,’ he shouted, galloping upfield in support.
‘Elmer Winterton is looking awful good,’ said the commentator.
Elmer took a swipe, missed, and, losing his temper, started to beat his pony.
‘Hi,’ yelled Lysander, thundering across the field, ‘that is absolutely not on.’
‘It absolutely isn’t on, is it, you little fuckwit.’ Elmer mimicked Lysander’s English accent. ‘I can hit anything I want,’ and raising his stick he took a furious swipe at Lysander who promptly lifted his stick in retaliation.
‘Stop it,’ roared Seb.
Fortunately, like a bucket of water over a dogfight, the dense black cloud keeled over in a tidal wave. Like cats, the spectators shot into their cars. Most of the players, particularly the Argentines, who detested rain, would have followed suit. But Lysander felt only blessed relief. For the first time in forty-eight hours he was cool and he was utterly used to playing in the rain.
‘Lysander Hawkley is looking awful good,’ crackled the loudspeaker a minute later. ‘He’s got the line and he’s really motoring on Elmer Winterton’s yellow pony. Oh, where are you going, Lysander?’
Shying at one of Mr Beefy’s white-and-red paper napkins which had blown on to the field, Mrs Ex had taken off through the downpour carting Lysander, who was whooping with laughter, past Elmer’s and Mr Beefy’s ambulances, beyond the goal posts and goal judge off into the Everglades. Three minutes later, he cantered back, still roaring his head off.
‘When a horse takes off, there’s not much you can do. The only thing that stopped Mrs Ex was a huge croc on the river bank. I thought it was one of your security guards. Sir,’ he added hastily seeing the sudden fury in Elmer’s beady little eyes.
Fortunately Mrs Ex’s turn of speed proved more effective going the other way. Hanging on Lysander’s hands like an express train, she whisked him past three outraged Argentines, which enabled him to lean right out of the saddle and flick the ball between the red-and-white posts with a glorious, offside cut shot.
As the bell went for the end of the fifth chukka the crowd hooted approval from the inside of their cars. Riding back to the pony lines through the deluge Lysander noticed a lone spectator huddling in the stands beneath the totally inadequate protection of a Prussian-blue Safus umbrella. Catching a glimpse of long brown legs Lysander recognized the brunette in the pink skirt he’d admired earlier. Returning for the last chukka, he carried a spare blue rug which had kept dry in Elmer’s trailer.
‘Oh, how darling of you,’ said the brunette as he jumped off and spread it over her legs.
Her hair, the rich brown of soy sauce, fell in dripping rats’ tails. The rain intensified the dark freckles that polka-dotted her thin face and arms. She was shivering like a dog in a vet’s waiting room.
‘You should be inside your car,’ reproved Lysander.
‘My husband likes to know where I am, in case he breaks a mallet.’ The girl pointed to three spare polo sticks propped against the low white fence in front of her.
‘Lucky bloke,’ sighed Lysander.
‘Lysander,’ called Seb sharply.
Glancing round, Lysander saw the other players were already lined up for the throw-in and galloped over to join them.
‘Don’t chat up girls in the middle of a game,’ said Seb in a furious undertone, ‘particularly when they’re the patron’s wife.’
‘She’s married to Elmer?’ asked Lysander, appalled.
‘Yup, and unless we win, he’ll take it out on her afterwards.’
In the last chukka, with Mr Beefy only one goal ahead, the tension got to both sides. Then Juan O’Brien swore so badly at the umpire for ignoring one of Elmer’s more blatant fouls that the umpire retaliated by awarding a penalty against Juan.
As Seb took the hit for Safus, Lysander belted back to the pony lines to change horses and have another look at Elmer’s wife. The way her white silk shirt was clinging to her body was nothing short of spectacular. How could she have married such an ape?
While Seb circled his pony then clouted the ball between the posts, Juan O’Brien came off the back line and blocked the shot with his pony’s shoulder. Lysander winced. He’d seen players stop goals with their pony’s heads. Enraged, he galloped upfield, picked up the ball, played cat and mouse with it, hit it in the air, before slamming it between the posts. The spectators honked their horns in ecstasy.
The storm had passed. Ponies steamed. Bits, stirrups and the huge silver cup on its red tablecloth glittered in the returning sun.
‘I guess Safus is going to stage a come-back situation,’ said the commentator.
Juan O’Brien guessed otherwise. In the closing seconds of the game he roared downfield, black curls streaming under his hat, swinging his stick, driving the ball gloriously before him, then, unmarked and overconfident, just in front of goal he hit wide.
Pouncing, Lysander backed the ball upfield to Seb who passed to Dommie, who carried on through the puddles until he encountered a wall of Argentine resistance and hastily cut the ball to a furiously racing-up Lysander, who met it gloriously. With twenty seconds on the clock, Lysander was perfectly poised to score the winning goal but, seeing Elmer scowling red-faced in front of the posts, and remembering Elmer’s drenched wife, who would get hell after the game, he passed instead to Elmer. The twins groaned in disbelief, but, by some miracle, on the bell Elmer managed to coax the ball between the posts.
All Elmer’s senators, flown down by private jet, who’d been wondering what the hell to say to him after the game, cheered with deafening relief. The company cameraman decided not to shoot himself after all. At last he had a clip he could show at the sales conference and later he was able to film Elmer brandishing the huge silver cup while his beautiful wife clapped so enthusiastically that she spilled champagne down her pink skirt.
Back at Elmer’s barn, Lysander, having drunk a great deal of Moët from the cup, hazily checked the legs of his ponies, thanking them profusely as he plied them with Polo mints. He then thanked the grooms with equal enthusiasm and passed round the individual magnum of Moët he’d been given as a member of the winning team.
‘You’re certainly flavour of the month,’ said Astrid. ‘Elmer reckons you’re the best Brit he’s ever played with. He wants you to stay on for the Rolex next month.’
In moments of excitement Lysander could do little more than open and shut his mouth.
‘Really?’ he gasped finally.
‘Really!’ Pretending to buckle under the weight, Astrid handed him a sheaf of faxes. ‘Here are your racing pages.’
‘I’d forgotten those!’ Lysander gave a whoop of joy. ‘Now I can have a bet.’
‘No you can’t!’ Seb marched in, already changed, with his hair slicked back from the shower. ‘It’s nearly midnight in England and the only thing racing at the moment is the very unblue blood through Elmer’s veins. In between copies of Sporting Life the fax managed to spew out confirmation of his Jap deal. Elmer is several million bucks richer now and he wants to party. So move it.’
‘But I want to get pissed with this lot.’ Lysander gazed wistfully at Astrid.
‘Lysander,’ said Seb wearily, ‘you want to play polo for a living. If you’re prepared to be charming and diplomatic, you can brownnose your way into riding some of the most fabulous horses in the world, but for a start lay off Elmer’s wife and his grooms.’
‘He sure is the cutest guy,’ sighed Astrid as Lysander was dragged protesting away.
The party was held in one of the soft brown houses clustering round the polo field. Male guests ranged from lithe, bronzed, professional polo players of all nationalities to rich businessmen, some of them patrons, some of who merely liked to be part of the polo scene. The women included glamorous groupies of all ages, wearing everything from T-shirts and jeans to strapless dresses showing off massive jewels.
The feeling of jungle warfare was intensified by the forest of glossy green tropical plants in every room and by the fact that all the professionals were on the prowl for rich patrons, and the patrons, despite having wives present, were stalking the prettiest groupies who were, in turn, hunting anything in trousers.
Loud cheers greeted the arrival of the Safus team.
‘If you have oats, prepare to sow them now,’ murmured Seb as the cheering died away and a hush fell over the room.
‘Talk about Elmer’s angels,’ drawled a predatory blonde in a fire-engine-red dress licking her scarlet lips.
Elmer, mean little eyes flickering with rage, was the only person who didn’t laugh. He’d kept on his brown boots and white breeches which the game had hardly marked, so that everyone should know he was a polo player, but had changed into a clean blue Safus polo shirt. As groupies started edging through the vegetation towards the rest of his team, Elmer, competitive as ever, was determined to annex the prettiest. Soon he was bosom to pectorals with a mettlesome brunette called Bonny whose bottom lip protruded more than any of the scented orchids massed in the centre of the living room, and whose buttocks swelled out of the briefest white shorts like an inverted Nell Gwyn.
Refusing to admit how blind he was without glasses, Elmer had to peer very closely to see the logo on her jutting orange T-shirt.
‘If you can read this,’ he spelled out slowly, then peering even closer, ‘You’re a dirty old man.’
Bonny shrieked with laughter. Reluctantly Elmer decided to join in. ‘That’s kinda neat.’
‘Yours is neater,’ said Bonny. ‘That deep blue is just great with your eyes. Has anyone told you how like Richard Gere you are? I’d give anything for a Safus T-shirt.’
‘Swappyer then,’ said Elmer.
‘He’d never have stripped off in public,’ muttered Seb, ‘if he hadn’t got a Barbados suntan and just lost ten pounds, none of it admittedly off his ego, on a pre-season crash diet. Jeees-us.’ He choked on his drink as Bonny’s head disappeared into the orange T-shirt and her upstretched wriggling arms showed off a pair of magnificent brown breasts.
Elmer’s eyes were popping like a garrotted Pekinese. The orange T-shirt, once he had wriggled into it, clashed with his port-wine face but in no way doused his lust.
‘I see your picture every time I pick up the Wall Street Journal,’ Bonny was now telling him. ‘But you are so much cuter in the flesh.’
‘The flesh is weak where lovely young women like you are concerned,’ said Elmer thickly.
The logo on Lysander’s faded grey T-shirt read:
Sex is evil,
Evil is sin,
So get stuck in.
He was getting drunker by the minute and had now been cornered by two stunning but interchangeable suntanned blondes.
‘Did you fly commercial?’ asked the first.
Lysander looked blank.
‘She’s trying to figure if you came over by private jet, preferably your own,’ explained the second.
‘Oh, right,’ said Lysander. ‘No, I flew Virgin. The air hostesses were really sweet.’
‘Surprised they were still intacta with you on board,’ said the first.
Glancing round for a waitress with a bottle, Lysander caught sight of Martha Winterton. Shaded by a vast yucca, she was chatting mindlessly to a senator’s wife and trying not to watch Elmer. Her desolation was tangible.
‘You’re not really a good friend of George Bush?’ Bonny was growing more raucous. ‘I would just love to meet him.’
‘It could be arranged.’ Elmer’s pudgy right hand was surreptitiously stroking her left buttock as they leant side by side against a dragged yellow wall.
The senator’s wife had drifted off to talk to Butch Murdoch. Martha was gazing despairingly into her empty glass. Oblivious of Seb’s stern warning that trespassers would be put on the next plane, Lysander crossed the room.
‘Have you dried off?’
Martha jumped. Her huge eyes, the clear brown of Tio Pepe held up to the light, were swimming with tears. It was a second before she recognized him.
‘Oh sure — it was so dear of you to bring me that blanket.’
She had a husky, hesitant voice. Her creased white shirt still clung to her body. Her dark hair, which had dried all fluffy, was pulled back in a bandeau making her freckled face look even thinner.
‘You needed a lifeboat,’ said Lysander.
‘I could use one now.’
‘Have a drink first.’
As Lysander grabbed a bottle from a passing waitress, Martha noticed a badge saying: ‘Birthday Boy’ pinned to his grey T-shirt. Clutching her glass of champagne as though it was boiling tea and she a shipwreck victim, she took a great gulp.
‘There’s a nice fire in the garden,’ said Lysander seeing the goose-flesh on her thin freckled arms.
Outside, the dull aquamarine of the swimming-pool reflected a few faint stars. Rain had bowed down the hibiscus and the oleander bushes, but their flowers, pink, red, amethyst and yellow, glistened jewel-like in the floodlighting. Great drenched pelts of purple and magenta bougainvillaea clung to the house and the garden fences.
To an almost overpowering scent of orange and lemon blossom was added a tempting smell of roast pork, garlic and rosemary as half a dozen sucking pigs jerked above the glowing coals of the barbecue. Apart from an inscrutable Mexican houseboy who occasionally plunged a skewer into their shining gold sides, the place was deserted.
Caressed by the warm night air Lysander gave a sigh of pure joy.
‘Such bliss to go outside and not shiver, but I expect it’s cold for you.’ Solicitously, he edged her towards the fire.
‘Poor little things,’ Martha looked sadly at the sucking pigs, then, pulling herself together, ‘You’re kind a tanned for someone just arrived from England.’
‘It’s fake,’ confessed Lysander, lifting the light brown hair flopping over his forehead. ‘Look how it’s streaked on the hairline and turned my eyebrows orange. I borrowed the stuff from Dolly, my girlfriend. She’s a model and always having to turn herself strange colours. I wanted to terrorize everyone into thinking I’d got brown playing in Argentina all winter. But I was pissed when I put it on last night.’
She’s so sweet when she smiles, he thought. To hell with Seb and Dommie.
‘And it’s your birthday?’ she asked.
‘No,’ Lysander glanced down at his birthday-boy badge, ‘but it gets me lots of free drinks.’ He opened his blue-green eyes very wide and then roared with such infectious laughter that people standing in doorways and sitting in windows and even the inscrutable Mexican houseboy looked up and smiled.
‘When is your birthday?’ asked Martha.
‘25 February, I shall be twenty-three.’
‘You’re a Pisces.’
Lysander nodded. ‘Friendly, warm, considerate, easygoing, but cross me and you’ll see how tough I can be. My father who’s a classical scholar pronounces it, “Piss-ces”.’
‘What does your daddy do?’
‘He’s a headmaster. Supposed to be a great teacher, but he spends most of his time raising funds and wowing mothers.’
‘Does your mother wow the fathers?’
For a second an expression of utter anguish spilled over the boy’s sunny, innocent, charming face. Shutting his eyes he took a couple of deep breaths as though trying to survive some horrific torture without crying out.
‘She just died,’ he mumbled, ‘last October.’
‘Ohmigod!’ Martha put a hand on his arm which was clenched like cast iron, ‘Whatever happened?’
‘She had a fall on the road. The horse went up. She wasn’t wearing a hard hat.’
As the Mexican plunged in another skewer the boiling fat dripped on to the red coals which hissed and flared up, lighting Lysander’s face like a soul in hell.
‘You poor little guy,’ said Martha. ‘Were you very close?’
Lysander nodded. ‘She was more like my sister. All my friends were in love with her.’
‘Your father must have been devastated.’
Lysander’s face hardened. ‘Dad doesn’t show his feelings. Basically we don’t talk. He prefers my brothers, Hector and Alexander. They’re better at things.’
From inside the house the band struck up. ‘I get no kick from champagne,’ crooned a mellow tenor.
‘I do,’ said Lysander, emptying the bottle into Martha’s glass.
‘What d’you do?’ asked Martha.
‘Not much fun with the recession.’
‘Best thing that ever happened to him.’
Gliding up, Seb Carlisle topped up both their glasses. ‘Recession enables Rip-Off Van Winkle here to sleep and sober up all day in the office when he’s not ringing Ladbroke’s or sloping off home to watch Neighbours. He couldn’t do any of that if he had to sell houses.’
‘Oh shut up, Seb,’ said Lysander. ‘Now guard Martha for a minute.’
Turning, he was nearly sent flying by the predatory blonde in the fire-engine-red dress.
‘If you’ve finished with your toy boy,’ she said pointedly to Martha, ‘I’d love to dance with him.’
‘You’re sweet,’ said Lysander, ‘but I must have a slash.’
‘He’s just adorable.’ Martha watched Lysander drifting gracefully as smoke across the lawn.
‘Isn’t he?’ agreed Seb. ‘Unfortunately his boss put him on commission only and as he’s not selling any houses he’s running up terrible debts, betting and going out clubbing every night.’
‘He ought to do something else.’
‘He’s about to go to a new job working in the City for some merchant bank which specializes in pretty, personable young men; but he’ll never last. He’s not cut out for the City. He ought to be a jump jockey or a polo player. You saw what a beautiful horseman he was this afternoon, but it took him four chukkas to get his act together.’
‘He’s very upset about his mother.’
‘Devastated,’ agreed Seb. ‘Completely lost his base, drinking himself stupid; can’t settle to anything. Unlike his pompous achieving brothers, he’s pretty dyslexic and he left school without an O level. His mother spoilt him rotten — the worse the prank the more she laughed, but she always bailed him out when he ran out of money. Pity Elmer can’t sign him up for the whole season. Pedro Cavanali broke his leg falling on the boards this afternoon. He plays medium goal with Elmer.’
‘I’ll see what I can do,’ said Martha.
The Mexican had carved two of the sucking pigs. Maids were carrying bowls of salad and baked potatoes through to the dining room as Lysander bounded through the french windows brandishing another bottle.
‘Clear the lawn for ballet,’ he shouted, then standing on one leg executed a pirouette, spilling a lot of champagne and only just avoided collapsing on the grass.
‘You need an early night,’ said Seb pointedly.
Inside the house, Lysander could see Elmer bending over Bonny, playing with the ends of her hair, no doubt boasting that Mrs Ex’s equine ancestors had come over in the Mayflower.
‘I’ll stick around,’ said Lysander.
‘Well, at least behave yourself,’ warned Seb.
‘Some hope,’ said Dommie, who wandered over tearing the flesh off the leg of a sucking pig with very white teeth. ‘Grub’s up. It’s very good, although,’ he dropped his voice so only Seb could hear, ‘our patron seems to have started already. He’s eating that slag alive.’
Going towards the house, Martha caught sight of Elmer and went into reverse.
‘That Bonny’s a bucket,’ said Lysander in outrage. ‘You’re much, much prettier.’
‘She’s newer.’ Martha took out a cigarette with a trembling hand. ‘Have you got a light?’
Lysander hadn’t, but, before Martha could stop him he’d plunged a twenty-dollar bill into the coals of the barbecue.
‘You’re crazy but awful sweet,’ reproached Martha, as he almost burnt his fingers getting the charred paper to her cigarette in time, but she was too immersed in her own misery.
‘It’s my fault,’ she confessed. ‘My last husband was faithful and dull and I was bored out of my skull, so I ran off with Elmer, who had a roving eye and I haven’t slept since.’
‘Elmer’s a shit,’ said Lysander with such disapproval that Martha looked up. ‘Dad was a shit to my mother and he’s already found someone else, a Mrs Colman, an army widow. She’s got veiny ankles and wears shirts with pie-frill collars,’ he went on in disgust. ‘The boys call her “Mustard” because she’s so keen on Dad. She helps him fund-raise. They’re turning the stables where Mum kept her horses into a new music school.’
‘The speed with which Mrs Ex carted you this afternoon,’ said Martha bitterly, ‘is only equalled by the haste with which men shack up if they’re divorced or widowed, or bored with their wives. Oh God, no!’
Following her gaze, Lysander saw Bonny run off shrieking excitedly into the wet depths of the shrubbery followed by Elmer.
‘Could you bear to take me home?’
‘Oh wow, that’s like offering me a ride in the National,’ said Lysander. ‘Could I bear? I certainly could.’ Then, seeing Seb beadily advancing on them with two platefuls of food, ‘Look, I don’t want the twins getting heavy. Let’s escape through the garden.’
The full moon was rising rose-coloured like the inside of a pink grapefruit. Martha’s limo was apple green, open and very long with the number plate: MARTHA 30.
‘Elmer gave it me for my thirtieth birthday. That was when he was doing everything to prise me away from my ex. Hardly the ideal gift to hide under one’s mattress!’
In her distress Martha grazed an incoming Cadillac as she stormed out of the car-park. Lysander slumped beside her, gazing at the stars, which seemed to be shooting around a lot, tunelessly singing: ‘A Groovy Kind of Love’.
Elmer’s house in the heart of smart Palm Beach was surrounded by a thick, impenetrable ficus hedge. Two scowling security guards, restraining snarling Dobermanns, gave Lysander a malevolent once-over as they opened massive electric gates.
‘Friendly fellows,’ observed Lysander as they glided through a huge shadowy garden filled with darkly dipping trees. ‘What are those dishes on those big black poles?’
‘Microwave units to pick up on any intruder. There are also sensors under the lawn. Not a rabbit or a racoon goes undetected. Inside the ficus hedge is hidden a chain-link fence topped with razor wire and an electronic intrusion detector.’
‘I’d guard someone like you,’ said Lysander.
‘Not me, himself,’ said Martha flatly. ‘Safus screens high-risk computers, Elmer’s sewn up most of the Government contracts. As only he holds the password to all the computer installations, he needs protection twenty-four hours a day. No-one breaks in here.’
Ahead, ghostly in the moonlight, rose Elmer’s pale pink fortress, so like nougat that Lysander felt he ought to take a large bite out of it to sober himself up.
‘Was,’ said Martha bitterly. ‘One of the oldest houses in Palm Beach stood on this site. Elmer razed it and built another. He’s not into longevity.’
Going into the living room, Lysander found himself gazing into the mouth of a cannon and ducked.
‘That thing was fired in the Civil War,’ said Martha.
‘Nearly as old as Elmer. Why the hell did you marry him?’
‘I was called in to redecorate his office. Underneath a big desk you don’t see a guy’s clay feet.’
Only marred by too many photographs of Elmer fraternizing with the famous, the room was charmingly decorated in pale golds as though Midas had idly trailed his fingers over sofas, carpets, walls and huge bunches of deeply scented yellow roses. On an easel was a half-finished portrait of Elmer looking virile. The two ponies he was riding and leading were only roughly sketched in.
‘God, you’ve flattered him,’ grumbled Lysander.
‘It’s not finished. He can’t decide which pony he wants to ride.’
‘Cut out holes; then he can ride a different one each day. Did you do that?’ Lysander turned to the waving corn field above the fireplace.
‘No, that’s by Van Gogh.’
‘Yours is better. And much better than that one.’
‘That’s Paul Klee,’ said Martha in gentle reproof. ‘It cost several million dollars.’
‘Really.’ Astounded, Lysander peered at it again. ‘Perhaps I should take up painting.’
They were interrupted by another huge Dobermann hurtling into the room, fangs bared, growling horribly.
‘Stay, Tyson,’ screamed Martha. ‘Don’t touch him.’
But Lysander went straight up to the dog, hand outstretched.
‘Hallo boy, aren’t you beautiful?’
Disarmed by such genuine admiration, Tyson, after a few dubious growls, started wagging his stubby tail and writhing his shiny solid black body against Lysander.
‘That dog is a serial killer,’ said Martha in amazement. ‘Elmer and Nancy, his ex, have endless legal tussles over him. Nancy has custody and Elmer visitation rights on weekends, but he’s always playing polo so the dog goes crazy. Now Nancy’s threatening to take it to a dog shrink in New York so that’s another two thousand dollars a month. She should pay you instead,’ she added as Tyson collapsed in an ecstatic heap at Lysander’s feet.
After a very disapproving butler had opened a bottle of Dom Perignon for them, Martha, who was still shivering uncontrollably, went off to change, leaving Lysander with the telephone. Instinctively he started to dial the number at home, then stopped with a moan of pain, remembering that the only person in the world he really wanted to talk to would never pick up a telephone again.
The only changing Martha had done when she returned twenty minutes later was to put on an old olive-green cardigan with the buttons done up all wrong. Lysander was encouraged that she smelled of toothpaste, but her eyes were very red.
‘Did you get through?’ she asked.
‘I did. I rang Ferdie my flatmate in Fulham to see if my dog Jack was OK. He is, and Dolly, my girlfriend, is modelling in Paris.’ Lysander looked cast down. ‘Neither of them was remotely pleased.’
‘Hardly surprising. It’s four o’clock in the morning in Europe.’
‘That must be it,’ said Lysander, cheering up. ‘Anyway Ferdie did read out Mystic Meg — she does the horoscopes in the News of the World and she’s seriously on the crystal ball. She says Pisces will find happiness with someone with freckles.’
Martha didn’t register. Chain-smoking, she jumped every time the telephone rang, then, because the butler answered, bit her lip when it wasn’t Elmer and slumped back on the yellow and crimson striped sofa.
‘All husbands have mistresses these days like they have faxes and mobiles and they can’t think how they ever existed without them.’ The drink was really getting to her now, her soft husky voice was shrill, with the words rattling out like machine-gun fire.
‘D’you know what’s really causing the recession?’ she demanded. ‘Pandemic adultery — Tom Wolfe’s “tidal wave of concupiscence”. A guy is so busy deceiving his wife and his PA, who’s probably another mistress anyway, he can’t concentrate. How can you put your back into work when you’re sticking your dick into some bimbo all the time?’
Although his hands were busy stroking an ecstatic Tyson, Lysander found his knees edging towards Martha’s.
‘I’d never have taken up with Elmer,’ she went on hysterically, ‘if he hadn’t painted such a dire picture of his marriage; how Nancy neglected him and never slept with him. Then after Elmer and I were married Nancy dumped in Vanity Fair and I realized she’d adored him and been absolutely wiped out. She called me one evening when she was drunk, to tell me he was a clinical narcissist and I’d never satisfy him. All her friends were there this evening. They’ll be on to her first thing: “You held him for twenty-five years, Nancy, Martha couldn’t hold him for as many weeks”.’ She gave a sob.
‘What’s pandemic?’ asked Lysander.
But Martha had beaten the butler to the telephone.
‘Oh, hi.’ She was poised between tears and a screaming match. ‘I didn’t want to spoil your fun. No, no.’ She was apologetic now. ‘I wasn’t implying anything.’
Lysander could now hear Elmer yelling. Martha seemed to slump.
‘OK, right, sleep well.’ Slowly she replaced the receiver.
‘Elmer’s over the limit. He’s spending the night at the barn.’
‘Yippee.’ Lysander hugged Tyson. ‘Let’s have another bottle.’
‘And he’s got a dozen guards who could drive him home if he wanted. He’s only drunk with lust. I guess he and that tramp were bouncing around in the Jacuzzi when he called me. That would have given him a charge.’
She burst into tears.
Lysander was a shining example of the continued existence of the age of chivalry. He hadn’t read endless articles in the women’s pages about the caddish chauvinism of his sex, he had never heard of New Man or sexual harassment. His heart entirely ruled his head. Anything in distress moved him and just as he had gathered up poor, miserably disturbed, aggressively insecure Tyson, now he bounded over to Martha.
‘Don’t cry. You’re so beautiful and he’s such a toad.’
Folding her into his warm, tender embrace, he tried to still her trembling body, smoothing away tears and mascara with his thumbs; then, when she still sobbed, comforting her in the only way he understood by kissing her smudged quivering mouth. For a second she fought him off, then, desperate for reassurance, she gradually responded to his wonderful enthusiasm.
Her skin was as smooth and silken as her shirt but, as he started undoing her buttons, she jumped away.
‘I’m too skinny. Elmer says I’m like an ironing board with two buttons sewn on to tell you which the front is.’
Lysander winced, then drew her back into his arms. ‘All the better to press my suit on.’ Then, as Martha smiled, ‘I’m going to kiss every freckle.’
‘You’ll be here for a thousand years.’
‘Wouldn’t be long enough. Let’s go upstairs.’
‘We can’t fight Mystic Meg.’
Tyson, however, in true Dobermann fashion, refused to let Lysander out of the room until his basket had been carried up to the bedroom and he’d been settled in with strokes and Bonios which gave Martha time to undress and hide herself under the ivy-green silk sheets of the vast emerald and white striped four-poster. Books were piled high on her bedside table. On the other side there stood only a digital clock and a silver-framed photograph of Elmer and George Bush.
‘Elmer only reads balance sheets and the messages on T-shirts,’ said Martha with a sob.
‘Hush, don’t think about him.’
Still in his clothes, Lysander waded through a pampas-grass of long white carpet and gently drew back the sheets. Instantly Martha’s thin arms flew to her tiny breasts. But, like Aladdin stumbling on his cave and touching each gold bar, precious stone and rope of pearls with amazed joy and excitement, Lysander slowly examined her body, stroking her nipples and her concave belly and breathing in the remains of Diorella behind her ears and inside her wrists.
‘Christ, you’re gorgeous!’ He ran his hands up the inside of her long slender legs. ‘I freaked when I first saw these in the stands.’
Dropping his clothes on the floor, he stripped off with total unselfconsciousness and rightly so because he was glorious, with a body as white, firmly curved and inviting on those emerald-green sheets, as early morning mushrooms in a dew-drenched field. His well-developed chest with a slight down of light brown hair narrowed to the flattest stomach and more downy hair from which his cock reared up as jaunty and as confident of bringing joy as a conductor’s baton raised for action.
‘I’ve only been married five months,’ mumbled Martha. ‘We really shouldn’t.’
‘We should, too.’
‘Wouldn’t Dolly be upset?’
‘Probably, but basically I can’t help myself.’
His fake tan was turning orange, his bluey-green eyes were crossing with drink, but, as the big laughing mouth came down on hers, Martha was reduced to the same slobbering ecstasy as Tyson.
Wriggling down the bed, Lysander kissed the arch of her instep, each coral-painted toe, then slowly, slowly up the velvet thighs, feeling the increasing tension as his hands grazed her breasts and shaven armpits, never stopping caressing.
‘We really shouldn’t,’ said Martha faintly.
Reaching out Lysander turned the photograph of Elmer and George Bush to the wall.
‘We don’t need an audience.’
Then, plunging his face into her pubic hair, snuffling as appreciatively as a truffle pig, he mumbled, ‘As I was saying to Martha’s bush.’
Feeling him helpless with laughter, she had to join in, but soon her laughter turned to gasps. Only when he knew she’d come did he keep her pleasure on the boil with half a minute of slowly stabbing fingers.
‘Come inside me,’ urged Martha.
‘Just wait a sec, while I slip into something tight,’ murmured Lysander, reaching for a condom from the back pocket of his jeans. Then as joyously as an otter diving into a summer stream he plunged his cock inside her.
‘Oh wow, that was terrific,’ said Martha as they lay back afterwards, sharing a cigarette.
‘I didn’t get a Christmas bonus because I didn’t sell any houses so it’s been worth waiting till January. You are so lovely.’ Lysander kissed her hand.
‘How come you are such an incredible lover?’
‘Basically, Dolly taught me a lot. One of the advantages of having an older woman.’
‘How old is she?’ Martha snuggled against his chest.
‘But she started at fourteen, so there’s a lot of mileage. Look, I just adored sleeping with you.’
‘Me too.’ Martha found she couldn’t keep her hands off him.
Noticing polo bruises darkening his ribs, arms and thighs like the purple markings on a white violet, she wanted to kiss them all better and explore in return his wonderful body.
‘You’re a really sweet guy with the softest heart and the hardest cock.’
‘Better than the other way round.’ Lysander dropped ash on the pampas-grass. ‘I wish I was someone who could go on for hours, but I get so excited, particularly when it’s someone like you. Dolly always makes me stay awake afterwards and stroke her for ages. I find that the most difficult part.’ His voice was slurring, his eyelids drooping. ‘Let’s do it again in a minute. Will you come with me to Disneyland tomorrow? I want to get Donald Duck’s autograph.’
Martha removed the cigarette as he fell asleep.
Elmer Winterton’s evening had deteriorated. Bonny, having consumed too much champagne and sucking pig, had suddenly lurched out of the Jacuzzi and for want of a bowl had thrown up in Elmer’s fish-tank. Whereupon his piranhas had swarmed up to the surface and eaten the lot which had turned Elmer’s stomach. Feeling a longing for his shy slender wife, he had been prevented from going straight home by Bonny passing out. Not trusting his guards at the barn not to blab he was reduced to driving her thirty miles home himself.
None of his guards in the gate house felt like telling Elmer he had a houseguest. It was only after he had noticed a T-shirt warning him: Sex is Evil on his bedroom carpet that he glanced up and found his number one player and his wife as enchantingly entwined as Cupid and Psyche.
For the second time in twenty-four hours, Lysander was roused from sleep. But Elmer, red and roaring, was a considerably less attractive alarm clock than the twins.
‘I don’t employ you on my team to hump my wife,’ he howled.
‘Didn’t secure her very well, you fat ape,’ howled back Lysander. ‘How can you chase disgusting slags like that when you’ve got something so beautiful at home?’
That Lysander was right didn’t improve Elmer’s temper. Gathering up a bowl from a table by the door, he was about to hurl it at Lysander.
‘Not the Ming, Elmer,’ wailed Martha.
Elmer paused, which gave Lysander time to wriggle over Martha, scoop up her pale pink silk knickers as a fig leaf, and shoot round the bed out of the room just as a glass bottle of Jolie Madame missing him by inches, smashed against the dragged green wall.
‘Not out,’ squealed Lysander, belting across the landing and down the stairs three steps at a time to find the front door quadrupally locked, whichever way he pulled and tugged it. For an agonizing second he was reminded how his father used to bolt the great oak door at home and his mother used to steal down the back stairs to let him in through the kitchen. Then he jumped out of his totally unprotected skin as shots rang out, shattering the chandelier in the hall. Grabbing a bronze of Elmer astride a polo pony from the hall table, like a weightlifter on a second surge of strength, he hurled it at the window. But the bullet-proof glass didn’t even dent. Instead, like a mass castration of howler monkeys, an ear-splitting alarm blasted the house.
‘Oh, shut up.’ Lysander clutched his head, then jumped as steel shutters clanged like guillotines across the windows and the outside doors.
Frantically checking the ground floor, he found every exit blocked and himself back in the hall.
‘Try and escape, you son of a bitch,’ bellowed Elmer, reappearing on the landing.
As Lysander ducked behind a large fern, bullets buried themselves in the panelling behind him. Diving for a side door, he raced up some stairs. Behind him he could hear shouting and dogs baying; he was going to be ripped apart. Bolting round the circular landing, deterring an approaching Dobermann by hurling a cheese plant, he shot into Martha’s bedroom.
‘Dum, di di, dum di, dum di dum di.’
Giggling hysterically, gasping out the James Bond tune, Lysander snaked under the green silk sheet, pulling a pillow over his head.
‘Gemme out of here.’
In answer, half-crying, half-laughing, Martha ripped off the sheet, shoved a swipe card into his hands, then, sliding open a wardrobe, dived through a dense forest of dresses to a secret door at the back.
‘Through here,’ she hissed. ‘At the bottom of the stairs, turn right. At the end of the passage next to the Samuel Palmer of hay making by a full moon, you’ll find a little door. Put my swipe card in the slot then dial this number, thirty (for my age, remember), forty-nine (for Elmer’s). Hurry, for God’s sake. Elmer won’t take any prisoners.’
‘Thanks for everything.’ Leaning back through the forests of scented taffetas and silks for a last kiss, Lysander raced down the stairs and found the painting. The full moon was honey gold not grapefruit pink this time. And there was the little door.
His hands were trembling so badly it took three goes to slot in the swipe card. Now, what was the number? His brain froze. Martha’s age? He punched up a three then a nought, but what was Elmer’s? About a hundred. The frenzied growling grew closer; any second they’d realize he’d escaped this way. Elmer? Elmer? Would the thirty be still working or would it run out like a half-rung telephone number? That was it. He punched a four and a nine. Nothing happened. Perhaps he’d put the card in back to front or upside down.
‘Oh please God,’ he moaned, ‘I’m sorry I screwed Martha, but you’d have done the same, God, she was so beautiful.’ As he hurled himself against the door it caved in and he was out in the dripping garden, darker now because the moon had vanished behind a big black cloud.
The smell of orange blossom was suffocating. Venus blazed above the ficus rampart. As Lysander bolted, white and leggy as a unicorn, across the perfect lawn he triggered off the underground sensors. Suddenly 1000-watt lamps lit up the garden brighter than day and closed-circuit television cameras swung round to trap him on a dozen monitors in the house and at the gate. Elmer’s guards had simply to pick him off. Hearing the blood-curdling barking as the pack of dogs was unleashed, Lysander ducked behind a traveller’s palm to avoid a hail of bullets.
The ficus hedge topped by razor wire was twenty yards away. Streaming as he was with rain and sweat, it would electrocute him instantly. Ahead loomed a vast individual ficus tree, Falstaffian in girth and so old that its lower branches rested their elbows on the ground. Scuttling up the nearest branch like a squirrel, Lysander managed to wriggle round the trunk just as the dogs began leaping for his feet with gnashing teeth. Swinging out on to another branch, he dropped into the street.
Heart hammering, legs trembling and giving way, sobbing with terror, Lysander collapsed against the huge hedge wondering what the hell to do next. The practical answer was to put as much distance between himself and Elmer as possible, but, bollock-naked with no identification except bruises, he’d probably get arrested and slapped into a loony bin and get his brains sawn open like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
The streets were deserted, but the sky was lightening. Loping eastwards he was overtaken by yet another open stretch and, as he cringed into the nearest hedge, feeling the clipped twigs scraping his bare back, the driver stopped and reversed.
A blonde in a black strapless dress with huge sapphires hanging from her ears and circling her neck and wrists, she was a good deal older than Martha but almost as stunning.
‘What happened to you?’ she asked, looking him up and down in amusement.
‘The husband came home.’
‘Well, at least you’re not armed. You’d better get in.’
Lysander shot into the car.
Seeing the Wall Street Journal lying on the back seat, Lysander covered himself with the front page like a car rug.
‘Phew — it’s really kind of you.’
‘I figured I heard shots, or was that Elmer Winterton cracking his knee joints?’
‘He tried to kill me,’ said Lysander, perking up.
‘The guy’s an animal.’
‘No animal is that nasty. Christ!’ Glancing down at the Wall Street Journal Lysander saw Elmer’s photograph glaring up at him. ‘He’s following me. I could tear him out, then my cock would stick through.’
‘Feel free,’ said the blonde.
‘Martha said he was a clinical Nazi.’
‘I thought he was Dutch.’
‘Good thing that tree I shinned up didn’t have Dutch Elmer disease or the branch would have given way.’ Having started giggling, Lysander found he couldn’t stop. ‘I’m sorry. It’s nervous hysteria. Have you got a cigarette?’
‘Sure, in my purse. The name’s Sherry by the way, Sherry Macarthy.’
Protected back and front by more pages of the Wall Street Journal, Lysander slid into Sherry’s house which was bigger and more lushly decorated than Elmer’s with a back garden falling straight into the ocean.
‘I guess you’d like some breakfast and a pair of my husband’s shorts?’
‘You got a husband?’ Lysander shot into reverse.
‘He’s in San Francisco,’ said Sherry soothingly.
Lysander crept back. ‘Could I possibly have a shower? After all that sex and fear I must stink like a polecat.’
Upstairs he admired another vast four-poster, this time swathed in primrose-yellow silk and topped at its four corners by gilded cherubs, none of whom was protected by the Wall Street Journal.
‘It’s Franco’s, my husband’s,’ said Sherry, who was turning on the gold taps of a vast marble bath next door. ‘Help yourself.’
The doors of a fitted cupboard which took up a whole wall, and which had been lavishly handpainted with pale yellow and coral-pink roses, slid back to reveal hundreds of shirts. There were more scent bottles massed on the bathroom shelves than a duty-free shop. Franco also must have the snakiest of hips. Lysander had the greatest difficulty finding a pair of shorts he could zip up.
‘God, this is great! I haven’t eaten for forty-eight hours.’
Having downed three glasses of orange juice, Lysander was tucking into a huge plate of bacon, eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms and hashbrowns, while Sherry filled yellow-and-white cups with very black coffee.
They were sitting beside a beautiful blue pool guarded by four big blue china dragons. White geraniums spilled over the faded terracotta pots and little waves gambolled idly on the pale sand below them. Above, the palm trees rattled in their diffident fashion.
Sherry had also showered and had swapped her black taffeta and her sapphires for a flamingo-pink sarong which left bare her almost too brown shoulders. Her still-wet, short blond hair was slicked back Rudolph Valentino style, but was softened by a pink hibiscus behind her left ear. There were crow’s feet round her warmly smiling eyes and the skin was beginning to crêpe on her breast bones and her arms, but she was in great shape and a terrific listener.
‘You can kiss goodbye to that job with Elmer,’ she said when Lysander had finished his account of the night’s escapades.
‘I wouldn’t mind if I hadn’t got Jack, Arthur and Tiny to support,’ sighed Lysander as he spread black-cherry jam on a croissant.
‘You’ve got three kids?’
‘Jack’s my Jack Russell.’
The irony was lost on Lysander.
‘Arthur’s my horse. He’s a steeplechaser. He won a lot of races but he’s having a year off with leg trouble. I’m hoping to ride him next season. He’s such a character. Tiny’s a shetland. She’s Arthur’s stable-mate.’
‘They must miss you.’ Sherry edged nearer Lysander.
‘Not as much as I miss them. I’ve got another job to go to,’ he went on gloomily, ‘with Ballensteins, the merchant bank, but that doesn’t start till the first of March. Playing polo for Elmer would have paid off my overdraft and a few bills — and I wanted a suntan to wow the Ballenstein typing pool on the first day.’
‘You’ll wow them anyway,’ murmured Sherry. The boy was positively edible. ‘At least you can get brown round the pool today.’
‘I won’t be in the way?’
‘Have you looked in the mirror recently? But you mustn’t burn.’
The climbing sun had already given a pink glow to his white shoulders. Surreptitiously he undid the top button of Franco’s shorts; they’d castrate him in a minute. Having cleared away breakfast the maid returned with bottles of champagne and Ambre Solaire. Sherry patted the blue-and-white pool-lounger.
‘After such a disturbed night, you must be pooped. Lie down and I’ll oil you.’
Sherry had been trained as a masseuse and her provocative smiling eyes made Lysander even hotter than the sun as she kneeded and stroked his body. As her braceleted hands moved downwards, her sarong seemed to work loose so he could see straight down her deep brown cleavage and feel her bare thighs against his hip bone.
Only the constricting tightness of Franco’s shorts had hidden a large erection.
‘Do my back.’ Embarrassed, he rolled over.
Sherry laughed softly. ‘The maid’s going shopping in a minute, then you can get brown all over.’
Sticky with oil, her hand slid down his backbone and disappeared under Franco’s shorts. Lysander moaned. God, her fingers were going everywhere. She was doing such magical things any moment his cock would lift him into the air like a one-handed press-up. Then, as the sarong fell apart, he felt soft fur caressing his thighs and realized she was wearing no knickers.
Lysander never got a suntan. He and Sherry spent a lazy, boozy day, making love, watching racing on satellite, having outlandish bets and feeding each other spoonfuls of caviar and strawberries dipped in Dom Perignon.
Around five o’clock Lysander had given himself enough Dutch courage to go back to Elmer’s barn and collect his luggage and polo sticks. Hopefully, Elmer would be safely in Washington drinking vodka and electronics with George and Barbara. As Lysander could only pull up Franco’s jeans mid-thigh, Sherry drove him to Worth Avenue and, despite his protests, kitted him out in boxer shorts, Lacoste polo shirts, chinos, several pairs of loafers and a dark blue baseball cap with SAINTS on the front. She tried to buy him half a dozen suits.
‘You shouldn’t. I’ve had a really good time,’ he told her as she drove him back to Elmer’s.
‘Me, too. Franco’s gay, as you probably gathered,’ said Sherry. ‘He’d die of jealousy if he knew who I’d spent the day with.’
Lysander, who’d drunk a lot of Dom Perignon, had tears in his eyes. ‘But that’s awful. A beautiful woman like you wasted on some shirtlifter. Why don’t you leave him?’
Sherry shook her head. ‘Guys are like gold dust after you’re forty,’ she said, drawing up outside Elmer’s barn. ‘At least Franco’s a husband and as a couple you get asked out so you get the chance to meet new guys. The wages of single life is social death, I promise you.’
Flinging his arms round her bare neck, Lysander collapsed on her warm, gold, scented breasts. ‘As soon as I’ve sorted out things here, I’ll get a taxi back to your place.’
If she hadn’t dropped him at the bottom of the long white rose colonnade leading up to Elmer’s barn, he would have bolted straight back into her car.
Reluctant to admit he’d been cuckolded and that his impregnable security system had been violated, Elmer had tried to hush up last night’s escapade. But he’d reckoned without the Press, particularly when one of the maids, seeing such a stunning streaker, had leaked the story.
As Lysander weaved into the yard, a dozen camera lenses were turned on him and an immigration officer grabbed him, pinning his arms behind his back. ‘You’re going back to the UK, Lover Boy.’
‘I can’t,’ protested Lysander, ‘I’m going to Disneyland tomorrow. I’ve got to get Donald Duck’s autograph. Hallo, Mrs Ex.’ He waved at the long yellow face peering out of a nearby box.
‘You’re not going anywhere. Now walk.’
‘I’ll run if you like,’ said Lysander as a gun jabbed his spine.
‘Don’t smart ass me, Pretty Boy.’
‘What about my polo sticks?’
‘All your gear’s packed.’
‘But I haven’t said goodbye to Martha or Sherry. Talk about coming down to earth without a bang. Oh, Mr Deporter, whatever shall I do?’ sang Lysander tunelessly as he danced a few steps. ‘I wanted to go to Disneyland and you sent me back to—’
‘Walk,’ howled the immigration officer and all Elmer’s security guards.
In the end they locked him up for the night to sober up in order to smuggle him on to the first plane the next morning. Just as he was leaving, the twins came racing up with a large envelope. Inside was a silver pen from Tiffany’s with a clip in the shape of a polo stick, ten thousand dollars and a scrawled note from Martha:
‘Darling Lysander, I’m sorry it’s all over the papers, but at least Elmer’s been all over me since you left. You sure know how to make husbands jealous. I’ll call you when I’m coming to the UK, probably for Ascot. Love, Martha.’
Feeling like a billionaire with hundred-dollar bills spilling out of his pockets, Lysander boarded first class. He tried to concentrate on the air hostess’s pep-talk about exits and life-jackets. If the plane crashed he wouldn’t have Martha’s swipe card to help him.
Then, glancing down at the paper another hostess had handed him with a distinct smirk, only his seat-belt stopped him hitting the plane roof. For there was Martha smiling up at him. The photograph had been taken before she lost weight. She looked gorgeous and there was Elmer looking absolutely repulsive and there was Elmer’s pink palace with a large caption: FORT KNOCKS-UP, and there, oh Christ, was Lysander himself, surrounded by immigration officers and giggling and waving like the village idiot.
Being dyslexic it took him some time to wade through the copy. There was a lot of guff about Safus security system being violated and national secrets being in jeopardy. Elmer was quoted as saying: ‘It was just a lover’s tiff, Martha and I are now reconciled.’
Lysander shook his head in bewilderment. Then, as the plane started taxiing down the runway, jumped out of his skin again, for across the gangway a glamorous blonde was reading another newspaper with a front-page headline: MARTHA’S TOY BOY DEPORTED AT GUNPOINT and a huge picture of him looking mercifully less asinine. What the hell were Dolly and his father going to say? Perhaps the story wouldn’t reach England. No-one knew Elmer over there. He did hope the bastard wasn’t being beastly to Martha.
The only answer when the champagne started to flow after take-off was to get drunk again. One of the freebies handed out by the airline was a pack of cards. Getting into conversation with a foxy smiling Irishman beside him, Lysander discovered a fellow drinker and poker player.
By the time they reached Heathrow Lysander had managed to lose the Tiffany pen and most of Martha’s ten thousand dollars, but he had enough left to buy a slab of Toblerone for Jack the dog, Fracas for Dolly and a bottle of whisky for Ferdie, his flatmate.
Before landing, the blonde across the gangway vanished into the lavatory for ages and emerged looking even more stunning — obviously tarting herself up for someone meeting her. Then, as she passed, Lysander’s pleasure turned to pain. For a second he couldn’t locate it. Then he recognized her scent: Diorissimo. His mother had never worn anything else.
When he’d first gone away to prep school he was so distraught she had drenched a handkerchief with it to comfort him at night. Now he leant back in his seat trying to handle the appalling feeling of desolation. Instinctively on landing he would have nipped into a telephone box to reassure her he was safe.
‘I’m only happy when all my children are back in England,’ she used to say, but he’d always known that his return made her happiest of all.
The post-champagne downer, plus a dank, dark, cold January evening did nothing to improve his spirits. As he slid through customs out into the airport, there was a firework display of camera bulbs exploding and cries of: ‘That’s him’, ‘Over here, Sandy’.
Fortunately Lysander was fitter than any of the paparazzi. Escaping them was a doddle compared to shaking off Elmer’s guard-dogs.
‘Can you drive like hell to Fountain Street in Fulham,’ he gasped to a taxi driver, ‘and can I possibly borrow your Evening Standard?’
Only when he’d finished the racing pages did Lysander turn to the front of the paper to find another vast picture of himself and the headline: MYSTERY STREAKER A BRIT. SENATE CALL FOR PUBLIC INQUIRY.
Digesting the details, Lysander had to leave the back-seat light on all the way into London.
‘You better charge me extra for electricity,’ he said, handing back the Standard.
‘Worf it for a fantastic bird like that,’ said the driver, as the taxi jolted over discarded vegetables littering the North End Road.
Thank Christ Dolly was still in Paris. London was at its most tatty. Most of the shops had sales on, the bitter east wind was rattling frozen litter along pavements and gutters.
‘Fink we’ve lost them,’ said the driver as he turned into Fountain Street.
Fountain Street was a charming Victorian terrace lined with cherry trees. Number 10 had been taken by Ferdie for a low rent because it was on the market and would sell better if lived in. Ferdie had repainted the bottle-green door and tied back the red rose which swarmed up the pink-washed front of the house. Ignoring the empty dustbins by the gate and the frantic waving of the two gays opposite, Lysander let himself in. Among the leaflets for decorators, window cleaners and minicabs was a postcard from Dolly saying she missed him and would be home tomorrow. There was also a mountain of brown envelopes which he didn’t open. Thank goodness he was starting his new job with Ballensteins in March. His father had fiddled it for him as a quid pro quo for taking Rodney Ballenstein’s son into his smart public school. The good-luck cards from all Lysander’s old office cronies were still up in the drawing room.
The house looked awfully tidy — and it wasn’t even the Filipino cleaner’s day. Lysander switched on the simulated log fire which sent shadows flickering over the dark red wallpaper. In the fridge next door he found Bio Yoghurt and pink grapefruit juice (Ferdie must be on one of his endless diets), ham, Scotch eggs and a bottle of Moët.
He’d just helped himself to most of the ham and the last of Ferdie’s whisky when a white envelope thudded through the letter-box. Addressed to him it was marked: URGENT AND CONFIDENTIAL.
‘Dear Hawkley,’ read Lysander with a giggle, again it took him several seconds to take in the fact that Ballensteins was an old-established firm who prided themselves on their utter discretion. In view of Lysander’s recent very unfortunate publicity, the job was no longer open.
The truth was that Rodney Ballenstein was not only a business friend of Elmer’s but also had a new bimbo wife, whom he didn’t entirely trust, and an equally glamorous PA on whom he had long-range designs. There was no way Rodney was going to have Lysander lounging round his office causing havoc.
‘Fucking hell!’ Lysander screwed up the letter and threw it on the gas logs.
At that moment the front door opened, there was a frantic scampering of paws and Jack the Jack Russell hurtled in like a bullet, yapping and jumping with all four feet off the ground, to greet his master.
Jack was followed by Ferdie bringing in the emptied dustbins.
‘Hi,’ he said, chucking the Evening Standard on the hall table, ‘I was expecting you.’
Ferdinand Fitzgerald was a fixer, as fly and commercially orientated as Lysander was ingenuous and unmaterialistic. A schoolfriend of Lysander’s, he was also an estate agent who, despite the recession, was doing very well. In addition to selling houses, he charged for dinner parties and for friends to stay the night in Fountain Street and let out properties on his firm’s books by the afternoon for chums visiting London to bonk in. Ferdie’s Achilles’ heel was Lysander, whom he adored and had protected both from the bullying and the advances of older boys at school and beyond and whom he let get away with murder.
Very plump with a double chin and pink cheeks hiding an excellent bone structure, Ferdie looked like a clean-shaven Laughing Cavalier who’d slicked back his hair in an attempt to pass as a Roundhead. Cheerfulness, however, kept breaking in. He and Lysander were known to their friends as Mr Fixit and Mr Fucksit.
Today as he hung up his long navy-blue coat in the hall, the Roundhead mood predominated, particularly when Lysander, who always poured out everything at once, immediately told him he had lost both the Palm Beach and the Ballenstein jobs.
‘Pretty stinking, getting fired before I’ve even got there,’ grumbled Lysander, feeding Scotch eggs to a slavering Jack.
‘You should have signed the contract before you left,’ reproved Ferdie. ‘It’s still on the kitchen table.’
‘There must be some party to go to,’ said Lysander, ‘I feel very depressed. How am I going to support Jack and the horses?’
As Ferdie read the Ballenstein letter looking for loopholes, Lysander opened the bottle of champagne from the fridge and threw the cork on to the floor. Ferdie picked it up.
‘You live in a cork-lined room, Lysander. Sadly you lack Proust’s application. This house has been tidy since you’ve been away. Annunciata took two days to muck out your room. No self-respecting pig would have dossed down in it. And you’ll have to sleep on the sofa tonight. I’ve rented it to Matt Gibson and that’s his Moët and his Scotch eggs you’re feeding to that seriously spoilt dog. Look at the way he’s scratched every door. And that is disgusting.’ Ferdie removed two strips of ham fat from the gas logs with a shudder. ‘How many times do I have to tell you? This is not a real fire.’
‘Don’t you want to hear about Palm Beach?’
‘Not particularly. I’ve read most of it in the Standard. Look, we’ve got to talk about dosh.’
‘I’ve just got in.’ Lysander was now feeding Jack Toblerone and trying to read Ferdie’s Evening Standard, which was a later edition, upside down.
‘EastEnders is on in a minute.’ He got up to turn on the television. ‘Then let’s go clubbing later, Ferd. My overdraft’s so big I might as well make it bigger. I must just check my horoscope,’ he added, switching over to Ceefax and Patric Walker.
‘It’ll tell you the debtors’ prison is looming,’ said Ferdie.
Turning off the television, he sat Lysander down and made him open the brown envelopes. The bills were horrific.
‘Barclaycard, Ladbroke’s, Foxtrot Oscar, Tramps, British Telecom,’ intoned Ferdie. ‘Christ, your telephone bill’s longer than your telephone number.’
‘It’s not all me.’
‘The long-distance calls are itemized and all to Dolly. And how in hell did you spend seven hundred pounds at Janet Reger?’
‘That was Dolly’s Christmas present.’
‘Not to mention bills for bootmakers, saddlers, vets, feed bills, livery fees, blacksmith, Interflora; and here’s a letter from the off-licence complaining your cheque bounced. How did you manage to run up a bill for five hundred pounds at an off-licence?’
‘The girl with the big boobs lets me have it on tick. It’s useful when we have parties.’ Having filled up his glass, Lysander filled up Jack’s water-bowl. ‘I watched satellite in Palm Beach. You can watch racing twenty-four hours a day. Turn on the telly. It’ll be The Bill in a minute.’
‘You are not going to watch anything,’ snapped Ferdie, stacking the bills tidily and chucking the brown envelopes in the waste-paper basket. ‘You owe me four months’ rent and you can at least sign on tomorrow.’
Lysander shuddered. ‘They might find me a job. Basically, I need a holiday.’
‘Matt Gibson saved his dole money for six months and went skiing,’ said Ferdie sternly.
‘I’ve never saved anything in my life. OK, I’ll go and tap Dad tomorrow.’
Knowing how Lysander loathed going to see his father, Ferdie relented. Ringing a head-hunting friend called Roger Westwood, he arranged for Lysander to see him the following day.
‘There’s a PR job going,’ said Ferdie switching off the telephone. ‘The firm’s got two bloodstock agencies and a polo club. At least you know something about horses.’
But turning round, he found Lysander had fallen asleep with Jack clutched in his arms like a teddy bear. He looked about twelve. He could sleep anywhere, curling up in patches of sunlight like a cat. Sighing, Ferdie removed his shoes and covered him with his own duvet.
Ferdie had a rotten morning taking some Arabs (who had no idea what they were looking for and who hardly spoke any English) round a big block of luxury flats in Chelsea Harbour. The weather was even meaner than yesterday. There were no meters and Ferdie had to put his BMW convertible in a car-park, forcing the Arabs to walk two hundred yards with a bitter east wind whipping up their robes. They were then so picky that Ferdie’s good nature ran out. Shoving them into a taxi instead of driving them back to Claridge’s, he returned to bung the porter, who often tipped him off if people were moving out, about new flats coming on to the market.
Ringing the office from his car, he learnt that a Greek couple had ratted on a deal on a half a million pound Radnor Walk house.
Twelve thousand pounds the poorer, Ferdie abandoned his perennial diet and mindlessly devoured two bacon rolls. Ringing Lysander to check he was on course for the interview with Roger Westwood he got no answer. Ferdie cursed. Roger was a vital contact because people he placed in jobs were often moving and needed to sell houses and buy new ones. Ferdie was putting his own reputation on the line, sending Lysander to see him. He’d better go back to Fountain Street to see what was going on.
Lysander appeared compliant but ended up doing exactly what he chose. Ferdie was reminded of an English Setter his family had once owned, who was beautiful, sweet natured, thick but also cunning, with a nose on elastic for bitches, and virtually untrainable.
He found the place in chaos. Lysander shed possessions like leaves in autumn. Records, tapes, telephone books, glasses, the remains of breakfast, over-flowing ashtrays, the racing pages of the Sun and several discarded ties littered the sitting room. Lysander, already dressed for the interview, was ringing Ladbroke’s.
‘Why the hell can’t you shut my bedroom door?’ Ferdie retrieved a Gucci loafer from Jack’s ravening jaws. ‘And what do you look like?’
Lysander glanced down at the crumpled grey suit and the blue and white striped shirt.
‘Basically I put on the thing that least needed ironing,’ he said apologetically.
He’d have pinched one of my shirts if they hadn’t been too big, thought Ferdie darkly, then caught sight of an empty bottle of Moët in the waste-paper basket.
‘You’ve been drinking.’
‘Only half the bottle.’
‘You can’t fucking afford champagne.’
‘I didn’t,’ said Lysander smugly. ‘An incredibly nice girl turned up with it from The Scorpion. She left me her card.’
Examining it, Ferdie gave a groan.
‘Beattie Johnson! Are you crazy? She’s the most bent journalist in England.’
‘Well, she was sweet to me. Said she’d read all the Palm Beach stuff and wanted me to have the chance to tell my side of the story, and if I told her all about Martha and Sherry, The Scorpion might give me a Ferrari.’
Ferdie went white. ‘You didn’t?’
‘Course not.’ Lysander assumed an air of great virtue. ‘I couldn’t do that to Martha. Besides, Dolly would do her nut. Off the record I did tell her how funny it was escaping from Elmer’s and being picked up by Sherry. She took some pictures. She said she could get me some modelling work.’
‘Christ, when will you learn?’ Ferdie was in despair, but there was no time for reproaches.
Sighing, he straightened Lysander’s tie, gave his shoes a last polish and brushed Jack’s white hairs off his suit. He then put a couple of Roger Westwood’s cards in both Lysander’s breast and inside pockets and turned down the A — Z with the relevant road ringed. Finally he gave Lysander an Extra Strong mint to hide the champagne fumes and his last twenty-pound note in case he needed some cash.
‘Now, don’t forget to steer Roger on to racing. That’s the only thing you know anything about, and try and look interested. No, you haven’t got time to watch Neighbours. Move it.’
An insanely fast driver, Lysander reached Roger’s office near Holborn ten minutes early and pulled up his battered dark green Golf outside a television shop to watch the end of Neighbours and the runners going down to the start for the 2.15. He’d been right to back that dark brown mare, she looked really well. Neighbours ended on a clinch, which reminded Lysander that Dolly was due back this evening. Worried about the side-effects of being on the Pill since she was fourteen, Dolly had recently come off it, so he had better nip into the next door chemist’s shop to buy some condoms. He was just waiting at the counter wondering if rainbow ones would improve his performance — Dolly was very demanding — when a girl swept into the shop sending a rack of bath caps flying.
She was very tall and thin, with fine pale hair drawn back from a long, beautiful unmade-up face into a tortoiseshell clip. Very inadequately dressed in a grey wool midi-dress, she had the gangling panicky air of a giraffe who’d escaped from the zoo into rush-hour traffic.
‘I want some eye-gel,’ she announced in a high, trembling voice. ‘No, not that one, it’s tested on animals. In fact I want three tubes. I’m going to be doing a lot of crying in the next few days. My husband’s just left me.’ And she burst into tears.
The pharmacist forced to serve her, because his assistant was late back from lunch, was totally thrown. His scrubbed face turned dark crimson, as his little eyes darted round looking for a way of escape. Lysander showed no such reticence. Leaping forwards, knocking over a rack of tweezers, he put an arm round the girl’s shuddering shoulders. Gently steering her towards the chair kept for pensioners awaiting prescriptions, he broke into a nearby box of pale blue Kleenex and started to blot up the tears. Unlike Martha, there was no mascara to run.
‘You poor thing, what a bastard. He’ll come back.’
‘Never, never,’ gulped the girl.
‘Go and make a cup of tea, Diane,’ snapped the chemist to his assistant who, buckling beneath carrier bags, had tried to sidle in undetected and was now gazing at Lysander in wonder.
Gradually between sobs and sniffs, Lysander elicited the information that the distressed beauty’s name was Rachel and that her husband Boris was a Russian dissident and an assistant conductor of the London Metropolitan Orchestra.
‘But he never gets to conduct in public because that bastard Rannaldini — he’s the London Met’s musical director — never gives him the chance. Boris’s compositions are wonderful, too, but no-one will programme them because they’re rather difficult.’
‘Dropped saucepan sort of stuff?’ asked Lysander helpfully.
‘If you mean atonal,’ said the girl bridling slightly, ‘yes, it is. Rannaldini could help; but he’s jealous of Boris’s genius. He actually told Boris, Boris’s compositions emptied concert halls. Thank you,’ she added as Diane, the assistant, now in a white coat, returned newly made-up and reeking of scent, and handed her a cup of pallid tea.
‘You’re all being so kind. Boris is kind really,’ she went on despairingly, ‘but being Russian he gets frustrated trying to communicate and we’ve got young children and they get on his nerves in a small flat.’
‘That’s no reason to walk out,’ said Lysander indignantly. ‘Have a slug of that tea, although you really need something stronger.’
Lifting the cup, Rachel’s shaking hand spilled so much, she put it down again.
‘Boris is in love with a mezzo called Chloe,’ she announced miserably. ‘The London Met’s recording Otello at the moment. She’s singing Emilia, so he sees her all the time and Rannaldini’s positively encouraging it.’
‘What a shit.’ Lysander tugged out another wadge of blue Kleenex.
‘I was so desperate,’ continued Rachel with a sob, ‘I went to see Rannaldini this morning, just barged past his secretary. Rannaldini had the temerity to offer me a gin and tonic, saying he couldn’t understand why I was making a fuss. He feels the “affaire”,’ Rachel choked on the word, ‘has added a new depth to Boris’s compositions, and Chloe has never sung so well. He’s a fiend, Rannaldini, he corrupts everyone.’ She broke into noisier sobs.
Having exhausted one box of Kleenex, Lysander broke into another. Due to the slow service of Diane, who was not the only one transfixed with interest by this beautiful couple, a long queue had formed — many of whom were beginning to chunter. The pharmacist also noticed that several regulars, who were too embarrassed to ask so publicly for cures for piles or chronic constipation, had sidled out again. He cleared his throat, then when Lysander took no notice, told him and Rachel they couldn’t stay indefinitely.
‘No, of course not.’ Rachel rubbed her forehead in bewilderment. ‘My God, I should have picked up the children.’
‘Where are they?’ asked Lysander, who’d been squatting down beside her, rising stiffly to his feet.
‘With a girlfriend.’
‘Well, we’ll find a pub and ring her. Then I’ll run you over there.’
Ferdie’s afternoon had been no more rewarding than his morning. A mega-rich German, for whom he’d been searching for months, had suddenly been found a two million pound property by a rival agent and an appalling survey had scuppered a deal that looked certain. Returning home that evening frozen and exhausted, Ferdie caught the telephone on its last ring.
It was Roger Westwood in a rage. He’d lunched with the Chief Executive of the PR firm and asked him back to the office to meet Lysander.
‘And the little fucker never showed. Didn’t even bother to call. Christ — what kind of idiot did that make me look?’
Ferdie had to crawl. ‘He left here at half-past one, Roger. I don’t see how he could have lost the address.’
‘Well, he’s lost the fucking job. After all the business I’ve put your way, Ferdie, you could have come up with someone better.’
‘Look, I’m really sorry.’
But Roger had hung up.
I am too young to have a coronary, thought Ferdie. How the hell could Lysander do this to me?
Fumbling to turn on the lamp by the fire, he once more surveyed the chaos. Jack, fed up with being alone, had chewed several tapes. Ferdie put the rest back in their box.
In the kitchen, nothing had been returned to the fridge. The milk had gone off, the pink grapefruit juice was tepid. Lysander had polished off his whisky last night. In a fury Ferdie ate quarter of a pound of cheese and the last of the Scotch eggs. His brooding was interrupted by Jack leaping on to the sofa, bristling with rage and wagging his stumpy tail as he peered out of the window.
Wearily joining him, Ferdie swore in disbelief. There, staggering down the street, was Lysander, arm in arm with a blind man, both of them being led by a resigned-looking guide-dog. Ferdie threw up the window.
‘We are two little lambs that have gone astray, Baa, Baa, Baa,’ sang the blind man and Lysander tunelessly as they tottered across the road.
Windows were going up all along the street. The gays opposite were nearly falling off their balcony. Passers-by stopped and stared as Lysander paused, swaying, outside the front door. Breaking a bar of chocolate into pieces he gave it to the drooling guide-dog, then handed Ferdie’s last fiver to the blind man. He took so long getting his key into the latch that Ferdie let him in. Lysander’s hair was flopping all over his face. The faded orange tan had a blue tinge.
‘Christ, it’s cold!’ Bending down to gather up an ecstatically yapping Jack, Lysander had great difficulty getting up again.
‘Where the fuck have you been?’ yelled Ferdie.
‘In The Goat and Boots,’ said Lysander with a hiccup.
‘Why didn’t you go to that interview?’
‘Ohmigod!’ Lysander’s palm smote his wide-open mouth. ‘I completely forgot. I’m really sorry. I’ll ring and explain. Basically I just nipped into the chemist to get some condoms, when this poor, poor girl rushed in to buy some eye-gel. Can you beat it? Her husband had just left her.’
‘Oh no,’ moaned Ferdie.
‘Well, I had to look after her.’ Gently putting Jack down Lysander wandered into the kitchen fretfully upending the empty whisky bottle. ‘Honestly, she was so sad and so beautiful, and she had adorable children — God, I love kids — and her husband’s a Russian diffident. We went back to the flat. We got a bottle on the way and she was just telling me all about this bastard Rannaldini, who’s led her husband astray. She said he was legendary.’
‘Legendarily difficult,’ snapped Ferdie.
With mounting anger he watched Lysander get a tin of Pedigree Chum out of the fridge, fork it into a blue bowl of Bristol glass which normally lived in the sitting room, and scatter dog biscuits all over the floor.
‘Who is he?’ asked Lysander.
‘Rannaldini. About the greatest conductor in the world. Jesus, you’re a philistine.’
‘Well, he’s Boris’s boss. Rachel played some of Boris’s music. It sounded quite awful — like a lot of buffaloes in a labour ward. But it reminded her of him so she started crying, and I was comforting her when Boris walked in. He’d decided not to leave her. He wasn’t at all diffident when he saw me, and he’s a big bugger so I legged it before he blacked my eye.’
‘Then you could have used the eye-gel,’ said Ferdie, sourly sweeping up dog biscuits. ‘Well, you screwed up that bloodstock account job.’
‘I’m desperately sorry, Ferd, I couldn’t just leave her. The other problem is basically my car’s been nicked. When I came out of her flat in Drake Street it had gone.’
‘Probably towed away.’ Ferdie was furiously crashing plates and mugs into the dishwasher.
‘It wasn’t. I stopped off at a champagne tasting at Oddbins on the way home. They let me use their telephone. Then I went to The Goat and Boots. That’s where I met Syd, that blind bloke. His guide-dog was incredible; she was called Bessie. You’d have loved her, Jacko.’
As he opened the kitchen door, Jack rushed out and an icy blast rushed in.
‘We’d better call the police about your car,’ said Ferdie.
‘Rachel was so pretty in a leggy sort of way.’ Lysander glanced at his watch. ‘Hell, I’ve missed Coronation Street.’ Going into the sitting room he switched on the television. ‘I must find out who won the 2.15. Where’s the remote control?’
But, as he upended a box of tapes on to the floor in an attempt to find it, Ferdie flipped.
‘Just shut up for once,’ he howled, ‘and go to fucking bed.’
Next morning Ferdie had to relent because Lysander woke up, as he so often did, crying for his mother.
‘Oh Ferd, I dreamt she was alive, the fog came down and I couldn’t find her.’
Dripping with sweat, reddened eyes rolling in terror, bedclothes thrown all over the sitting room, Lysander reached for a cigarette with a shaking hand.
Slumped in despair, he let the bubbles subside in the Alka Seltzer Ferdie brought him. The cartoons on TV AM which usually produced whoops of joy failed to raise a smile. He was too low even to switch over to Ceefax for the day’s runners and his horoscope.
‘What’s the point of Russell Grant rabbiting on about a romantic day for Pisces when I’ve got to go and tap Dad?’ He started to shake again.
Ferdie sighed. As Lysander’s car hadn’t been found and he’d promised to be at Fleetley, the public school in Gloucestershire where his father was headmaster, by eleven-thirty, Ferdie agreed to drive him down for a fee. Not that he’d ever get it, and he’d have to pretend to the office that he was out viewing properties.
‘You ought to get something inside you,’ he chided Lysander. ‘You haven’t eaten since yesterday morning.’
‘I feel sick.’
Lysander jumped at the telephone, always hoping it might be his mother and her whole death a terrible dream.
Picking up the receiver, Ferdie listened for a minute, before snapping: ‘He’s not here, and if he were, he wouldn’t have anything to say,’ and crashed it down again.
‘You’re going to feel even sicker. That was the Sun. Beattie Johnson’s dumped in The Scorpion. They’ll all be baying at the door in a second. We better move it.’
On top of The Financial Times and the Estate Agent’s Gazette, the newsagent on the corner placed a copy of The Scorpion.
‘Lover Boy’s in trouble again,’ he told Ferdie with a smirk. ‘Remind him he owes me sixty quid for mags and fags.’
‘I’m first in the queue,’ said Ferdie, grabbing a packet of toffees. ‘Oh my God!’
On the front of The Scorpion was a ludicrously, wantonly glamorous photograph of Lysander surrounded by foliage and wearing nothing but a flannel. ‘WHO COULD BLAME MARTHA WINTERTON?’ said the huge headline.
‘What the hell possessed you to pose virtually naked for Beattie Johnson?’ asked Ferdie as he got back into the car.
‘I was having a bath when she arrived,’ said Lysander sulkily.
Lysander, whom Ferdie described as the Geoffrey Boycott of reading, was still digesting the full horrors when the BMW shook off the remnants of rush-hour traffic and reached the M4.
‘Drop dead handsome,’ he read out laboriously. ‘And he nearly did when the bullets of Elmer’s guards rang out. Frozen in his tracks, Lysander could have passed for a statue of Adonis (who’s he?) in that moonlit garden!
‘“I aim to be a jump jockey,” says twenty-two-year-old Lysander, who should have no trouble with Bechers, if he can clear Elmer’s twenty-foot electric fence without a horse.
‘Oh Christ, it goes on about me being “the youngest son of David ‘Hatchet’ Hawkley, headmaster of Fleetley, one of England’s snootiest public schools (fees £12,000 a year). Perhaps Hatchet will give cheeky Lysander six of the best when they meet.”
‘Jesus, Beattie is a bitch,’ said Lysander furiously. ‘She promised she wouldn’t print any of the things I told her off the record. I’d have taken that Ferrari if I’d known. We’d better step on it before some do-gooder shows Dad The Scorpion. Thank goodness it’s banned at Fleetley. Dolly’s going to be livid, too. I feel seriously sick.’
He groped for a cigarette and was soon coughing his lungs out and dropping ash and toffee papers all over Ferdie’s very clean car.
‘That is the ultimate obscenity,’ he said disapprovingly as they got stuck in the fast lane behind a blonde in a Porsche going just below the speed limit, so Ferdie was forced to overtake on the inside.
‘Ought to be driving funeral cars.’ Lysander swung round to glare at her, then changed his mind. ‘Quite pretty though. Perhaps she’s just passed her test. Looks like that girl in the house next door. Did you ever bonk her?’
Ferdie nodded gloomily. ‘We had a bloody good four days while you were in Palm Beach. I even took her to San Lorenzo. Then she announced she was flying back to Australia to get married, and she’d only been practising on me.’
Ferdie told it as a big joke, but Lysander sensed the hurt. He longed for Ferdie to attract girls as effortlessly as he did.
‘Stupid cow,’ he said crossly, then to cheer Ferdie up, as they came off the motorway, ‘God, you shift this car. I’ve never done it this fast even at night.’
As they approached Fleetley through the bleak winter landscape with its patches of snow and icy wind flattening the pale grass on the verges, Jack started to snuffle at the window at familiar territory and Lysander grew lower and lower.
‘I can’t believe she won’t be here,’ he muttered, pulling Sherry’s blue baseball cap further over his nose.
He could never understand why his mother had stayed married to his stiff-upper-lipped, rigidly conventional, father. But, as a gesture of conciliation, he stopped in Fleetley Village to buy him a bottle of port and a packet of Swoop for his parrot, Simonides.
Fleetley School had once been inhabited by dukes. Now only the iron gates flanked by rampant stone lions and the avenue of towering flat-bottomed horse-chestnuts, and the great house itself, square, yellowy-grey and Georgian, remained. All round like mushrooms had sprung up classrooms, science labs, gyms and houses for masters and boys. The great lake had been turned into a swimming pool.
Nowhere for Arthur and Tiny to graze now, thought Lysander, gazing at the silvery-green stretches of playing field.
‘Oh no!’ He gave a whimper. The stables where he and his mother had kept their horses had already been flattened to make way for the new music school towards which, Mrs Colman, his father’s secretary, had helped raise £300,000.
‘You coming in?’ he asked Ferdie.
Ferdie shook his head: ‘I’ve got some calls to make.’
Although Ferdie had got straight As in four A levels, and David Hawkley had privately admitted he would be the first old boy to make a million, David had never forgiven his son’s best friend for flogging booze, cigarettes and condoms on the black market to other boys.
‘I’ll leave Jack with you then,’ said Lysander. ‘Simonides always gives him a nervous breakdown, imitating his bark. Christ, I hope Dad’s in a good mood.’
David Hawkley ran one of the best schools in the country. Nicknamed ‘Hatchet’ by the boys for the sharpness of his tongue, he was as brilliant a teacher as administrator, but tended ruthlessly to suppress the romantic intuition which had made him the finest classical scholar of his generation. Extremely good-looking, pale, patrician, tight-lipped, like the first Duke of Wellington, with black Regency curls brushed flat and streaked with grey, he gave an impression of banked fires under colossal control — as though the battles of the Peninsula and Waterloo were being fought internally against despair and the powers of darkness.
Inflexible by nature, he had been particularly tough with his youngest son because Pippa, his late wife, had adored the boy so much. And Lysander was so agonizingly like Pippa with his wide-apart, blue-green eyes, which always opened wider when he was thinking what to say, the thick glossy brown hair falling over his forehead, and the sweet sleepy smile that totally transformed his face. Like Pippa he had the same air of helplessness, of not being responsible for his actions, of retreating into a dream world and laughing at all the wrong moments.
Lysander was so different from David’s older sons, Alexander and Hector, who, like their father, had got firsts at Cambridge, and were now doing brilliantly in the BBC and the Foreign Office. Both had made suitable marriages, and, unlike their father, hugged their children, cooked Sunday lunch, knew the difference between puff and shortcrust pastry, and changed nappies without any loss of masculinity. Like their father, however, they had endless discussions on what to do for and about Lysander.
Awaiting his son that morning, David Hawkley was in a particularly savage mood. Normally in January, he would have been basking in the glow of getting half the sixth form into Oxbridge. But such was the bias against public schools that this year only ten boys had scraped in and none of them with scholarships, resulting in endless recriminatory telephone calls from parents. Having been up most of the night, ruthlessly marking down Mocks papers, he didn’t think next year’s lot would fare any better.
His mood was even worse because a fox had killed his beloved parrot, Simonides, that morning. Simonides had barked at dogs, chattered away in Greek and Latin, and shouted ‘Fuck Off’, probably taught to him by Lysander, at parents who wouldn’t leave. He had also perched on David’s shoulders as he worked, hopped on to his bed, snuggling into his neck at dawn and been his only solace since Pippa died.
David was also livid because stories of Lysander’s Palm Beach exploits were plastered all over The Scorpion, which had been slyly left around by the boys — even on his pew in chapel.
Worst of all, Lysander in his vagueness had put the two letters he’d laboriously written in Palm Beach in the wrong envelopes. Thus instead of receiving a cheery note saying his son was getting on well and would visit him next month, David opened the letter Lysander had written to his highly dubious girlfriend, Dolly. This not only told her of the disgusting things Lysander was intending to do to her sexually when they met up again, but also how he would probably be forced to tap his battleaxe of a father and that he was sure his father in turn was keen on his secretary, ‘Mustard’, and what a dog she was.
David Hawkley was almost more outraged by the deterioration in Lysander’s spelling and grammar. But he was not prepared to hand the letter back with Sps in the margin, nor tell his son that the word ‘lick’ did not have two Ks, and that swuzzont-nerve certainly wasn’t spelt like that, nor ask what the hell was ‘growler guzzling’.
Icy with rage, David watched his youngest son getting out of a flash car, driven by that fat, deeply unsuitable friend, who should surely have been at work in some office. He then wandered up the path, wincing at the cacophony of the eleven-thirty bell, and stopped to stroke Hesiod, the school cat, who’d been shut out yet again by Mrs Colman, who didn’t approve of pets in the office.
It was Mrs Colman who had drawn David’s attention to The Scorpion first thing that morning.
‘I never read that beastly rag, but my Mrs Mop brought it in. I’m so sorry, David,’ — never ‘David’ except when they were alone.
Now orgasmic with disapproval, Mrs Colman was ushering Lysander into the study. Handsome, big nosed, high complexioned and hearty, she got quite skittish when Alexander or Hector visited their father: ‘Mr Hawkley, Mr Hector Hawkley to see you.’ But Lysander was too hauntingly like his mother, of whom Mrs Colman had been inordinately jealous.
Lysander noticed that ‘Mustard’ was very glammed up in cherry-red lambswool with matching colour on what could be seen of her pursed lips. Catching a discreet waft of Chanel № 5, he afforded her equal coolness.
‘Hi, Dad.’ He dumped the carrier bag on his father’s vast green-leather desk beside the neatly stacked Mocks papers. ‘The Swoop’s for Simonides.’
Timeo Danaos, thought David, peering into the bag. Unable to trust his voice not to quiver, he didn’t tell Lysander about Simonides, and merely said: ‘Thank you. You’d better sit down.’
For a man outwardly as bleak as the day, his study was an unexpectedly charming and welcoming room. Most of the wallspace was covered with books, well worn and thumbed in faded crimsons, blues, dark greens and browns, mostly in the original Greek and Latin, with their gold lettering glinting in the flames that glowed from the apple logs in the grate. Within reach were Aristotle’s Ethics and the seven volumes of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. And because David Hawkley was not a vain man, tucked away on a top shelf were his own much-admired translations of Plato, Ovid and Euripides. He had been translating Catullus when Pippa died and had done no work on it since.
On the remaining walls were some good English water-colours, exquisite French engravings of Aesop’s fables, a photograph of the Headmasters’ Conference last year in Aberdeen, and yet another far more faded photograph of himself winning his blue at Cambridge, breast against the tape, dark head thrown back.
Over the fireplace was the Poussin of rioting nymphs and shepherds left to him by Aunt Amy, who had also left twenty thousand pounds to Lysander rather than his elder brothers because she felt the boy needed a helping hand. Lysander, to his father’s fury, had instantly blued the lot on a steeplechaser called King Arthur, who had promptly gone lame and not run since.
Unlike Elmer Winterton, David Hawkley believed in longevity, so the holes in the carpet were mostly covered by good rugs. The springs had completely gone in the ancient sofa upholstered in a dark green Liberty print to match the wallpaper. Mrs Colman kept urging him to replace the sofa with something modern, and relaxing, but David didn’t want parents to linger, particularly the beautiful, divorced or separated mothers — God, there were enough of them — who came to talk about their sons and ended up talking about themselves, their eyes pleading for a chance to find comfort in comforting him.
And now Lysander was sprawled on the same low sofa, huddled in Ferdie’s long, dark blue overcoat, re-adjusting his long legs, yet as seductive in his drooping passivity as Narcissus or Balder the Beautiful. But, modest like his father, he always seemed unaware of his miraculous looks.
David didn’t offer Lysander a glass of the medium-dry sherry he kept for parents, although he could have done with one himself, because he didn’t want any conviviality to creep in.
Lysander, who always had difficulty meeting his father’s cold, penetrating grey eyes, noticed he was wearing a new Hawkes tie, and that his black scholar’s gown, now green with age, was no longer full of holes where it had kept catching on door handles. His mother had only used needles to remove rose thorns, so the invisible stitches must be Mustard’s work, as was the posy of mauve and blue freesias on his father’s desk, whose sweet, delicate scent fought with the blasts of lunchtime curry drifting from the school kitchens.
There was a long, awkward pause. Lysander tried not to yawn. Noticing how the lines had deepened round his father’s mouth and how the dark rings beneath his eyes nearly joined his arched black brows, as though he was wearing glasses, Lysander felt a wave of compassion.
‘How are you, Dad?’
‘Coping,’ snapped David.
Then a pigeon landed on the window-sill and for a blissful second, David thought it was Simonides. Then, as reality reasserted itself, he channelled his misery into a furious attack on Lysander for sending the wrong letter.
‘How dare you refer to Mrs Colman in those offensive terms,’ he said finally, ‘after all she’s done for the school? Quite by chance, recognizing your illiterate scrawl, I opened the letter. Imagine the hurt it would have caused Mrs Colman if she’d seen it.’
Crossing the room, he threw the vile document on the fire, putting a log on top to bury it.
‘What the hell have you got to say for yourself? And take off that ridiculous baseball cap.’
Flushing like a girl, Lysander opened his eyes wide and launched into a flurry of apology.
‘I’m really, really sorry, Dad, I honestly am. Basically it’s very expensive living in London, and I honestly didn’t mean to upset you and Mustard… I mean Mrs Colman, but basically my car’s been nicked and I’d no idea Arthur’s vet’s bills were going to be so high, and I honestly promise to do better, and basically my attitude towards money is—’ He got to his feet to let in the school cat who was mewing piteously on the window-ledge.
‘Sit down,’ thundered his father.
‘But it’s freezing. Hesiod always came in when Mum—’ Then, seeing his father’s face, he sat down. He desperately needed some money. ‘As I was saying, basically my attitude—’
‘That’s enough,’ David interrupted him. ‘You have used the words basically and honestly about twenty times in the last five minutes. There is absolutely nothing honest about your promises to do better, nor basic about your attitude to money. You roll up here, plainly hungover to the teeth. You bring disrepute on the family getting your exploits plastered all over the papers. I hoped you would have learnt that no gentleman ever discusses the women with whom he’s been to bed.’
With a shudder, Lysander wondered if his father had bonked Mustard yet. The fumes of curry were really awful. He hoped the bursar had ordered a consignment of three-ply bog-paper to deal with it. Poor Hesiod was still mewing.
‘What is worse,’ went on his father, ‘is that in order to secure that job in the City — which I gather Roddy Ballenstein has already withdrawn — can’t say I blame him — I have been forced to admit the stupidest boy I have ever come across.’
‘Stupider than me?’ said Lysander in amazement.
‘It is not funny!’
‘I’m really sorry, Dad.’ Lysander noticed with a stab of pain that his father had removed his mother’s photograph from the mantelpiece. Probably Mustard’s doing. Dragging his mind back to the present he heard his father saying:
‘I realize from your letter that you only came down to tap me. Well, I’m not helping you. You’ve got to learn to stand on your own feet. I suggest you send that horse on which you’re always squandering money to the knackers, and get yourself a decent job. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a governors’ meeting.’
Lysander went quietly outside, but when he saw a gloating Mustard peering round the net curtains, something snapped. Raising two fingers at her, he scooped up Hesiod, who was now weaving and mewing round his feet, and bolting down the garden path, shoved the cat into Ferdie’s car and jumped in after it.
In the ensuing pandemonium with Jack nearly getting his eyes clawed out as he tried to swallow Hesiod whole and Lysander trying to separate them and Mustard running down the drive in her medium high heels, crying, ‘Stop thief’, Hesiod started shitting with terror and was forcibly ejected by Ferdie outside the Science Lab.
‘I expect they’ll start experimenting on him as soon as they’ve cut his vocal chords,’ said Ferdie as he stormed down the drive.
Then, seeing Lysander’s stricken face, ‘I’m only winding you up. Quite resourceful of Jacko though, trying to eat that mog. Obviously knows he’s going to have to fend for himself from now on.’
‘What you talking about?’
‘Hatchet didn’t cough up.’
‘He didn’t.’ Lysander rubbed his bloody, lacerated hands on his jeans. ‘Can I borrow another fiver? I must put some flowers on Mum’s grave.’
Unclothed as yet by any lichen or the grime of age, Pippa Hawkley’s headstone looked poignantly white and defenceless beside all the other gravestones lurching higgledy-piggledy in Fleetley Village churchyard.
Almost as white and defenceless as her son, thought Ferdie, as he watched Lysander chuck out some dead chrysanthemums which had blown over and refill their vase with four bunches of snowdrops.
Philippa Hawkley 1942–89, Requiescat in Pace, read Ferdie, and tears stung his eyes as he wondered how anyone so vivid and vital as his ex-headmaster’s wife could ever rest peacefully. Worried that Lysander, who was now swaying beside him, was going to black out, he urged him back into the car and turned up the heat. He ought to belt straight back to London. Yesterday’s Arabs had rung his boss and complained about being bundled into a taxi. Instead he decided to take Lysander for a drive.
The sun, an even later riser than Lysander, at last put in an appearance, lighting up frost-bleached fields, yellow stone walls and striping the drying road ahead with tree shadows. As the countryside grew more hilly and deeply wooded, Ferdie drove past a beautiful house on the side of the valley with smooth grey trunks of beeches like the Albert Hall organ pipes soaring behind it.
Lysander was temporarily roused out of his gloom, when Ferdie said the estate belonged to Rupert Campbell-Black, ex-world show-jumping champion and now one of the most successful owner-trainers in the country.
‘Look at those fences! God, I wish Rupert’d give me a job.’ Lysander craned his neck to gaze into the yard. ‘I could ride all his horses and he’d know how to get Arthur sound again. Sometimes I think Arthur’s enjoying retirement and doesn’t want to get sound at all. I can’t work in London any more, Ferdie, I’m having a mid-life crisis at twenty-two.’
‘I realize that,’ said Ferdie. ‘I’ve got plans for you.’
Driving on another ten miles, through tree tunnels and woods carpeted with fading beech leaves and lit by the occasional sulphur-yellow cloud of hazel catkins, they passed a tiny hamlet on the right called Paradise. Five minutes later, Ferdie crossed over into the county of Rutshire, and pulled up on the top of a steep hill.
Climbing out, almost swept away into a dance of death by the violence of the wind, they found themselves looking down into a most beautiful valley. From the top, vast trees descended the steep sides like passengers on a moving staircase. Over the trees were flung great silken waterfalls of travellers’ joy. These seemed to flow directly into a hundred little streams, which flashed like sword blades in the sunshine as they hurtled through rich brown ploughed fields or bright green water meadows into the River Fleet which ran along the bottom of the valley. Ahead, a mile downriver, a little village of pale gold Cotswold cottages gathered round an Early English church like parishioners respectfully listening to a sermon.
‘Below you,’ shouted Ferdie over the wind, ‘lies Rutshire’s valley of Paradise, much larger and more ostentatious than its Gloucestershire namesake. But where everyone wants to live, and where house prices go up rather than down.
‘Here,’ — Ferdie indicated several splendid houses peeping like lions out of the woods on either side — ‘you will find the most Des-Reses in England, because of the magnificent views and the money that’s been spent on them. Rupert Campbell-Black refers to the area as Non-U-Topia because so many Nouveaux have moved in. It’s also been nicknamed the Rift Valley because so many marriages break up.’
‘So what?’ grumbled Lysander, who was cold and having to hang on to his baseball cap and to poor Jack whose ears were getting blown inside out.
‘I did a bit of research while you were unsuccessfully tapping your father,’ yelled Ferdie, who being fat, felt the cold less. ‘You know your friend Rachel? Well, this is the empire of her husband’s conductor-boss, Rannaldini. His is the biggest house up on the right. It’s called Valhalla. The garden’s sensational in summer. You can see the maze and there deep in the woods you can see a little gazebo — Rannaldini’s out-of-control tower — where he has total privacy to edit tapes, study scores and bonk ladies who approach unseen from the other side of the wood.
‘Rannaldini only spends a few weeks a year here,’ explained Ferdie, ‘because he’s always jetting round the world avoiding tax and outraged mistresses, when he’s not terrifying the London Met into submission. Rumour has it,’ he added knowingly, ‘that if things get too hot in England, Rannaldini’s got his sights on the New York or Berlin Philharmonics.’
‘I get it,’ said Lysander, shoving Jack inside his coat. ‘Rannaldini’s house might go on the market and you’d get it on your books first and make a killing.’
‘Exactly,’ said Ferdie, getting back into the car. ‘It’s always worth watching this area.’
Driving down the hill he turned off at a signpost saying: PARADISE 2 MILES.
‘You make a killing,’ he went on, ‘selling a house here to a couple. Then, when the marriage breaks up in a few years, you make another killing finding them two separate houses and, if you’re lucky, flogging the old one for them.’
Paradise, which had been voted Best-Kept Village in Rutshire for the last ten years, lived up to its name. Even on the bleakest day it was sheltered by the towering tree-covered hills. The churchyard and the gardens that lined the main street were already crowded with aconites, snowdrops and early crocuses. Winter jasmine and evergreen honeysuckle climbed to the roofs of the cottages, from whose chimneys, opal-blue smoke rose straight up, hardly ruffled by the wind. Although the duck pond was frozen, there were fat ruby buds on the black spiky branches of the lime trees which framed the village green.
Next to the church behind ancient stone walls hung with tuffets of mauve aubrietia lurked a charming rectory. As well as an excellent village shop called The Apple Tree, which stocked everything from videos to vine leaves, Paradise boasted a garden centre called Adam’s Pleasure which sold petrol, and a restaurant, called The Heavenly Host, with its duck-egg-blue shutters drawn, which opened only in the evenings.
Ferdie and Lysander, however, shot with indecent haste into the saloon bar of The Pearly Gates Public House.
‘Morning, Ferdie,’ said the landlord who had tipped him off about local houses on several previous visits.
Sustained by a couple of large whiskies and a plate of very hot steak-and-kidney pie and chips in front of a roaring fire, Lysander began to feel slightly more cheerful.
Apart from a couple of pensioners gazing at half-pints of beer, the place was deserted except for the vicar, who, in between drinking large glasses of red wine and writing Sunday’s sermon, gazed surreptitiously at Lysander.
‘They ought to invent a killer cocktail called the Holy Spirit,’ murmured Ferdie, whose pink cheeks had turned bright scarlet in the warmth.
On the walls, dominating the coaching scenes, village cricket elevens and gleaming horse brasses, were two framed photographs. One was of a haughty-looking, grey-haired man with his eyes shut waving a stick, the other of a strikingly handsome woman with dark, curly hair and her mouth so wide open that Lysander was tempted to toss her the piece of the pastry he was feeding to Jack.
‘Who are they?’ he asked Ferdie.
‘Rannaldini conducting Mahler and Hermione Harefield, his mistress, singing it. That’s her house on the left.’
Out of the window, Lysander could see tall yellow chimneys, beckoning like fingers between two great black yew trees.
‘She’s a world-famous diva,’ continued Ferdie mopping up gravy with a third piece of bread. ‘She met Rannaldini when he was conducting Rigoletto in Milan ten years ago. It’s been a staggeringly successful partnership in and out of bed. You must have heard of Harefield and Rannaldini — no, perhaps not.’ He shook his head. ‘They almost outsell Nigel Kennedy.
‘Hermione’s incredibly beautiful and a pain in the ass, which Rannaldini probably enjoys because he’s rumoured to go both ways. Hermione’s husband, Bob, is the orchestra manager of the London Met. He’s a seriously nice guy with the flattest stomach in Rutshire. He should have the narrowest shoulders, shrunk by so many musicians sobbing on them as a result of Rannaldini’s tantrums.’
Ignoring Lysander’s reproachful glances at his empty glass, Ferdie picked up the car keys.
‘Come on, I haven’t finished the tour.’
Outside, the sun had gone in. The cottages along the High Street huddled together for warmth. As they drove out of the village up the south side of the valley, they passed a cottage with a waterfall and a swing hanging from a bent apple tree.
‘That’s Jasmine Cottage,’ said Ferdie slowing down, ‘which also belongs to Hermione and Bob Harefield. Last year they rented it out to your pianist friend Rachel and her Russian husband Boris. Then Rachel went abroad on a concert tour, and Boris was left behind, babysitting and writing incomprehensible music no-one wanted, so he started looking around sexually. In the autumn they moved back to London hoping it might be easier to find work, but it doesn’t seem to have helped the marriage, if yesterday’s eye-gel incident is anything to go by.
‘And that ravishing house, hidden in the willows on the left belongs to Valentine Hardman. He’s a top lawyer with a mistress up in London, so his wife Annabel threatens daily to throw herself into the River Fleet.
‘And that vulgar pile up on the left,’ Ferdie nearly ran over a pheasant as he peered through vast electric gates up a long drive, ‘is Paradise Grange. It belongs to Larry Lockton, chief executive of Catchitune Records who make a fortune out of Rannaldini and Harefield. Larry keeps buying companies, but I suspect he’s hopelessly overleveraged and riding for a fall.
‘Now Larry’s another bloke Rannaldini’s led astray,’ added Ferdie, driving on. ‘Larry used to be a fat little man who never smiled because he had bad teeth. But he was so jealous of all Rannaldini’s mistresses, he wanted one, too. So he had his teeth fixed, lost three stone and got a new haircut like Mel Gibson and started bonking his secretary. He’s even bought her a bonkerie in Pelham Crescent. I sold it to him,’ explained Ferdie, not without complacency. ‘Ground floor with a nice garden and fitted cupboards for all the skeletons. Larry’s wife, Marigold, used to be very pretty. She was his childhood sweetheart, but once he started to make his pile and began climbing socially, she got Weybridged and dressed like the Queen, eating too many white chocolates, and throwing herself into charity work like a rugger ball with a difficult bounce.’
‘Why are you telling me all this?’
‘Hang on — there is a reason.’
Driving on up the hill Ferdie pulled into a gap. Through the trees across the valley half a mile to the right of Valhalla they could see a Georgian house, smaller than Fleetley, but exquisitely proportioned, with soaring stone angels on each corner of the roof.
‘That house, Angel’s Reach, was totally unmodernized with a fantastic wild garden,’ said Ferdie. ‘It’s been bought by Georgie Maguire and her husband, Guy Seymour, who are spending an absolute fortune on it.’
Lysander opened a bloodshot eye. ‘Even I’ve heard of her. Wasn’t she a pop singer in the sixties? Mum had all her records.’
‘That’s right. Now she writes songs as well.’
‘I’ve always thought she was seriously attractive,’ said Lysander.
‘Georgie and Guy paid a million five.’ Ferdie edged the car on until they could see a long lake glinting gold in the falling sun below the house.
‘My guess is they can’t afford it, but they’re gambling on her new album, which is produced by Larry Lockton and Catchitune, being a massive hit.’
‘Aren’t Georgie and Guy supposed to be the happiest couple in show business?’ sighed Lysander enviously.
‘Which probably means they’re both screwing around,’ said Ferdie cynically.
Lysander shook his head in bewilderment. ‘It’s quite awful. What’s the point of getting married if you spend your time bonking other people?’
‘This monstrous regiment of womanizers,’ said Ferdie with a shrug. ‘Paradise husbands ring up from London on Thursdays to remind the housekeepers to get their wives out of the freezer so they’ll be unfrosted by the time the master returns on Friday night.’
‘Why the hell do the wives put up with it?’ asked Lysander with a shudder. ‘At least Dad didn’t bonk other women.’
‘When your husband’s as rich as Croesus, you get used to a certain lifestyle and you can’t bear to give it up.’
‘I’ve got Croesus in my face,’ said Lysander, peering gloomily in the driving mirror. ‘Let’s go home, Ferd, I want to see Dolly and explain about The Scorpion before she goes into orbit. This place is seriously depressing.’
‘It is,’ said Ferdie, swinging the car round, ‘particularly for someone like Marigold Lockton. She loves that shit Larry to distraction, and that’s where you come in. You’re going to be her toy boy.’
‘How old is she?’
‘I can’t bonk an old wrinkly like that,’ said Lysander in outrage.
‘You’re not going to bonk her, just hang about and rattle her husband, and make him so jealous he’ll come roaring back. It worked with Boris Levitsky and Elmer Winterton. This time you’re going to get paid.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ snapped Lysander. ‘I can’t get a husband back if the marriage is dead. You can’t reheat baked potatoes.’
‘First you’ve got to look at the wife,’ said Ferdie. ‘If she’s gone to seed, you unseed her, and make her look like a mistress. Put back the gleam in her eye, let her taunt her husband with a scented body that’s quivering with lust for someone else.’ Ferdie rubbed the windscreen which was steaming up. ‘Get the weight off, get her some decent clothes (I bet there’s a raver lurking beneath Marigold’s polyester V-necks). Above all, make her stop nagging and act detached. No more flying leaps to catch the telephone on the first ring.’
‘You’ve really studied this.’ Lysander looked at Ferdie with new respect as they drew up outside the big electric gates of Paradise Grange.
‘We are about to repackage and remarket a product,’ said Ferdie. ‘Let’s go see Marigold.’
Up a long drive through splendid parkland dotted with noble trees, Paradise Grange reared up, a sprawling bulk of grey stone topped by turrets and battlements. On the perfect lawns still-frozen patches merged with great sheets of snowdrops and on the roof a flag flying the famous yellow-and-purple Catchitune colours was fretted by the bitter wind. Although it was still early afternoon, carriage lamps blazed on either side of the great oak front door. There was no answer when Ferdie rang the bell which played the Hallelujah Chorus. But as he pushed open the door he bumped into Marigold Lockton, deliriously excited that he might be a returning Larry and followed by an overweight, furiously barking, spaniel.
There’s no way I’m going to get Larry Lockton back for that, thought Lysander. Marigold looked absolutely dreadful, rather like a Beryl Cook lady masquerading as Mrs Thatcher. She was twenty pounds overweight, with red eyes and red veins criss-crossing her unhealthily white cheeks. An Alice band on her mousy permed hair emphasized a corrugated forehead. A V-necked polyester dress in overcooked-sprouts-green showed off a neck and arms as opaque and pudgy as the white chocolates with which she constantly stuffed herself. She had clearly also been stuck into the vodka for several hours.
Her first carefully elocuted words to Ferdie were that he could forget about the house he was finding her in Tregunter Road.
‘Even if Larry’s plannin’ to put Paradise Grange on the market, Ay’m not movin’. The kiddies love their ’ome; whay should they lose it and whay should Ay after all the work Ay’ve put into redecoratin’ it?’ She pointed to the oak panelling in the hall which had been painted a rather startling flamingo pink.
‘Larry wanted the kiddies brought up in the country.’ Her voice rattled like a sliver of bone in the Hoover as she led them into a vast drawing room. ‘So he stuck me down ’ere, mayles away from the shops. Now he’s packed them off to boardin’ school to get a posh accent and some smart friends, and he’s given may daily help and Mr and Mrs Brimscombe, our couple what live at the bottom of the drayve, a month’s notice to force me out.
‘Poor Mr B’s tended this garden for nearly forty years. Look at the poor old chap.’ Marigold pointed out of the window at an ancient gardener morosely clipping a yew hedge. ‘Ay can’t lay him off, it’d break his ’eart. Even more than mine’s broke.’
‘Marigold,’ interrupted Ferdie, ‘this is Lysander Hawkley.’
‘Pleased to meet you,’ said Marigold unenthusiastically, then pulling herself together, ‘I suppose you want a noggin.’
‘Please,’ said Ferdie, then, seeing Lysander’s appalled face, whispered, ‘Hang about, I promise you it’s worth it.’
‘She’s gross,’ hissed Lysander. ‘I’d need serious beer goggles to get within a hundred yards.’
‘Lovely view,’ enthused Ferdie loudly, squeezing between a large harp and a wind-up gramophone to look out of the huge window stretching the length of the room. ‘You can see Valhalla and Angel’s Reach from here, and Rachel’s cottage behind those Wellingtonias.’
‘I don’t care,’ grumbled Lysander, ‘I want to go home.’
Despite several bright Persian rugs tossed over a pink wall-to-wall carpet, a matching pink dog basket, a superabundance of silk cushions on their points like a Kirov line-up and enough tartan chairs and sofas to do the Highland fling, the room was as cosy as the furniture department of an Oxford Street store. There were too many dark cumbersome pieces, too many chandeliers, too much gilt on the mirrors and too few logs bravely burning in the vast stone cave of a fireplace.
On the walls, equally disparate, were several gold discs won by Catchitune, a lugubrious Stubbs spaniel, a Hogarth etching of a musical evening, a framed manuscript of the first page of a Beethoven Sonata, and a Picasso of grapes and a violin. The grand piano was weighed down with various recording awards and photographs of Larry Lockton fratting with the famous — mostly Mrs Thatcher. All round the room, busts of the great composers looked dourly down from their pedestals at such a visual mishmash.
Poor Marigold was in a frightful state. First she forgot the water for the whisky, then going back to fetch it, she forgot what she wanted it for, and proceeded to water a bowl of lurid pink hyacinths, not even noticing when it overflowed.
‘At least you’ve got lots of flowers,’ said Lysander looking around at the massed bunches of salmon-pink gladioli.
‘Ay sent them to myself,’ confessed Marigold, and burst into tears.
While Ferdie shot off to refill the jug and collect some kitchen roll, Lysander, who was beginning to feel really sorry for Marigold, asked her how she had found out about Larry’s bimbo.
‘It was at the office party in December. Ay always used to be the prettiest girl at office parties.’ Grabbing a piece of kitchen roll, she thrust it into her eyes. ‘All the bosses chased after me when we were first married, now Ay’m the old trout, what everyone has to suck up to because Ay’m the boss’s waife.’
She blew her nose noisily and took a slug of the replenished vodka and tonic.
‘May word, that’s strong, Ferdie. Anyway, I was chattin’ to the company secretary’s wife when I looked across the room and there was Nikki — she’s Larry’s PA — sitting on a leather sofa. Larry was standin’ besaide her chattin’ to the financial director and she was rubbin’ his… er — the front of his trousers.’
‘Perhaps she was brushing off a bit of fluff,’ said Lysander.
‘She’s the bit of fluff,’ said Marigold disdainfully. ‘Then Larry saw Ay was looking and kicked her on the shins. When Ay tackled him, he shouted that Ay was imaginin’ things and should get some glasses. Next day Ay was so distraught, Ay’d just set off to the Distressed Gentlefolks AGM.’
Coals to Newcastle, thought Ferdie.
‘Lady Chisleden was in the chair, I recall,’ went on Marigold, ‘and I got all the way to Rutminster before I realized I’d forgotten the minutes. I always type them, I used to be a secretary, so I rushed home. Patch came running down the stairs, which is unusual, she always stays in her basket in the kitchen if we go out, so I ran upstairs. I’d just had the guest bedroom redecorated in peach Draylon, with peach damask curtains, and Ay thought Ay’d take another peek, it looked so lovely, and Ay caught them at it.’
‘How awful,’ said Lysander, appalled. ‘What did you do?’
‘Ay was so shocked, Ay said, “I’ve just had this room redecorated.” And Nikki asked why didn’t Ay have the walls dragged. Ay said, “Ay don’t care for draggin’ it always looks as though it should have another coat.” Then Ay said, “How long have you been sleepin’ with may husband?” She said, “Ay must just look it up in may faylo-fax,” the cheeky cow.’
‘What’s she like?’ asked Lysander. Seeing Marigold was shivering he got up and put more logs on the fire.
‘Nikki? Spelt with a double K for Kleptomania, only she lifts husbands rather than shops,’ Marigold sniffed. ‘She looks like one of those girls who guides folk towards wheels of fortune in game shows. Very, very pretty, in fact she’s so pretty Ay never suspected she’d be interested in may Larry. Ay thought the only woman Larry admired was Margaret Thatcher. Nikki asked me why Ay didn’t have the walls dragged.’
‘You told us that,’ said Ferdie, who was anxious to get down to business.
‘Ay’m sorry, I keep repeatin’ myself. I trayed so hard to be a good wife. I got lonely in the country, but I kept busy with may committees, and Ay always washed may hair on Frayday and had a candlelit dinner waitin’ for Larry when he got back from town.’ She started to cry again.
‘I wish someone would do that for me.’ Lysander reached for more kitchen roll.
‘I worked so hard in the early years, darnin’ his socks, studying cheap cuts and going without lunch. We were so happy then.’
‘Can we see your wedding photographs?’ interrupted Ferdie briskly. ‘And some when you were first married.’
Collapsing heavily between him and Lysander on the sofa, Marigold opened a red photograph album.
‘You look terrific,’ said Lysander gazing in amazement at a sixties snapshot of Marigold in Hyde Park. ‘Great legs, and that chain belt’s very sexy.’
‘I gave up lunch for a whole fortnight to pay for that dress,’ sighed Marigold. ‘I had a handspan waist then.’
‘Well, you better give up a few more lunches,’ reproved Ferdie. ‘You’ve hardly got a legspan waist now, and your skin’s awful.’
Lysander winced, and wished he could go next door and watch the 3.15. Outside a gaudy pheasant with a red face and staring eyes, trailing awkwardly round the frozen lawn looking for refuge, reminded him of Marigold.
‘It’s nothing personal,’ said Ferdie kindly. ‘It’s exactly like getting a horse fit for a big race. You need a month on the road and two on the gallops. Lysander’ll take you jogging and when it gets lighter in the evenings and you’re frantic for that forbidden first drink of the day, you can both play tennis.’
‘It’ll never work,’ moaned Marigold. ‘If it weren’t for Patch, I’d kill myself.’
Patch stared balefully at them through the strings of the harp.
When Ferdie started to discuss money, Lysander was so embarrassed Ferdie had to take him off to Larry’s den, where he was very excited to find a bar in the corner with every drink known to man hanging upside down with rightway-up labels.
‘Oh, can I play with it?’
‘Of course, and watch the end of Lingfield on the big screen. If you get bored with that, Larry’s got all Donald Duck’s cartoons up on the right,’ said Ferdie, shutting the door firmly.
‘It’s going to cost you,’ he told Marigold, going back into the sitting room.
‘Ay haven’t got any money. Larry’s keepin’ me so short.’
‘Well, you’ll have to pawn a few rings.’
‘He’s charmin’ Lysander.’
‘Charming,’ agreed Ferdie. ‘But very expensive. We’ll have to find a cottage for him to rent down here. Not too near Paradise to preserve his air of mystery. He needs a couple of paddocks and stabling for his horses and a really sharp, fuck-off car, a Porsche or better still a red Ferrari.’
Then, ignoring Marigold’s gasp of horror, ‘And access to a helicopter — we can’t have Larry thinking he’s some tinpot gigolo — and some decent clothes: a few suits and Gucci shoes. He needs decent shoes because he has a tendency to ingrowing toenails. And you must arrange an account at The Apple Tree, and the nearest off-licence and install satellite television, so he doesn’t get bored down here. Then there’s the little matter of his debts.’
‘How much are they?’ said Marigold faintly.
‘Ten grand should cover it,’ said Ferdie airily. ‘He’ll need pocket money of course to send you flowers and take you out on the tiles. If Larry comes back to you that’s a further ten grand, and a retainer for the next year to keep Larry on his toes.’
‘But Ay haven’t got that kind of money,’ whimpered Marigold. ‘Ay shall be destitute.’
‘No, you won’t.’ Ferdie topped up her glass. ‘Insist Larry buys you that house in Tregunter, and I’ll pretend it cost one hundred and fifty thousand pounds more than it does, which gives us lots of leeway.’
Marigold was so distraught, and by this time so awash with vodka, that she accepted all Ferdie’s conditions.
‘Life is about taking chances,’ said Ferdie, cosily pocketing a vast advance cheque. ‘It’s going to be a lark, I promise you.’
‘You ’ave terrific control over Lysander,’ said Marigold shaking her head.
‘I’m his mind and his minder,’ Ferdie reassured her. ‘I’ll be overseeing things all the way.’
Watching the 3.15 on Larry’s ten-foot screen made the race ten times more exciting, but Lysander felt ten times more depressed when the horse he’d backed fell at the last fence.
He thought of Arthur in his last race, donkey ears flapping, big feet splaying out in all directions, but with so much heart in his great grey girth that he ran on and on, just tipping the last fence in his tiredness. He’d got to get Arthur sound again. He had no job, no money, no prospects, no mother. The snowdrops outside, like the ones on her grave, reminded him he’d never see her again. The fish-ponds under the trees were turning ruby red in the setting sun.
He was roused from his black gloom by Ferdie, quite unable to keep the smirk off his broad pink face.
‘Well, you got the job.’
‘Being Marigold’s toy boy.’
‘Don’t be an asshole. I can’t bonk for money.’
‘You only get paid if you don’t bonk her. We don’t want you involved in a messy divorce case.’
‘What about Arthur and Tiny?’
‘They can move in, too.’
All Lysander’s scruples were overcome when he saw his first pay cheque. On the way back to London he and Ferdie stopped to order a red Ferrari. Arriving at Fountain Street, they found the telephone ringing. It was the police.
‘I think we’ve found your Golf GTi, Mr Hawkley. Does it have a NCDL sticker in the back saying, “A Dog is for Life… Not Just for Christmas”?’
‘That’s the one.’
‘It wasn’t in Drake Street where you thought you’d left it, but in Kempton Street.’
‘Thanks awfully,’ said Lysander, ‘that’s really, really kind of you, but basically I don’t need it any more, because I’ve just got another one.’
‘Lysander!’ Ferdie grabbed the telephone in exasperation. ‘We’ll be over to pick it up at once,’ he told the policeman.
Lysander, Arthur, Tiny, Jack and a red Ferrari with a top speed of 200 m.p.h. moved into a charming cottage seven miles from Paradise, and Lysander lost no time in getting Marigold into training. As they both jogged in track suits along punishingly steep footpaths, watching the first celandine and coltsfoot pushing their way through the leaf mould and the winter barley slowly turning the brown fields pale green, Lysander wished it was Arthur he was getting fit for the Rutminster Gold Cup rather than Marigold, but they made terrific progress.
Marigold was still desperately low and Lysander got bored as she endlessly bent his ear about Larry, but he began to realize the extent of her hurt and desolation, and how hard she had supported Larry in his rocket-like rise to the top.
‘Ay really trayed to be a social asset,’ she told Lysander one morning as they pounded up Paradise Hill. ‘For years Ay struggled with those dreadful elocution lessons.’ Pink from her exertions, Marigold went even pinker. ‘Ay was taught by a disgustin’ old Lezzie who kept touchin’ may bosom to make me project from the chest.’
‘How dreadful,’ Lysander shuddered.
‘Let’s stop and look at the vista,’ gasped Marigold, who was panting more from non-stop chatter than the one-in-five gradient.
Across the valley, softened by a pale sun, morning mist and the thickening buds of its army of trees, Paradise Grange rose like a fairy-tale castle.
‘Ay can’t bear to leave it,’ she sighed. ‘You should see it in summer when the Paradise Pearl is out. That’s a pinky-whaite wisteria Mr Brimscombe planted thirty years ago. We floodlaight it in the evenings. And that’s Lady Chisleden’s home to the left. Ay trayed so hard to dress laike Lady Chisleden.’
‘I don’t think that’s wise,’ said Lysander in alarm. ‘The old trout was blocking Paradise High Street this morning with her Bentley, bawling out Adam’s Pleasure for delivering manure that was more straw than shit. Perhaps she could give Arthur a job.’
Marigold smiled, but as they started off down the hill, she returned to the subject of Larry.
‘Talkin’ of horses, Ay always thought we had a good love laife,’ her voice trembled. ‘But one of the things Nikki screamed at me was that Larry told her Ay made love laike a dead horse, because Ay never moved.’
Although Marigold had told him this a dozen times, Lysander put his arm round her.
‘Alive horses don’t move very much,’ he said consolingly. ‘I’ve seen lots of them being covered. My Uncle Alastair ran a stud at one time, and someone always held the mare still. Anyway, men say anything to a girl when they want to get their leg over.’
To begin with Lysander used to escape to London as soon as he had supervised Marigold’s frugal supper, to party all night, returning yawning at breakfast and falling asleep in the afternoon on Larry’s sunbed. But gradually he spent more and more time at Paradise Grange. There was so much to do, working out in the gym, swimming in the heated pool, riding the hunters Larry abandoned after he’d been bucked off at the opening meet, watching all Larry’s Walt Disney tapes, playing with Larry’s bar.
‘What a pity you’re off the booze, Marigold. I could mix you some terrific cocktails.’
One of their first mutual projects was the restoration of Arthur, who’d been confined to box rest for three months by the vet. As soon as the old horse arrived, Lysander had driven Marigold over to his cottage to meet him.
It was a beautiful day after a night of heavy rain, the robins were singing their heads off, and the racing streams glittered in the sunshine. Marigold tried not to squeal with terror as Lysander stormed the red Ferrari along the winding country lanes, whose high hedges were filling up so quickly with buds and even leaves one had no idea who might be hurtling in the opposite direction. By contrast, barking his head off, and rattling back and forwards like a shaken dice, Jack seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself.
‘How did you acquire Arthur?’ asked Marigold faintly.
‘Well, it’s an extraordinary story. Basically my cousin Titus was in the Army in the Oman and during some skirmish he found Arthur wandering on the edge of the desert, thin as a rake and desperately dehydrated. Well, Titus had nowhere to stable him that night and no headcollar, so he and his men made a corral by parking four army lorries, nose to tail. Even in his desperately weakened condition, Arthur jumped straight over one of the bonnets after a passing mare.
‘Titus thought they’d lost him, but he was back nosing around for toast and marmalade the next morning. Anyway, he was such a distinctive-looking horse that his owner, some Arab sheik whom Titus was liberating, recognized him and was so grateful he let Titus keep him. Arthur’s got quite a good pedigree.
‘Titus brought him back to England, and gave him to his father, my Uncle Alastair, who was a trainer and who won a lot of races with him. I was left some money by an aunt and Alastair was in financial trouble — he was always bad with money — so I spent the lot buying Arthur from him. I’d always loved the horse. Dad was absolutely livid.’
‘Ay’m not surprised,’ said Marigold, shocked. ‘Your uncle shouldn’t have taken all your inheritance.’
‘You haven’t met Arthur,’ said Lysander fondly. ‘Anyway, poor Uncle Alastair died of a heart attack and Arthur fell first time out last September. The vet said rest him for a year, but Mum and I were determined to get him sound by next season. Then Mum died in October.’ For a second Lysander’s hands clenched on the wheel. Then, swinging off the road and destroying any hope that Marigold might have had that he might slow down on the stony track up to the cottage, he added, ‘So, I’m going to get him sound if it kills me.’
‘Yes, Ay can see that,’ said Marigold, only thankful to be alive amid so much death, as Lysander drew up with a jerk outside the stables behind the cottage. ‘Oh, how adorable,’ she squeaked.
For the great grey horse hanging out of his box was tugging hay from a net so untidily that Tiny, his black Shetland stable-mate, who was attacking another net hung below his, had nearly vanished under a thatch of dropped hay.
‘The sweet wee thing.’ Marigold rushed forward to hug the little pony.
‘I wouldn’t,’ warned Lysander.
As Tiny lashed out with a lightning off-hind, he pulled Marigold out of the way just in time.
‘Tiny,’ he added, giving the pony a sharp boot on the rump, ‘is an absolute bitch.’
‘She ought to meet Nikki,’ said Marigold with a sniff. ‘Nikki said—’
‘Basically I only keep Tiny,’ interrupted Lysander hastily, before Marigold could get into her stride, ‘because Arthur’s so bats about her. She henpecks him dreadfully, and she’s tried to kill Jack several times.’
Scooping Jack up, Lysander held him so he could lick Arthur’s nose, then plonked the little dog between the horse’s huge flopping ears. Immediately Jack tightroped down Arthur’s straggly mane and settled down into the small of his back.
‘How adorable,’ sighed Marigold, giving Tiny a very wide berth, as she stroked Arthur. ‘He’s ’uge, isn’t he?’
‘Eighteen hands,’ said Lysander proudly. ‘He was the biggest horse in training. The public still send him fan mail and Twix bars, because they know he loves them.’
Arthur was pure white except for his grey nose and dark eyes which were fringed with long, straight, white eyelashes and edged with white on the inside corners, as though some make-up artist had wanted to widen them.
‘Arthur looks as though he’s been around,’ said Marigold.
‘Basically he has,’ said Lysander. ‘He’s lived in back gardens in Fulham and on Dolly’s parents’ lawn; there was a row about that, and he spent three days in the orchard of a woman whose house I was — er — trying to sell.’
Not anxious to expand on that, Lysander pointed to the traffic cones and rubber tyres he’d hung over Arthur’s door to give him something to biff around and amuse himself with.
‘He’s so good about being inside.’ Lysander pulled Arthur’s ears. ‘He just adores being petted. He never bites Tiny back and if Jack attacks his ankles, he just looks down in amazement. If he were a human, he’d put on a smoking jacket and velvet-crested slippers every night. He’s such a gent.’
‘Like his master,’ said Marigold warmly.
‘I wish Dolly thought so,’ sighed Lysander. ‘She’s just sent me a really sarky card: CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR RETIREMENT. Now watch this.’
As he produced a tin of Fanta out of his Barbour pocket, Arthur gave a deep Vesuvius whicker. Pulling back the tab, Lysander put the tin between Arthur’s big yellow teeth and, with gurgles of ecstasy, Arthur tipped back his head and drained the lot.
‘He can’t get up in the morning without his bowl of coffee,’ said Lysander retrieving the tin, ‘but only if it has two spoonfuls of sugar.’
February 13th was a day for celebration. Marigold weighed in a stone lighter at nine stone four, and even Patch had shed five pounds and could wriggle through the cat door again. After a frugal lunch of clear soup, fennel-and-kiwi-fruit salad, Marigold was virtuously stuffing invitations to a Save the Children Bring and Buy into envelopes, instead of white chocolates into herself, and Lysander was sitting with his muddy booted legs up on the table, trying to compose a Valentine poem to Dolly who still hadn’t forgiven him for his exploits in Palm Beach.
‘Ferdie’s brilliant at writing poems, but he’s out and I must get it in the post. What rhymes with green?’
‘Keen, mean, been, my queen, sheen,’ suggested Marigold. ‘Did you know birds choose their mates on Valentine’s Day?’ She peered out at the crowded bird-table. ‘And that in the spring the chaffinch gets a pinker breast and the blackbird a more golden beak and look at that starlin’ his feathers are all purple and green in the sunshine.’
But Lysander was looking at Marigold. Her skin was glowing pink, not dead white laced with hectic red. Her eyes, no longer bloodshot, were the same hazel as the catkins dropping their pollen on the kitchen table. There was no resemblance now to a Beryl Cook lady.
‘Sod the birds! You’re the one looking terrific,’ he said, tipping back his chair.
‘Oh, get on with you,’ said Marigold, putting two invitations into the same envelope, and blushing crimson. ‘Look at those sweet little great tits, swingin’ on that coconut.’ Then her happiness evaporated. ‘That was the coconut Larry won at the village fête last year.’
‘How d’you know so much about birds?’ asked Lysander, anxious to distract her.
‘Ay thought Ay should study wildlaife when we moved to the country. Unfortunately Larry got interested in another kaind of bird.’ That’s a sort of joke, if a very weak one, Marigold thought in surprise. Perhaps I’m beginning to laugh again.
‘How are you getting on with your poem?’ she asked. Proudly Lysander handed it across the table.
‘The rose is red, the grarse is green,’ read Marigold. ‘Open your legs and i’le turn you to creem.’
‘Oh, Laysander!’ Marigold was shocked rigid. ‘Ay don’t think that’s in the raight spirit. Why don’t you pop down to The Apple Tree? They’ve got some beautiful floral cards, with such lovely sentiments inside, or even left blank to record your message. Ay weakened,’ Marigold hung her head, ‘and sent one with primroses on to Larry. Ay trayed to get it back, and nearly got my hand stuck in the letter-box. Anyway, Ay don’t think Nikki’ll let it through, she gets the kettle out for anythin’ marked prayvate and confidential.’
Lysander was so worried Marigold would get no Valentines that he rushed off to The Apple Tree and bought her the largest card in the shop, which he handed to her with a huge bunch of daffodils the next morning, so she wouldn’t get all excited and think it was from Larry.
‘Oh, that’s beautiful,’ said Marigold, deeply touched.
Inside Lysander had written: ‘To Marrygold who gets prittier eech day. love Lysander.’
I didn’t marry gold, she thought sadly. It’s Nikki that’s going to do that, as soon as Larry divorces me.
Seeing her face cloud over, Lysander handed her another present. More Sellotape than gift wrap, thought Marigold fondly as she broke her way in, and found a size ten pair of black-velvet shorts.
‘They’re lovely,’ she squeaked, ‘but you must be jokin’.’
‘Give it three weeks,’ said Lysander, ‘and we’ll be there.’
‘We,’ mumbled Marigold. How very nice.
‘As we can’t celebrate your great weight loss by getting pissed this evening,’ added Lysander, ‘I bought some magic mushrooms in Rutminster.’
‘Ay can’t take drugs,’ said Marigold, appalled. ‘Ay’m hoping to become a JP.’
‘It’s just a natural product,’ said Lysander airily. ‘We can make tea out of them, you’ll love it and you won’t put on an ounce.’
‘Ay’m supposed to be going to a Best-Kept Village committee.’
‘Cancel it. Crocodile Dundee’s on television.’
‘Ay really shouldn’t,’ said Marigold. That was the third committee meeting she’d cancelled that week.
What a very sweet boy, thought Marigold. When they were jogging he helped her over stiles and caught her elbow if she slipped in the mud or on the icy roads, and he always opened doors and helped her on with her coat. He was probably doing it because he thought of her as a pathetic old wrinkly, she told herself sternly, but Larry had never done any of these things in eighteen years. And Lysander never got cross.
She loved the elegant way he draped himself over sofas and window seats, and suddenly dropped off to sleep like a puppy. And he was so appreciative of her cooking even if it was clear soup, fennel and kiwi fruit.
‘I got a tip-off about some seriously good dope, in Cathedral Lane in Rutminster of all unlikely places,’ Lysander told Marigold as they jogged up the north side of Paradise a fortnight later, ‘and this nutter pressed his face against the car window and said “Are you looking for Jesus?” I said, “No, I’m looking for No. 37.” Anyway, they’re offering an eighth of an ounce for the price of a sixteenth. If they’re discounting drugs, the recession must be biting.’
He was trying to cheer up Marigold, who, despite the beauty and incredible mildness of the day, had been thrown into black gloom by the display of crocuses on the lawn below the house. Specially planted by herself and Mr Brimscombe, it spelled out the word: CATCHITUNE in the record company’s purple-and-yellow colours.
‘It was the sort of gesture Larry adored. Ay was going to floodlight them as a surpraise, so he could see them from his helicopter when he landed on Frayday neight.’
And now bees were humming in the crocuses which were arching back their petals and thrusting forward their orange stamens to welcome the sun, if not a returning Larry.
‘Where’s Rannaldini?’ asked Lysander, as they pounded past the secretive grey abbey shrouded in its conspirator’s cowl of woods.
‘Whizzin’ round the world avoiding ex-waives and tax,’ said Marigold sourly. ‘Rannaldini plays on people’s weaknesses. He realized Larry was socially insecure. He made us go ex-directory for a start, said bein’ unlisted was the done thing. Just meant that no-one could phone us. Then he told Larry it was common to put up the name of one’s house. Ay’d just had a board carved in poker work for Larry’s birthday. Larry put it in the attic. So no-one can faind the house to drop in. Then he encouraged Larry to ’ave electric gates to keep out the public, so if people could faind the house, they couldn’t get in anyway. Phew, it’s hot.’
Marigold’s green track suit was dark with sweat.
‘Is he attractive, Rannaldini?’
‘In a horrid sort of way,’ said Marigold disapprovingly. ‘Not may taype, far too edgy makin’. Doesn’t Angel’s Reach look lovely in the sunshine?’
Stopping to rest on a mossy stile, they gazed down at the big Georgian house which was to be the future home of pop star Georgie Maguire. As well as the stone angels guarding the roof and the gates at the bottom of the drive, more angels had been clipped out of the lowering yew battlements which protected the house from the east wind. And, tossing their yellow locks, a row of weeping willows seemed about to tumble into the lake like glorious Swedish blondes racing down to bathe.
‘It’ll be lovely having another celeb in the village to vie with Hermione and Rannaldini,’ said Marigold. ‘I must make sure Georgie opens the church fête this summer to irritate Hermione. Georgie’s my best friend,’ she went on proudly. ‘She and Guy bought the house so she’d know someone near by in the country. Ay don’t know what she’ll say when she comes back from the States and fainds out Larry’s trying to chuck me out.
‘People are so competitive round here,’ sighed Marigold, breathing in the faint sweet heady smell of damp earth, burgeoning leaves and violets. ‘Rannaldini was jealous of Larry’s executive jet, so he got a bigger one. Then Larry got a Land-Rover with three telephones, so Rannaldini got a Range Rover with four.’
Below them the River Fleet lay like mother of pearl along the bottom of the valley. Black-headed gulls congregated on its banks.
‘Our grounds extend to the river,’ said Marigold, ‘so Rannaldini bought another twenty acres so he could have a mooring, too. Then Rannaldini had Hermione and God knows who else so Larry had to have Nikki.’
‘Who’s Rannaldini married to at the moment?’ asked Lysander, watching the gulls rising and resettling on the opposite bank like a snowstorm.
‘Well, his second wife, Cecilia, was an incredibly glamorous Italian soprano, but she made scenes rather than beds, and Rannaldini likes an ordered life. And not meanin’ to boast, I think he was a bit jealous that Larry’s home ran more smoothly than his did.’
‘I bet he was.’ Lysander squeezed Marigold’s shoulder. ‘Basically you know how to make a man happy.’
‘Well, Ay don’t know, but anyway, Rannaldini divorced Cecilia and married Kitty, his PA. In her case it stands for permanently available. She’s a poppet, an absolute gem, runs Rannaldini’s houses, sorts out his finances, checks his contracts, protects him from importunate fans and ex-mistresses, looks after his hoards of fraightful kiddies, and whisks up supper whenever he invaites entire orchestras home without any warning.’
‘I could do with someone like that,’ said Lysander. ‘I don’t understand the poll tax at all.’
‘And she puts up with Hermione treating her laike a housemaid. Oh sugar, talk of the devil.’
There was a whirl and chug like the last spin of a huge washing-machine, as a helicopter appeared over the woods.
‘That’s Hermione coming home,’ said Marigold furiously. ‘She’s also been on tour. No doubt she’ll be over in a flash, boastin’ what a success she’s been and how many men have fallen madly in love with her — “One can never have too many men in love with one, Marigold” — and bringing me her latest tape to cheer me up, which my husband has already produced in its thousands, and saying, “How are you? How are you?” when she doesn’t give a shit. Whoops, penny in the swear box. Hermione must be the most irritating person since the nurse in Romeo and Juliet.’
Next moment, the helicopter landed on the lawn of the big yellow house with beckoning chimneys, which lay between Valhalla and Paradise Village. They could see a tiny figure getting out and people running across the lawn to meet her and could hear voices and laughter echoing round the wood.
‘Let’s stop off at The Apple Tree and get some Mars bars,’ said Marigold, through gritted teeth.
‘Better not. Ferdie’s coming down to weigh you tomorrow.’
Back home, Marigold changed out of her track suit and had a long, comforting bath. When she came very apprehensively into the kitchen, wearing some new jeans, Lysander gave a Tarzan howl of joy.
‘My God, they’re great. You’ve got such a terrific ass — I mean figure.’
‘Not so good with all this flesh spillin’ over like uncooked pastry,’ said Marigold, raising her dark blue cardigan above the waistband.
‘That’ll be gone in a week,’ said Lysander, thinking what a lovely mouth Marigold had when it was laughing and not hidden in a hard line brooding about Larry. She looked ever less like a Beryl Cook lady now the regimented curls had been straightened and streaked and fell in a shiny blond bob over one eye. The hot bath had unleashed the Arpège she had splashed all over her body.
‘If Ferdie’s comin’ tomorrow, I better take a ton of Ex-Lax tonaight,’ said Marigold.
Heavens, who would have thought she’d ever discuss laxatives with a man? But having ridden races, Lysander knew all about getting weight off. He really was a very sweet boy.
Half an hour later Lysander and Marigold were in Larry’s study, smoking like mad to dull their appetites, and watching the runners in the 3.00 at Wincanton circling in the paddock.
‘I’ve backed Rupert Campbell-Black’s horse, Penscombe Pride,’ said Lysander. ‘That bay in the dark blue rug, doesn’t he look well? He won both the Rutminster and the Cotchester Gold Cups last year.’
‘Even I know that,’ said Marigold.
‘He’s favourite, but he’s carrying so much weight.’
Next moment Jack flew out of the basket he now shared with Patch and went into a frenzy of yapping as Hermione Harefield swept in.
‘What’s the point of electric gates,’ muttered Marigold, ‘when Mrs Brimscombe lets in the horrors?’
Hermione was fortunate to have looks that needed little maintenance. Her strong, glossy, dark brown curls fell naturally into shape. Her big eyes the colour of After Eights were fringed with thick lashes that never needed mascara. No spot nor red vein ever marred a complexion as smooth and creamy as Carnation Milk. Her splendid bosom soared above an enviously slim waist and she never wore trousers, because they would have emphasized a rather large bottom and hidden long, charmingly curved legs. She could easily have passed for the much admired younger sister of Michelangelo’s David, but in Hermione’s case, beauty was only rhinocerous-hide deep.
Embracing Marigold regally, she said: ‘How are you, how are you?’ in her deep, thrillingly rich voice, and presented her with a tape of herself singing sea shanties, including ‘Blow the wind southerly’. She then insisted on pressing the mute button of the television, and playing the tape fortissimo, while recounting details of her wildly successful tour.
‘Such love, such love, one could feel it reaching out to one,’ cried Hermione. ‘But it’s a responsibility to be so beloved. I must take my voice increasingly into the open air and bring music to the people. So I’ve decided to do Hyde Park and Wembley this summer.
‘But when I felt Paradise beneath my feet and little Cosmo rushed across the lawn crying, “Mummy, Mummy”, I knew that here was the real world.’ She smiled at Lysander, who, having risen when she came in, was now back with his feet on the table, listening to her non-stop flow with his mouth open.
Finally Marigold butted in: ‘Hermione, may I introduce Lysander Hawkley, my personal exercise trainer.’
‘But you never take any exercise,’ said Hermione in disbelief, which turned to disapproval when Marigold despatched Lysander to get a bottle of wine and some Perrier for herself.
‘You shouldn’t encourage workmen to watch television and drink in the middle of the afternoon, Marigold. What’s he doing here?’
‘Mending my heart.’
But Hermione wasn’t listening. ‘I need to get in touch with Larry. I’m recording Dido next week, and I want to know who’s singing Aeneas and which recording studio’s been booked.’
‘Ay haven’t a clue,’ snapped Marigold. ‘Ring Nikki’s new apartment. You’ll find Larry in bed there.’
‘Don’t be bitter, Marigold, it’s so ageing,’ chided Hermione, who loathed her friends having marriage problems because it gave them an excuse to talk about themselves rather than her.
‘I refuse to take sides,’ she went on. ‘I’m sure poor Larry’s as confused as you are.’
‘And sells millions of your records,’ said Marigold furiously.
‘Oh Marigold, you silly billy,’ sighed Hermione, looking at Marigold properly for the first time. ‘You’ve dyed your hair.’
‘I thought I needed a change.’
Hermione put her head on one side. ‘Well, if you like it that’s the main thing, and I’ve never seen you in jeans before. We are jazzing ourselves up.’
With a trembling hand Marigold reached for a Silk Cut. Hermione, who had a singer’s pathological horror of smoking, was about to reproach her when she was distracted by the tape reaching ‘Blow the wind southerly’.
‘This is my favourite, I never thought anyone could sing “Blow” as well as Kathleen Ferrier, but the American critics say my version is better.’
‘Oh, look,’ sighed Lysander, pausing in the doorway, his arms full of bottles and glasses, and nodding at an incredibly handsome man talking to a sardonic-looking jockey in blue-and-green colours. ‘That’s Rupert Campbell-Black. Isn’t he handsome? And seriously cool? And that’s Bluey Charteris who rides for him — lucky sod.’
Lysander was about to turn up the sound when the cameras switched to the latest odds. Penscombe Pride’s were shortening.
‘I was lucky to get that bet on early. God, I want to meet Rupert.’
Hermione refused a drink, but said pointedly that she’d like some tea, because she hadn’t had any lunch.
‘You’re out of luck,’ said Lysander. ‘Marigold’s on a diet.’
Hermione turned to Marigold. ‘I thought you were looking awfully tired.’
‘She looks great!’ Lysander smiled amiably at Hermione. ‘I’m afraid the only thing in the fridge is some smoked salmon.’
‘For our supper,’ said Marigold.
‘I’ll have that,’ said Hermione, and such was the force of her personality that she was just polishing off the lot, washed down by Earl Grey and honey, when Jack and Patch went into another frenzy of barking.
This time it was Rannaldini’s young wife, Kitty. Clutching a bunch of freesias and a red-spotted tin, she blushed when she saw not only Marigold but also Hermione, her husband’s mistress, plus an incredibly good-looking young man. Perhaps he was Hermione’s latest.
Launching into a flurry of ‘how are yous’, Hermione embraced Kitty graciously, then embarrassed her by saying teasingly: ‘Both sides, Kitty,’ and holding out her other cheek to be kissed after Kitty had ducked away.
Marigold, who, since Larry’s departure, had suffered from chronic lapse of memory, suddenly blocked on Lysander’s surname and merely introduced him and Kitty by their Christian names.
Heavens, he’s gorgeous, thought Kitty, he must be some young actor who’s making a pop record; such a sweet sleepy smile.
‘Very pleased to meet you, Ly-sunder,’ she stammered, then turning to Marigold, ‘you look wonderful. I love your ’air, and you’re so lovely and slim.’
‘I have been tryin” said Marigold gratefully.
‘Well, you probably won’t want that,’ said Kitty going even redder, as Marigold opened the red-spotted tin which contained a huge dark chocolate cake.
‘Oh yum,’ sighed Marigold. ‘Oh, Kitty, you are kaind, but I truly mustn’t. Lysander can, though.’
‘And so can I,’ said Hermione. ‘I never have to diet.’
Having helped herself to a vast slice, Hermione rewound the tape to play ‘Blow the wind southerly’, which was blotted out by Lysander’s howl of joy as Penscombe Pride won by a length.
‘Yippee!’ He hugged Marigold in ecstasy. ‘I’ve won two fucking grand. I can buy you a gold exercise bike now.’
Looking very bootfaced, Hermione picked up a new biography of Placido Domingo, turning to the index for reference to herself.
‘I must go,’ said Kitty. ‘I didn’t mean to butt in when you’d got company, Marigold.’
‘You must have a drink to celebrate,’ said Lysander, letting Marigold go.
‘I’ll have a small sweet sherry then,’ said Kitty. ‘Rannaldini don’t approve, but I can’t drink it dry.’
‘I’ll have some more Perrier please, darling.’ Marigold handed Lysander her glass.
‘Clever to ’ave a win like that,’ said Kitty, ‘I’m afraid I’m terrified of ’orses. I’d ’ave walked over ’ere this afternoon, but Rannaldini’s turned The Prince of Darkness — he’s a big black fing with ’uge teef — out in Long Meadow, so I came by car.’
‘I know The Prince of Darkness. Bloody good horse, came second in the Whitbread,’ said Lysander.
‘E’s still got ’uge teef,’ sighed Kitty.
Lysander thought Kitty was as plain as Hermione was beautiful. She was probably younger than him, but she had a round pale face and eyes far too wide apart behind disfiguringly strong spectacles. Her fuzzy light brown hair was dragged off a rather spotty forehead into a bun. With her squashed snub nose and big generous mouth, the bottom lip of which she was nervously gnawing as she listened to Hermione, she resembled an apprehensive pug on the end of a chatterbox mistress.
A gold cross round her neck and a navy-blue polyester dress with a white collar gave her a prim look, but couldn’t disguise her heavy breasts and lack of waist. Plump legs were not flattered by flesh-coloured tights, nor by navy-blue high heels which thrust her forward like a plant desperately seeking the sunlight.
‘Cheers.’ She attacked her large glass of sherry. ‘I was wondering if you’d like to come to tea, I mean supper, next week, Marigold?’
‘Love to,’ said Marigold. ‘As long as you don’t cook anything fattening. Can I bring Lysander? He’s just moved into a cottage at Eldercombe.’
‘That’s nice. Near Ricky France-Lynch,’ said Kitty. ‘His wife Daisy’s just ’ad the most gorgeous li-el boy,’ she added wistfully.
‘You’ll be next,’ said Marigold reassuringly.
‘Eavens, I ’ope so,’ said Kitty, who, unlike Marigold, made no attempt to disguise a strong cockney accent.
Hermione, having finished reading about herself in the Domingo biography, cut another massive piece of chocolate cake and asked: ‘Do you play an instrument, Ly-sarnder.’
‘Yarss,’ said Lysander gravely. ‘I learnt the piano at prep. school, but I only play with one hand because I was always fending off Mr Molesworth, the music master, with the other one.’
‘What a pity,’ said Hermione, ignoring Marigold’s laughter. ‘I’m recording Beethoven’s Cycle “To the distant beloved” on Monday. I need an accompanist to rehearse with. Such a beautiful work. D’you know it?’
Lysander shook his head. ‘Can’t imagine anyone bicycling to see a beloved round here, particularly a distant one. The hills are so steep. It’s bad enough jogging.’
For a second, Kitty’s face crumpled up into a smile, then she quickly asked Hermione how little Cosmo was.
‘Magic, magic,’ said Hermione warmly. ‘Which reminds me, Kitty. Do you know definitely when Rannaldini’s getting back? I’ve got to learn Amelia Boccanegra at top speed so I need him to work with me on the character and the vocal demands.’
‘I fink he’s coming back for Georgie Maguire’s launching party,’ said Kitty.
‘I’d forgotten we’d got to be subjected to that,’ grumbled Hermione. ‘One meets such awful people at pop-record launches.’
‘I expect Larry needs you and Rannaldini to raise the tone,’ said Marigold acidly.
‘I expect he does,’ agreed Hermione. ‘But I still don’t really like Georgie Maguire’s voice.’
‘I love it,’ said Lysander.
‘So do I,’ agreed Kitty defiantly, then, seeing Hermione’s glare, ‘I must go.’
‘I’ve got a great pile of contracts at home,’ said Hermione to punish her, ‘so perhaps you could pop over tomorrow and check them for me.’
So you don’t have to fork out for a lawyer, thought Marigold furiously.
As Lysander showed Kitty out, Hermione reproached Marigold for fraternizing with young men.
‘He’s probably G-A-Y, the way he was going on about Rupert Campbell-Black.’ Then patronizingly as she refilled her glass, ‘You’re not in your first youth, Marigold.’
‘I’m about to be into my first youth,’ muttered Marigold through clenched teeth.
‘Blow the wind southerly,’ sang Hermione on the tape.
‘Who was that girl?’ asked Lysander returning.
‘Didn’t you realize?’ said Marigold. ‘That’s Kitty Rannaldini.’
‘Rannaldini’s daughter?’ Lysander took a cigarette from Marigold’s pack.
‘No, his wife.’
‘His wife!’ said Lysander. ‘Bloody hell, I thought Rannaldini was into fantastic-looking women.’
Hermione had been about to reproach Lysander for smoking. Instead she bowed in acknowledgement of the implied compliment, then added sententiously: ‘Some people think she’s rather common, but I maintain Kitty Rannaldini is very much her own woman.’
‘Hardly be anyone else’s, looking like that,’ said Lysander. ‘He must have got her from Pug Rescue.’
‘That’s unkind.’ Hermione laughed heartily.
‘Kitty’s sweet,’ protested Marigold angrily. ‘She’s such a good listener — unlaike some — and so kaind you forget how plain she is.’
Outside the setting sun, like a great red air balloon, was turning the mist which had suddenly filled the valley the softest rose-pink. Having polished off another drink, Hermione, known locally as the Great White Hinter, asked if the Ferrari outside the door was Lysander’s and whether he could run her home.
‘I walked here, but it’s a bit chilly, and we singers are paranoid about getting colds. Goodbye, Marigold, don’t take everything quite so personally.’
Lysander returned ten minutes later to find Marigold gibbering with rage. Her fury at Hermione’s jibes and smugness had been exacerbated by a sudden, violent explosion of jealousy because she had waltzed off with Lysander. This was the more appalling because after all she had suffered over Larry, Marigold thought she was immune from feeling jealous about anyone else.
‘The bitch,’ she stormed, ‘not taking saides indeed. “Don’t be bitter, Marigold, if you like your hair, that’s what matters.” And being so patronizing about Georgie and poor darling Kitty.’
‘Have a drink. One won’t hurt. What’s brought all this on?’
‘Then insistin’ you drove her home. God, I’m unhappy.’
Marigold was so upset, she unthinkingly picked up the remaining quarter of chocolate cake and was about to shove it into her face when Lysander grabbed her hand, squeezing it until she dropped the cake on the floor. Then he took her in his arms.
‘Don’t be miserable. She’s just jealous. I think you’re absolutely gorgeous.’
‘You do?’ whispered Marigold.
‘Yarss,’ said Lysander, and catching her off guard as she giggled, he kissed her, nearly losing his tongue in the process as Marigold clamped her teeth and lips together with a squeal of horrified rage.
‘How dare you?’ With shock fuelled by years of respectability and inhibition, she was fighting him off, pummelling his chest like Frank Bruno. ‘No, no, no!’
But Lysander grabbed her arms, and much stronger than her, drew her towards him, tantalizing her with the lithe, youthful warmth of his body, refusing to let go, until, panic-stricken, she raised her leg to knee him in the groin. But somehow her leg never reached its target, for far above it, Lysander was whispering words of such affection and desire into her hair.
‘I want you, Marigold. You creep into my thoughts like that pink mist stealing up the valley.’
Glancing up, amazed by such poetic sentiment, and seeing the gentleness in his adorably innocent eyes, and feeling his fingers stroking her face, seeking some loving message in braille, she let him put his beautiful mouth on hers.
As she kissed him back, the raised leg retreated and coiled itself round the other leg in ecstasy, and the pummelling Frank Bruno fists unclenched, and, ‘may goodness’, she was hanging from Lysander’s neck like a chimpanzee because she was so dizzy with lust it was the only way she could stand up.
Slowly, slowly like a Harrods lift at Christmas, Lysander progressed downwards. Worried that her breasts might be droopy, she clamped her arms back over them, but as Lysander caressed her neck, she couldn’t remember if she’d plucked out that bristle on her chin this morning. Raising her hand to check, she left her right breast exposed. Next moment it had fallen like a ripe pear into his hand, as he unhooked her bra.
‘Let’s go to bed.’
‘We can’t. Ay’ve never been to bed with anyone but Larry, and he says Ay fuck laike a dead… ’ Marigold gave a wail.
‘Hush, just regard it as a superior form of work-out.’
People are said never to remember how they get upstairs to the bedroom’ but it was imprinted on Marigold’s memory, because Lysander kissed her on every stair, but still half her mind was fretting about stretch marks and whether her body would be creased by such tight jeans and, although she’d had a bath two hours ago, whether she should wash again, so she wouldn’t smell of mouldy old woman. As they reached the landing, she nearly led him into the airing cupboard.
‘No, not in our bedroom,’ she squeaked with a resurgence of virtue, ‘and certainly not in there,’ as Lysander tried another door. ‘That’s where I caught Larry and Nikki.’
‘Good, I can lay you and the ghost.’
‘But the central heating’s been off for days.’
Lysander’s body was warmer than any radiator as he drew her close, and slowly began to unbutton her navy-blue cardigan.
‘Turn off the laight,’ moaned Marigold as she shot between the peach satin sheets.
‘I want to look at you,’ said Lysander.
In the end they compromised by leaving the light on on Lysander’s side with the lampshade tipped outwards.
‘God, I love snogging. Let’s go on for hours.’
And Marigold, who hadn’t snogged since the Purley Odeon in the sixties, responded with alacrity.
Then with the joyful excitement of a child unpacking a Christmas stocking he began to explore her body.
‘Christ, these are beautiful.’ He buried his face in her heavy breasts. ‘And do you like being stroked here?’ He turned her over to admire her surprisingly high rounded bottom. ‘This is my favourite bit.’ His hands crept up the velvet inside of her thighs. ‘No, it isn’t quite. This is.’ His long fingers disappeared into the sticky, spongy burrow.
‘Aaaaaah,’ sighed Marigold.
‘Eureka,’ said Lysander as like a doorbell in the dark his middle finger found the nub of her clitoris.
‘Ay reek of what?’ Marigold jumped away in horror. She knew she should have washed beforehand.
‘The only Greek I know. Come here.’
‘Ay truly shouldn’t.’
‘Isn’t it nice?’
‘Heavenly, but we mustn’t, oh, please go on, oh, gracious me, how lovely, oh, help me, help me.’ Marigold went silent and rigid, her breath came in little gasps, and she forgot to hold her tummy in. Finally she gave a contented moan.
‘Oh Laysander, that was top ’ole.’
‘It certainly was.’ Opening her eyes, she saw he was smiling down at her. ‘Open your legs, and I’ll turn you to cream. Did you enjoy it?’
‘Oh, very much, and now Ay must give you pleasure.’
Dutifully Marigold reared up on her elbow. The progress of her hand down his flat belly into the down of hair was impeded by a cock rearing up like the Tower of Pisa.
Marigold had never really liked Larry’s cock, which was rather small and, because he preferred to make love in the morning, she’d never known after a night’s sleep what was under the folds. She’d always treated it like an unexploded bomb.
But Lysander, having had a shower after their jog, smelled as fresh and sweet as the violets that had scented the valley that afternoon, and his cock tasting faintly of Pear’s soap was so hard and smooth beneath her lips that she began to give it puppy licks.
Used to Dolly’s snake-like flickering expertise, Lysander was curiously turned on. But when she grew bolder and tried to take his cock in her mouth he sensed her fear, and detaching himself slithered down the satin sheets, pulling her on top of him.
‘Oh, that’s wonderful,’ gasped Marigold, feeling gloriously thrust upward. ‘Oh Laysander, I’m flaying from your flagpole. Oh Laysander. LAY-SANDER!’
‘That was miraculous,’ said Lysander, retrieving the duvet from the floor, as he collapsed back on to the satin pillows.
‘You’re amazing, a complete revelation.’
‘Men are supposed to go on for hours, I never last more than a minute — if I’m lucky, so I make up for it beforehand.’
‘Ay should feel guilty.’
‘Why — we must have lost at least five hundred calories.’
Then, suddenly, he sat up, put the fist of one hand into the palm of the other, screwed up his face engagingly like Hermione, and sang in a high falsetto: ‘Blow the cock, southerly, southerly, southerly,’ and they both collapsed with giggles.
‘We mustn’t tell Ferdie,’ said Marigold.
‘No, he’d be livid,’ said Lysander in alarm. ‘He insisted no bonking.’
‘We won’t do it again.’
‘We might. If we use up another five hundred calories, we could get a take-away for supper.’
‘Oh, yes please.’
‘How about now.’
Marigold glanced at the clock in amazement. ‘But you’ll miss Neighbours.’
‘Some things are more important.’
‘Oh Laysander, that’s the greatest compliment Ay’ve ever been paid. Why don’t we phone Mrs Brimscombe and ask her to record it?’
This and subsequent glorious couplings cheered Marigold up immensely, particularly when her two sons came home from prep school for the weekend, and fell almost more in love with Lysander than she had. Not only did he play endless billiards and darts with them, and took them to the amusement arcades in Rutminster and to the stables to mess around with Arthur and Tiny, but he also initiated them into the more dubious pleasures of poker, chemmy and betting.
Jason’s shriek of delight when he won £120 on an each-way bet at Chepstow was only equalled by Mark’s quiet satisfaction that, by the end of the weekend, Lysander owed him £5,225 at poker.
Marigold was wryly aware that Lysander was far nearer to the boys in age and behaviour than he was to her. But she was overjoyed to see her sons emerge from pale monosyllabic shell-shock, no doubt induced as much by two terms at an English prep school as by the collapse of their parents’ marriage. She was also gratified that whenever the boys were absorbed with anything, Lysander sloped out to the kitchen for a surreptitious, but no less passionate, embrace. He couldn’t keep his hands off her.
She had lost a further seven pounds a week later when she got a telephone call on her private line. Knowing it could only be Larry, she was only just stopped by Lysander from snatching up the receiver on the first ring. The warmth of his hand over hers gave her strength.
‘Make him wait ten rings, and play it cool.’
Larry was telephoning to say he’d be in the area that evening, could he drop in for a very quick drink. Marigold was thrown into total panic.
‘We’d better ask Ferdie’s advice on this one,’ said Lysander.
Ferdie, bored of not selling houses in London and wanting to suss out properties in Paradise, said he would be straight down to orchestrate the whole thing.
Larry Lockton was a bully with a mega-ego and no small talk, who was used to ordering around thousands at work. Having lost weight, found a decent dentist and coaxed his coarse black hair forward to hide a receding hairline, he had developed sex appeal late in life. Huge success at work and a decent tailor had accelerated the process. When addressing his social superiors, he talked with an orchard of plums in his mouth.
Landing the helicopter, he saw a blur of yellow and purple. What the hell was Marigold doing spoiling his perfect lawn with crocuses? It would take ten grand off the asking price. He must remember to remove his gold discs, the Picasso, the Stubbs and the framed Beethoven sonata, before Marigold got too grasping over the spoils. Letting himself in, Larry was surprised not to be welcomed by Marigold. Only Patch greeted him, and then with reservation. Larry meant fewer chewsticks and banishment from her mistress’s bed at night. Going into the kitchen, he found a table with pink candles laid for two, pink freesias and hyacinths everywhere and two bottles of Moët in the fridge.
Oh Christ, he hoped Marigold wasn’t planning to lure him into staying for dinner. Nikki was expecting him back. They were going to a party to meet Kiri Te Kanawa and Marigold’s attempted candle-lit lobster thermidor last month had ended in total hysterics and both lobsters being hurled at him. He’d better watch out for flying sauceboats.
He could hear noises overhead. Finding a navy-blue overcoat covered in dog hairs hanging over the banisters, Larry went slowly up to his former bedroom where he was shocked to discover his naked wife blow-drying her hair. Seeing him, she jumped only slightly, then languidly wrapped round herself a fluffy yellow towel which matched her eyes.
‘Larry! Ay didn’t hear you arrive. Let me finish my hair. You know it drays crinkly if Ay stop in the middle.’
Marigold then kept him waiting half an hour, giving him time to absorb all Lysander’s clutter of drying boots, breeches, Sporting Lifes, and a pile of beautifully ironed Harvie & Hudson shirts on the hall table. When she wandered down, still in the yellow towel, Marigold was delighted to see Larry’s shirt was crumpled and missing a button.
She also noticed how old he looked — compared with Lysander — and that, with hair long enough for a pony-tail, a new black moustache, bags under his eyes and designer stubble flecked with grey (all no doubt Nikki’s work), he looked seedy rather than sexy. He was also dressed uncharacteristically butchly in a studded leather jacket, and black jeans belted with a large silver buckle.
‘Where’s your motor bike?’ she said teasingly. ‘I thought you’d have got fat gobblin’ up all those poor little companies, but you seem to have lost even more weight. Have a glass of bubbly. Ay’m going to.’
It’s my fucking champagne, thought Larry, noticing that as she took the bottle out of the fridge, she replaced it with another, and that her hair was streaked very blond and her toenails had been newly painted scarlet. The towel was showing a great expanse of stunning, recently waxed, Duo-tanned legs. Marigold, in fact, was looking fantastic, as though she’d been restored and a picture light shone over her.
Larry then asked her if she’d mind coming to the party next week to launch Georgie Maguire’s new album, Rock Star.
‘I’ve brought the whole package.’ Larry threw the tape, the single and the album down on the kitchen table. The sleeve showed Georgie Maguire clinging wetly to a rock, with her head thrown back, eyes closed, nostrils flaring, long, drenched red hair snaking down her back. ‘I think it looks terrific.’
‘Hermione was barefoot on the sleeve of Blow the wind southerly,’ said Marigold, who knew Nikki had worked on the design. ‘Are you trying to tell folk your artistes can’t afford shoes?’
Larry refused to rise. ‘Album’s going to be a massive hit. It’s storming up the American charts, so the party’ll be a celebration. Loads of names accepted already. Hermione and Rannaldini are coming.’
‘And presumably Nikki to add glamour,’ said Marigold sweetly.
‘She might look in,’ admitted Larry. ‘Should be a terrific bash.’
I’ll bash her, thought Marigold, narrowly missing Larry as the champagne cork flew out.
Larry adjusted his leather jacket, bought new that morning, wondering if it were over the top. He felt more at home in pin-stripe.
‘Pop in for half an hour,’ he said gruffly, ‘just to show Georgie there’s no hard feelings.’
‘Because she won’t sign another contract with you, if she has an inkling what an absolute shit you’ve been to me,’ said Marigold flaring up.
‘Chill out,’ said Larry, which irritated Marigold more than ever. ‘It’s in your interest. You’ll be able to screw far more maintenance out of me if Georgie signs that contract,’ he added heartily. ‘Besides it’s her first big break in twenty years. She wants her best friend there.’
Weighing up the options, Marigold let the towel slip a fraction.
‘And I’d like you to be there,’ Larry was shocked to hear himself saying.
‘All right, Ay’ll show,’ Marigold agreed flatly, ‘and tray and behave.’ Then, glancing at the kitchen clock, ‘I must get ready. Don’t hurry, finish your drink.’
Utterly thrown, expecting either abuse or pleading to stay, Larry drained his whisky, and was then even more flabbergasted when Marigold said: ‘Ay’ve decided Ay’ve been horribly selfish over the kids. One must be civilized for their sakes. And they must get to know Nikki, she’s so near them in age.’ Let Larry experience some of the same guilt she felt about cradle-snatching. ‘In fact, you can have them next weekend. I’m goin’ away.’
‘To your mother?’ asked Larry.
‘No, to Paris.’ Marigold smiled beautifully. ‘And Mummy would be decaydedly de trop.’
If Larry had looked round he would have seen the tears in his wife’s eyes. Instead, trampling crocuses underfoot as he strode furiously out to his helicopter, he was incensed to see a red Ferrari, unleashed by a signal from Ferdie, storming up the drive. Larry had refused to listen to Hermione’s hints about an over-familiar workman. Workmen in his experience did not drive Ferraris. Only when he looked back from his helicopter did he read: CATCHITUNE in yellow and purple on the lawn and almost weep.
Five days later Lysander drove Marigold up to London for Georgie Maguire’s launching party. A huge sixties star, Georgie was now in her late forties. But from the posters plastered all over the walls of Hammersmith and Fulham: GEORGIE MAGUIRE — LIVE IN CONCERT, which showed her clinging to the same wet rock as on the CD sleeve, she was still seductive in a slightly blousy way.
‘How can one be dead in concert?’ asked Lysander, dodging and diving through end-of-rush-hour traffic.
‘She’ll be dead on her feet from touring and jet lag,’ said Marigold.
Georgie’s new album was already Number Two in America, because of the leading track, the actual ‘Rock Star’ of the title. The song, in fact, was not about a rock star, but a celebration of Georgie’s abiding love for her husband Guy, who was not only the rock on which she built her life, but the star who guided her. The sentiment would have been mawkish had not the lyrics and melody, written and sung by Georgie herself in her husky, mezzo-soprano voice, been so beautiful. With so many marriages breaking up, such a simple public confession of love had driven the Americans wild. The young in particular adored the song, because they craved the example of a happy lasting union in the same way they had loved ‘Lady in Red’, which Chris de Burgh had written about his wife.
To distract herself from the terrors of Lysander’s driving, and the party ahead, Marigold played the advance Rock Star tape all the way up to London. It still made her cry.
‘What’s Georgie’s husband like?’ asked Lysander, overtaking a startled chauffeur in a limo on the inside, as he stormed up the Lillie Road.
‘Oh, very attractive, rather stern, but incredibly kaind. Georgie used to be terribly wild before she married and for quite a whayle afterward. Guy got an honours degree at Cambridge and a boxing blue. His father was a bishop in some hot African country, so Guy’s used to givin’ orders. His family were horrifayed when he married Georgie, but he stuck bay her. He calmed her down, understood her need for freedom, yet yanked in the reins when she went too far. He was also big enough to handle her success and her failures. He was there when she went out of fashion in the late-seventies, and stopped her drinking heavily when she had one flop after another. Ay’ve never forgotten her last big launch in the early eighties. They hired the Hippodrome and none of the media turned up, just Georgie dancing by herself to her own music, then collapsin’ in a sozzled heap. It was terrible.’
‘Poor Georgie,’ Lysander was appalled. ‘I’d have danced with her.’
‘She’s a bit scatty, too,’ went on Marigold, checking her reflection for the thousandth time, ‘and Guy’s always given her so much back-up domestically, changing nappies, taking the kids out. He’s a wonderful cook, too. He should give Larry lessons.’
‘And me,’ said Lysander. ‘He sounds depressingly like one of my brothers. How did you and Georgie meet?’
‘She came as a temp to the office where Ay was working, tryin’ to support herself between gigs. She could only taype with two fingers, and used to come in and collapse on the taypewriter complainin’ that she’d been trippin’ all night. I tayped most of her letters. But she was such fun. She had lots of unsuitable musician boyfriends, but Guy was always in the background. Her Guyrope, she called him. Finally they got married.’
‘What does he do?’ asked Lysander, shooting a red light at the bottom of the North End Road.
‘Well, he was thinking of going into the Church. He’d have packed them in like Billy Graham, but the thought of Georgie as a vicar’s waife probably put him off, so he went into Sotheby’s, he was always arty and had a terrific eye. Now he’s got his own gallery. He’s pretty successful, discovering obscure painters, then making a killing when they become famous.
‘Their finances have always been a bit haphazard, but hopefully Rock Star will put them on a secure financial footing. They need it for all the money they’re pourin’ into Angel’s Reach. The trouble is they’re too generous. Guy’s always helping struggling artists, and he does so much for charity.’
‘Guy, Guy with the terrific eye,’, said Lysander. ‘When they move into Paradise, he can take your place on all those “Preservation of Rural Gentlecats” committees, and you can spend all day in bed with me.’
‘Whay d’you draive so fast?’ shrieked Marigold, as, narrowly avoiding a collision with an oncoming bus, Lysander screeched off right into Fountain Street.
‘Because I’m desperate to bonk you before Ferdie gets home.’
Waving a friendly two fingers at the gays opposite, who were peering out of their curtains, Lysander whisked her into the flat.
As it was they had plenty of time. Marigold was changing and Lysander was watching EastEnders and giggling over a postcard of the Eiffel Tower, signed: PLASTERED OF PARIS, which he and Marigold had sent Ferdie, when Ferdie himself walked in, bringing a new dark blue pin-stripe suit, made by Douglas Hayward, for Lysander.
‘They’ll all be bopping around in black leather and T-shirts. You’ll stand out much better,’ added Ferdie as he straightened Lysander’s new blue silk tie.
‘Oh, Laysander,’ gasped Marigold from the darkness at the top of the stairs. ‘Ay’ve never seen you in a suit before.’
‘Everyone’ll think I’ve stolen it,’ Lysander squinted at himself in the hall mirror.
‘You look scrumptious.’
It was true. As decent tailoring hides a multitude of turns on a middle-aged body, it can also marvellously elongate a broad-shouldered, willowy figure. On Lysander, the suit seemed to dance.
‘Well, come on down, Marigold. Let’s have a look at you,’ ordered Ferdie. ‘Jesus,’ he caught his breath, ‘you have worked hard.’
For the most gorgeous legs encased in black fishnet were coming down the stairs. Above them Marigold was wearing the black shorts Lysander had given her on Valentine’s Day, a white silk shirt and a black velvet coat slung over her shoulders.
Meeting her at the bottom, Ferdie took her hand and raised it to his lips. ‘You look sensational,’ he said slowly. ‘Marilyn Monroe’s face and body on Marlene Dietrich’s legs.’
‘Whay, thank you, Ferdie.’
‘And you’ve got into my black shorts.’ Lysander gave a whoop.
‘And look what I’ve borrowed from Cartier’s for you to pretend Lysander’s just given you.’ Ferdie pinned a diamond brooch in the shape of a key on her velvet lapel. ‘Now take off your wedding-ring, and remember to look happy.’
‘It’ll be strange not being a waife,’ said Marigold, sliding off the huge diamond and putting it in her handbag. ‘Ay tried so hard to be the perfect company waife. Ay wore Jaegar shirtwaisters and never yawned or swore or smoked too much. Ay always read Billboard and The Gramophone so Ay could talk to reviewers and distributors. Ay even trayed to laike Grand Opera.’
‘Well, it’s high time,’ Ferdie undid two more buttons of her silk shirt, ‘you kicked over the Traceys, or Nikkis.’
‘Don’t worry,’ said Lysander, seeing Marigold trembling at Nikki’s name. ‘I’ll stay superglued to you all evening — and so will every man in the room — you look so beautiful.’
The one person not allowed to make an entrance at the party, which was held in a large blacked-out film studio in Soho, was Georgie Maguire herself. Her husband, who believed punctuality was next to Godliness, made sure she was there twenty minutes before kick-off, only to find the place deserted except for a handful of technicians up ladders adjusting spotlights, and softening the filters on the camera lights which hung from the ceiling.
To emphasize the marine theme of the album, a large papier-mâché rock had been plonked in the middle of the room. A cardboard lighthouse flashed on and off in one corner. Lobster pots had been placed round the walls from which hung fishermen’s nets, cut-outs of fish sea-horses with lit-up eyes and clumps of seaweed which were beginning to smell.
Monitors showed the same clip of Georgie clinging voluptuously to the rock. Waitresses wearing matelot jerseys and bell-bottoms, many of whom remembered Georgie from the sixties, crunched around a floor littered with sea-shells and sand, making up a rum punch and putting out glasses. Caterers, who were knocking up a sea-food buffet, crept out of the kitchen wiping prawn juice on their aprons to have a gawp.
‘It all looks wonderful. If only I was slim enough to wear horizontal stripes! You’ve gone to so much trouble.’ Georgie drifted among them in tearful ecstasy, captivating, flattering, signing autographs, then adding to Guy in an undertone, ‘and absolutely no-one’s going to turn up.’ Then, because Guy hadn’t given her time to get ready she shot into the Ladies to titivate.
Immediately she was joined by a girl in a dark blue velvet dress with a pie-frill collar, which flattened her breasts and stopped at mid-calf above sensible, medium-heeled shoes. Blond hair, held in place by a black velvet band, emphasized a long nose and a thin beige predatory face, giving the distinct impression of the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood trying to pass himself off as Alice in Wonderland.
‘Hi, Georgie,’ said the blonde in a deep, put-on voice. ‘I’m Nikki, Larry Lockton’s PA. We met when you came to the office.’
‘Oh, right,’ said Georgie, who didn’t remember at all. ‘How nice to see you. God, I’m nervous.’
Not nearly as nervous as I am, thought Nikki, trying to soften the black kohl round her eyes with a shaking finger.
Ever since Larry had been to see Marigold last week he’d been tetchy and withdrawn and the weekend with the boys had been disastrous, not to mention the mud all over her new cream carpet. To cap it there’d been a piece in the Daily Mail that morning about the way the careers of high flyers took a dive when they left their wives for bimbos. Nikki’s aim tonight was therefore to look even more wifely than Marigold.
Georgie, who loathed being talked to when she was getting ready, was trying to secure her newly washed hair, which Guy had insisted she wore up to banish any sixties hippy image. She wished this silly girl, who was now rabbiting on about the wonders of Paradise, would go away.
‘You must drop in if you’re ever in the area again,’ murmured Georgie.
It was her standard response to any fan. She would have died if they’d taken her up on it.
‘We’d like that, Georgie,’ said Nikki. Little do you know, she thought, that I’m going to be your neighbour and the wife of your record producer, able to control your fat advances. Then she added out loud, ‘I’m dead excited about meeting Rannaldini, aren’t you?’
Momentarily, Georgie was roused out of her trance. ‘I’d forgotten he was coming,’ she said.
‘They say he picks women off like ducks bobbing past in a shooting gallery,’ said Nikki, adjusting the garters holding up her deliberately wifely, nutmeg-brown stockings.
Not that she’d attract Rannaldini like this. But there would be years ahead when, as the mistress of Paradise Grange, she reverted to her normal, shimmeringly sexy, black leather, tousled-blond self.
Having charmed a large Bells out of the waitresses, Guy Seymour was lining up glasses and press releases and delightedly noticing the number of Press who were signing their names in the visitors’ book, when Larry Lockton stormed in.
God, he looks ridiculous, thought Guy.
Larry was wearing a scowl, a black leather jacket, a white T-shirt hanging outside black jeans. Any inches added by black, high-heeled cowboy boots were negated by the weight of gold jewellery and the black hair which was beginning to cascade in ringlets over his collar and sweating forehead.
‘Of all the fucking things to happen,’ he roared, flattening the waiting Catchitune publicity staff against the walls.
‘We’ve got a lot of heavy-weight Press here already,’ said Guy soothingly, reading upside down as reporters from The Scorpion and The Sunday Times Style pages signed in.
‘Fat lot of good it’ll do us.’ Larry glared round. ‘They’ve all turned up to see Rannaldini.’ Then, as Guy drew him out of earshot of the reporters, ‘The fucker phoned as I entered Old Compton Street, saying he wasn’t coming, so I rammed the Merc in front.’
Rannaldini, he went on, who was on sabbatical from the London Met making a film of Don Giovanni, had been due to fly back for the party that afternoon. Instead he had returned secretly the day before in order to surprise the London Met who were playing Beethoven’s Ninth at the Festival Hall under Oswaldo, their guest conductor.
‘Oswaldo’s too bloody good for Rannaldini’s liking,’ stormed Larry, grabbing one of two more large whiskies conjured up by Guy. ‘Anyway, Rannaldini plonks himself down in the front row, and sits stony-faced with his eyes shut until the last moment when the singing starts. Then he stalks out, distracting everyone from the music, and telling some gleefully hovering reporter from the Evening Standard that he can’t listen to such garbage any longer.
‘So, of course, it is all over the Standard, and, as is his fucking wont to get himself out of trouble, Rannaldini jumps into his jet and shoves off back to LA, missing the fuss and Georgie’s party. The bastard didn’t even have the guts to ring me until he was safely over the Irish Sea. Even Kitty doesn’t know he’s buggered off. She’s on her way up.’
Larry couldn’t have been angrier. He or rather Catchitune had poured vast sums into Rannaldini’s pocket. He and Rannaldini were supposed to be buddies, and Nikki, who was a terrific star-fucker, was dying to meet him, and besides he needed moral support in case Marigold punched Nikki on the nose.
He and Guy were interrupted by a photographer from The Scorpion who was loading up his camera.
‘First edition goes to press any minute. What time are you expecting Rannaldini?’
As Larry opened his mouth, Guy interrupted smoothly: ‘He’ll be along in a minute. Traffic’s terrible.’ Then he murmured to Larry, ‘We’ve got the Press here, let’s use them.’
‘Where’s Georgie anyway?’ asked Larry, suddenly remembering he had an album to launch.
‘In the bog, grouting her face,’ said Guy.
Larry went white. ‘Nikki’s in there.’
‘Shit! She won’t say anything to Georgie about you and her, will she?’
‘She promised not to,’ said Larry gloomily, ‘but she’s so off the wall. I run a billion-pound company and I’ve been answering my telephone all day, while Nikki goes to the hairdresser and tarts herself up.’
‘I’ll yank Georgie out of the bog,’ said Guy, shooting off, ‘and you keep Nikki off the drink. It gets to women.’
‘How’s Rock Star doing, Larry?’ asked the Daily Mail.
‘Breaking all records. We’ve already put on a massive re-press,’ muttered Larry, bolting off to the Gents.
No-one could have been a less heavenly host than Larry. He had no chit-chat, only intense concentration on what temporarily interested him, which on this occasion, confusingly, was both Nikki and Marigold. He also had the nightmare of making a speech. Practice making more and more imperfect, he had been rewriting the draft given him by the publicity department all day.
Outside the Ladies, Guy roared: ‘For God’s sake, come out at once, Panda,’ which was a nickname from when they’d first met, when he could hardly see Georgie’s eyes for sooty black make-up.
‘Thank you,’ said Georgie loudly to the cloakroom lady, as she drifted out, to draw attention to the couple of gold pound coins she’d left beside the silver in the saucer.
Funny, observed the cloakroom lady, as she pocketed the coins, that Georgie, despite her slim top-half, had revealed plump legs when she’d raised her skirt to pull up her tights and the blonde in the ultra-respectable dress had been wearing no knickers at all.
Exhausted from the American launch, Georgie was now running on pure adrenalin. Like a long-lost lover, her American public had been flowing back in the last week of the tour. The fan letters, dried to a trickle, were beginning to pour in, workmen hailed her from scaffolding. For the first time in years, people nudged as she passed in the street.
The English launch was far more of an ordeal, because London had been the home of her last humiliating flop and because Guy was with her today, which made her far more nervous, because he was the person she most wanted to please in the world.
She was deathly pale as she entered the party room, her earthy sensual face almost puddingy, but when she saw the waiting army of reporters and frenziedly clicking cameramen, colour seeped back into her cheeks, her long, mournful heavy-lidded eyes started to sparkle, and the deep lines, which ran from her wide snub nose past the corners of her coral-pink mouth with its huge pouting snapdragon lower lip, seemed to disappear in a wonderful, wicked, face-splitting smile.
The rigours of the American tour had knocked off seven pounds and given her back her cheek-bones. The long slinky dress, the same blue as sunlit summer seas, emphasized her slim shoulders, pretty breasts and waist and bypassed her hips and legs. As she draped herself over the papier-mâché rock for the photographers, her heavy russet hair broke away from its moorings and writhed over her shoulders — Georgie, the sex symbol, was reborn.
Soon she was wooing the Press.
‘What are you working on?’ asked the Express.
‘A musical about mid-life crisis called Ant and Cleo.’
‘Autobiographical?’ asked the Mirror.
‘Of course not,’ Georgie smiled across at Guy, who said firmly, ‘And Georgie’s about to sign a contract for a new album for Catchitune.’
‘Darling,’ reproached Georgie, ‘I want to get shot of Ant and Cleo first.’
‘You looking forward to living next to Rannaldini in the country?’ asked The Scorpion.
‘God, yes. I’m a colossal fan. I think he’s brilliant and stunning, too.’
‘Perhaps he could produce Ant and Cleo,’ suggested the Telegraph.
‘Paradise Productions. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?’ sighed Georgie.
‘Look this way, Georgie,’ shouted the photographers, ‘To me, Georgie.’ ‘Smile, Georgie.’ ‘Climb on the rock; show us your legs,’ which was the one thing Georgie was not prepared to do.
Shoved rudely aside, as so often happened, by people anxious to get to his wife, Guy Seymour moved round the room, slipping cards with the gallery’s address on to anyone rich and famous who might be interested in buying paintings.
‘Is Georgie Maguire here in person?’ asked a pale girl from the Independent.
‘Of course she is,’ answered Guy quite sharply.
‘I went to a launch at lunchtime,’ said the girl huffily, ‘where the pop star didn’t show. The record company didn’t feel it was relevant and they didn’t play any of her records,’ she shouted over the boom of Rock Star. ‘Of course hype and hard sell are very unfashionable at the moment.’
‘That’s why we’re in the middle of a recession,’ snapped Guy.
‘She’s not bad for forty-six,’ admitted the girl, consulting her hand-out. ‘Which is her famous husband?’
‘I am,’ said Guy.
‘Oh, right. D’you manage Georgie?’
‘No-one manages Georgie.’
The room was filling up with record distributors, disc jockeys, Catchitune employees, musicians produced by Catchitune and the general freeloaders of the music business.
Through a fog of cigarette smoke, people drifted up and down: men in overcoats, T-shirts, designer gymshoes and baseball caps., clutching beer bottles like grenades, or in leather jackets with their shirts hanging out like Larry. Girls with scarlet lips, tangled hair, wandering eyes and pale faces like Brides of Dracula, who never saw the daylight, crunched over the sea shells, restlessly searching for celebrities or at least familiar faces.
Everyone pretended not to stare at Georgie, but they all agreed that the album was great and that, in the down light, she looked terrific. But they ignored her because big stars don’t like to be pestered and it wouldn’t be cool to go up to her.
The Press were getting restless.
‘That’s great, thank you.’ One by one they closed their notebooks, switched off their tape recorders and looked around for Rannaldini.
Georgie, however, having been out of fashion a long time, desperately needed reassurance. Like a bride at her own wedding whom everyone thinks is too important to waylay, she was suddenly deserted and sought Guy out in panic.
‘It’s going to be a mega-flop. Everyone’s leaving.’
‘Don’t be so bloody wet, Panda.’
‘Judging by celebrity head-counts, this party is a complete wash-out,’ said the girl from the Independent.
Then in walked Dancer Maitland, thin as a rake with his long tousled mane and black-lined eyes, one of the biggest rock stars on both sides of the Atlantic.
‘Hi, darling.’ He came straight up to Georgie, hugging her cautiously so as not to disturb either of their hair or make-up.
‘Great album. Wish I’d written it. Bloody nice of me to be here, when you’ve just pushed me off Number One in the States and no doubt you’ll do the same in England. I hear you’re moving to Rutshire. I’ll be there in April when practice chukkas start. You must come and ’ave dinner.’
‘Oh, we’d love to,’ said Georgie ecstatically. ‘Oh, Dancer, thank you for coming, and making the party. Have you met Guy?’
Dancer looked at Guy’s strong stern face, whose classical good looks were only marred by a nose broken when he was boxing for Cambridge. The warmth of the reddy-brown complexion and the friendly smile showing excellent teeth were tempered by eyes which despite laughter lines were the cold pale azure of Basildon Bond writing-paper.
A battered, gold corduroy suit, a blue-and-gold paisley silk-tie and beautifully cut, straight, white-blond hair falling on the collar of his dark blue shirt, gave him an arty look. But the overwhelming impression was of some high churchman: a man of passion but strong-willed enough to resist the overtures of the most wantonly ravishing parishioner.
Sexy but tough as shit, thought Dancer, wincing at Guy’s firm handshake.
‘Georgie gives you a good press,’ he said. ‘But I thought I was the only rock star livin’ in Rutshire.’
And the photographers got their picture, because Dancer came to launching parties even less often than Rannaldini.
Dancer was followed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Rod Stewart, Simon Bates, Steve Wright, Cilia Black, Simon Le Bon and a host of other celebs, so Rannaldini wasn’t missed nearly as much as he would have liked. Hermione, on the other hand, made a deliberately late entrance with her devoted, balding husband Bob who, as the orchestra manager of the London Met, had had a punishing day dealing with Rannaldini and the Press.
Hermione was looking radiant in a rich, red Chanel suit embroidered with roses and with a built-in bra to boost her splendid breasts. To boost her sales, she carried a large crocodile bag, rattling with tapes of Blow the wind southerly to thrust on unsuspecting journalists.
‘I thought you’d like to hear some real music,’ she murmured to the music critic of The Times.
Although she smiled graciously round, she was pained by the fog of cigarette smoke and the photographers still clustering round Georgie and Dancer.
‘Who’s that striking woman in the swansdown bolero and red leather shorts? Didn’t she play Susannah at the ENO?’ she asked Bob. ‘Her face is so familiar.’
‘She’s the Catchitune receptionist,’ said Bob not unkindly. ‘You see her each time you go into the building.’
Hermione, having spent the morning in bed with Rannaldini, was shored up in the knowledge that he had blacked the party not because he wanted to avoid the Press, but because he loathed the idea of Georgie Maguire and was violently opposed to her stealing his thunder in Paradise. He was furious that Georgie, as a pop star, would probably earn twice as much as he and Hermione put together, and he detested Georgie’s mawkish celebration of marriage. Everywhere he went in LA last week, he’d heard ‘Rock Star’ being sung and whistled, as it raced up the charts.
Accepting, however, that this was the quickest way to get her picture in the papers, Hemione glided up to Guy whom she’d already met with Larry.
‘Hallo, Mr Wonderful,’ she said archly, kissing him on his firm, handsome mouth, then carefully choosing a lull in the music turned to Georgie: ‘I’m simply livid with Rannaldini for crying off. I said, “Georgie Maguire’s music gives pleasure to so many people.” I kept telling him, “You’ll love Georgie when you meet her, Maestro,” but he’s such an intellectual snob, and he does feel “Rock Star” is a rip-off of “Lady in Red”.’
‘It’ll be Lady in the red by the time we’ve paid for Angel’s Reach,’ said Georgie lightly, but her happiness evaporated and when Hello magazine asked them both to turn and smile, the photographer caught Georgie looking miserable, and Hermione, who instantly composed her features, eyes open, brows raised, dazzling white teeth flashing, looking gorgeous.
‘I’ve bought you a present,’ Hermione handed Georgie Blow the wind southerly, ‘because I wanted to cheer you up about that beastly piece in the Guardian.’
‘I hid it from Georgie, so shut up,’ hissed Guy, adding, ‘You look fabulous, love your hair,’ because women were always distracted by flattery, and briskly led Georgie off to meet the new music editor of Billboard.
‘What Rannaldini actually said,’ stage-whispered Hermione to Dancer Maitland, ‘was that he didn’t want to meet an ageing sex symbol.’
‘Because he does that in the mirror every morning,’ snapped Dancer.
People were dancing in corners, falling on food. Tables were filling up with glasses. Catchitune, cashing in on having the Press present, were playing records by other artistes on their books. Nikki, in her pie-frilled collared blue velvet dress and determined to prove she was a better Chief Executive’s wife than Marigold, was working the room, pressing her new London address on disc jockeys and important retailers, hinting that she and Larry were together now, and would soon be throwing a lovenest warming party in Paradise.
Emerging from the Gents after yet another rewrite, desperate for a cigarette, Larry scooped up a handful of prawn vol-au-vents.
‘We have given up canapés for Lent, or we won’t be able to get into our new jeans,’ said Nikki reprovingly as she glided up and removed the plate.
What in hell’s got into her? thought Larry. She looks like a complete frump. In fact the only person in the room looking more matronly than Nikki was Kitty Rannaldini, who, like many women much younger than their husbands, tried to dress older than she was. Exhausted from spring cleaning for Rannaldini’s return, she had belted up the motorway because she’d promised to support Marigold and because she longed to see her errant husband even for a couple of hours.
Kitty dreaded parties. In friends’ houses, she could escape to the kitchen to help, or take round bottles and gather up dirty glasses — but these matelots in their striped jerseys looked as though they’d down tools if she picked up a plate. Being a wonderful listener, she survived socially on a one-to-one basis, or in the office where people got to know and love her. The only way to communicate over one of Catchitune’s heavy rock bands, however, was with your eyes or your swaying body, which in Kitty’s case were concealed by hopelessly strong spectacles and a beetroot-pink crimplene tent-dress, which she’d bought by mail order because she was too ashamed of her bulges to go into clothes shops.
Now she was being chewed out by Larry, who needed some ass to kick and who broke the news to her that Rannaldini had done a runner, as though it were her fault.
‘Did he say when he was coming back to England?’ stammered Kitty, trying to hide her desperate disappointment.
‘No,’ snapped Larry, ‘and where the fuck’s Marigold?’
‘She’s definitely coming.’
‘Sorry, love.’ Larry patted her arm. ‘I’ve given up smoking. Nikki sent me to a hypnotist last week and I haven’t had a fag since.’
‘But that’s brilliant,’ said Kitty, who knew Larry had been on sixty a day. ‘How d’you feel?’
‘Fine, except every ten minutes I climb up the curtains and throttle the cat.’ Larry was about to quiz Kitty about Marigold’s bit of rough trade, but seeing Nikki bearing down, he bolted back into the Gents.
Who the hell can I talk to? thought Kitty in panic. Seeing Georgie still talking to the languid new music editor of Billboard, she took a deep breath and went over.
‘I just come to say ’ow much we’re all lookin’ forward to you moving into Angel’s Reach.’
Georgie looked blank. This frump, with her fuzzy hair drawn into a pony-tail and a big spot on her forehead, must have emerged from the Catchitune accounts department.
‘I’m Kitty Rannaldini,’ said Kitty, amused to see Georgie’s wary half-smile widen into one of incredulous excitement.
‘Has Rannaldini come after all?’
‘He can’t make it, some drama wiv Don Giovanni. He was ever so upset.’
The cross round Kitty’s neck glittered in the moving spotlight, then, as it moved on, darkness hid her blushes at such a thumping lie.
‘Oh, I’m so pleased.’ Georgie sighed with relief. ‘Hermione said Rannaldini blacked it deliberately.’
‘Really,’ said the man from Billboard suddenly interested.
‘I’m a triffic fan of yours, Georgie,’ said Kitty hastily. ‘Could I have your autograph?’
The Billboard man was appalled at such lack of cool, but Georgie delightedly signed a page of Kitty’s autograph book. Seeing Georgie wasting valuable time on some dowdy groupie, Guy whizzed over.
‘May I borrow Georgie for a minute?’ he asked, and frogmarched her off to charm the manager of Tower Records, Piccadilly.
As the Billboard man promptly disappeared in search of more exciting prey, Kitty overheard a Scorpion reporter saying: ‘Let’s call it a day. Rannaldini’s obviously not coming.’
‘I gather the wife’s here,’ said the Mirror. ‘Might get something out of her. Let’s try the mistress first.’
Retreating hastily into the darkness, sitting on a lobster pot, poor Kitty miserably ate her way through a large plate of paella, trying to ignore the great phallic lighthouse flashing on the opposite wall. If only she could escape in her little car down the motorway to a cup of cocoa and her Danielle Steel, but she’d promised to give Marigold support. Through the darkness she caught a whiff of Chanel No. 5, and peppermint breath.
‘Hi, Kitty,’ said a caressing, rather common, voice, which she’d heard so often over the telephone discussing Rannaldini’s contracts and recording dates.
Unlike Georgie, Kitty immediately recognized Nikki — less glamorous than she expected, but as the lighthouse beam flashed on to the vulpine features, far more predatory. What chance had poor Marigold got?
‘So pleased to meet you at last.’ Nikki plonked herself on an adjoining lobster pot. ‘And I was looking forward to meeting Rannaldini. I’ve heard such nice things about you.’
Kitty, who hadn’t heard anything nice about Nikki, stared at the pieces of squid round the rim of her plate and felt sorry for them because they’d been rejected, too.
‘We must have lunch,’ urged Nikki.
‘I don’t come to town very often.’
‘Then we’ll meet in the country. I’ll be moving into Paradise Grange very shortly.’ Nikki’s forked tongue was loosened by drink. ‘Larry and I are getting married.’
Kitty was aghast. ‘Oh, poor Marigold, and wot about the poor kids?’
‘It didn’t deter you that Rannaldini was a married man with children,’ said Nikki sharply.
‘No, I know.’ Kitty hung her head. There didn’t seem any point adding that Rannaldini was separated from Cecilia by the time she’d gone to work for him.
‘Anyway,’ went on Nikki, fishing, ‘Marigold’s got some rough trade in tow, hasn’t she?’
Nikki, in fact, was iffy about this development. The boys had banged on and on about Lysander all weekend and, having written off Marigold as a sexless old bag, Nikki disliked any proof that she might be able to attract even rough trade. On the other hand, if she did find someone, it would save Larry a great deal of guilt and alimony. Nikki had been so certain Larry was going for a quicky divorce — she’d even planned her dress, cream silk, for the Registry Office.
And there he was scowling and clutching his speech, his hair all tousled. No-one would think he was worth billions.
‘See you in a bit,’ murmured Nikki, and sliding over to Larry, taking his hand in the darkness, she placed it under her gathered velvet skirt straight on to her damp pubic hair.
‘Come on, make me come, I dare you,’ she whispered.
That should obliterate all thoughts of Marigold.
‘D’you think we should arraive together?’ said Marigold, overcome by a sudden fit of respectability as she signed her name in the visitors’ book. ‘Ay mean Ay am Larry’s wife. All his staff will be there. What’s everyone goin’ to say?’
‘They’ll say, “Hallo, Marigold, Hallo, Lysander,”’ giggled Lysander, who’d been smoking a joint in the car.
As they entered the party, the room went still.
‘Hallo, Marigold, Hallo, Lysarnder,’ said Hermione loudly.
Larry whipped his hand from Nikki’s bush as if it were a wasps’ nest, for across the room was the Marigold he’d first fallen in love with, but ten times more beautiful.
Who is he? Who is he? Shaken out of their cool, everyone in the room was frantically trying to identify Lysander.
‘Kerist,’ exploded the Catchitune Sales Director. ‘It’s the boss’s wife.’
‘Lucky thing,’ said Denise the receptionist.
A favourite has no friends. Nikki, since she had taken up with Larry, had snubbed senior and junior secretaries alike and banned executives from Larry’s presence. Marigold, on the other hand, had always been kind. She had written to Larry’s staff when they married or had babies, and been sweet even to the lowest packer at office parties. With the increasingly dark cloud of recession, they felt Marigold would not have let them starve. So they now converged on her joyfully telling her how marvellous she looked, and having a really good butcher’s at Lysander. It therefore took Marigold several minutes to reach Geòrgie. Ignoring a hovering Larry, resisting the temptation to tuck in his shirt and throttle him with his silly gold necklace, she flung herself on her great friend, telling her how wonderful she looked and how much she adored the album.
‘Oh Georgie, Ay’m so proud of you and for Guy, too. It’s such a wonderful celebration of your love for each other.’
‘Great party,’ said Lysander, who managed to have eyes for no-one but Marigold, but also on stalks for all the famous people he wanted to meet. ‘There’s Dancer Maitland, and Steve Wright and Simon Bates, and all the cast of EastEnders, and that lovely girl from Brookside. Oh my,’ he looked at Georgie, ‘and you, too. The album’s fantastic. Can I have your autograph?’
Rootling round in Marigold’s bag in a gesture of casual intimacy, he found a pen and Marigold’s diary, out of which he tore a page and handed it to Georgie.
‘Why are they playing this junk instead of Rock Star?’
‘It’s evidently uncool to play one’s own music,’ sighed Georgie.
‘Bollocks! It’s your party.’
Georgie turned to Marigold. ‘You look amazing, twenty years younger. Whatever happened?’
‘He did,’ said Marigold, taking Lysander’s arm.
‘Lucky thing,’ Georgie laughed as though this was a huge joke.
‘How are the children?’ asked Marigold.
‘Well, Flora’s been at Bagley Hall since January,’ said Georgie, ‘so she’ll be near by when we move to Paradise. It’s co-ed, so I hope she’s managing to do some work. Melanie’s in Australia bankrupting us with reverse-charged calls. And your two?’ asked Georgie, who never remembered names.
‘Both at prep school,’ said Marigold.
Hermione was having a bad party. None of the pop music press were remotely interested that she was doing Dido and Aeneas. Once again she had to approach Georgie to get her picture taken.
‘How was Paris?’ she asked Marigold.
‘Oh, lovely. We stayed at the Ritz.’
‘Did you go to the Pompidou?’
And when Marigold and Lysander hadn’t been to any of the operas or concerts Hermione suggested, she said patronizingly, ‘You must have gone to some decent restaurants?’
‘We just used room service at the Ritz,’ said Lysander.
‘The only thing flambéeing in our suite was me,’ giggled Marigold.
The next moment they were joined by Guy and Larry, both unnerved by the juxtaposition of Georgie and Marigold.
‘Are you an actor?’ asked Guy.
‘No. Lysander plays polo and raydes in races,’ said Marigold. ‘He loves horses.’
‘Particularly bonking dead ones,’ said Lysander, kissing Marigold. Then turning to Hermione, he asked blandly, ‘How’s Dildo and Aeneas going, Helena?’
Determined not to betray her rage, Hermione grabbed Lysander’s arm. ‘Come and meet Nikki. You two must be the same age.’
The stirring cow, thought Marigold, as Lysander was dragged off into the gloom.
‘What are Flora and Melanie doing now?’ she said.
‘You’ve just asked me that,’ said Georgie, drawing Marigold aside. ‘Are you OK?’
‘Fine,’ said Marigold.
‘You’re not. You’re shaking.’
‘Larry’s having the most terrific affaire,’ mumbled Marigold. ‘He wants a divorce and me out of Paradise.’
‘Christ, you poor darling. I’d no idea. Larry’s a bastard. Who is she?’
‘Nikki. That blonde being introduced to Lysander.’
‘Oh.’ Georgie peered through the gloom. ‘She did a number on me in the Ladies. Very plain and frumpy, I thought.’
‘She’s trying to look like a waife tonight,’ sighed Marigold. ‘Normally she exudes sex.’
‘Lysander doesn’t think so,’ said Georgie. ‘He’s done a U-turn. Wow, he’s good looking.’
‘OK?’ Lysander took Marigold’s hand.
‘Can I borrow you, Panda?’ Guy called over, sensing trouble. ‘Dempster wants a word.’
‘What did you think of Nikki?’ Marigold couldn’t resist asking.
‘Gross,’ said Lysander, beckoning to a waitress to fill up Marigold’s glass. ‘Looks as though she fell off the back of a Larry.’
Marigold burst out laughing.
‘Scuse me, Mr Maguire.’ An Evening Standard photographer sent Guy flying as he raced to get a picture of Georgie greeting Jason Donovan.
‘They also serve,’ said a quiet voice at Guy’s elbow. It was Bob Harefield, Hermione’s long-suffering husband, who’d got hold of a whisky bottle with which he laced Guy’s glass.
Balding, round-faced, bow-tied, always smiling, Bob gave the impression of a Humpty Dumpty who’d survived a great fall by the skin of his teeth.
Because of his amiable egg-like face, people tended not to notice the lean beauty of his body. No-one could understand how he could put up with Hermione and Rannaldini, but certainly his tactful handling of the latter had stopped most of the London Met committing suicide. Guy would have liked to have had a heart-to-heart with him about the Catchitune royalty system, but unfortunately Bob had that bespectacled frump in tow.
‘I want you to meet the nicest lady in Paradise,’ said Bob, ‘Kitty Rannaldini.’
Guy nearly dropped his glass.
‘Rannaldini, did you say?’ He added in amazement. ‘I didn’t realize.’ He couldn’t really say, ‘Love your hair, you’re looking fabulous,’ short of total hypocrisy, so he thanked her for being nice to Georgie. ‘You are a brickette.’
‘I was just suggesting to Kitty,’ said Bob, ‘that we ought to start a second-fiddle club for people married to celebs.’
‘You’ve got the London Met to look after as well,’ said Kitty.
‘Well, you’ve got all Rannaldini’s children and ex-wives. That’s much worse,’ said Bob, then when Kitty protested, ‘you know they are.’
‘I’ve got used to the post and the telephone always being for Georgie,’ volunteered Guy. ‘I don’t even mind being shoved aside by people desperate to meet her. The only thing I find wearing is her constant need for reassurance, but all artists are like that.’
He watches her the whole time, thought Kitty wistfully, seeing she’s got a drink and talking to the right people.
‘I did like Georgie,’ she said timidly. ‘Will you be in London during the week?’
Guy nodded. ‘I hope you and Marigold will stop her getting lonely.’
‘Oh, I will,’ Kitty felt impossibly flattered, ‘and Angel’s Reach is so beautiful. All the angels was turning pink in the sunset as I was driving up this evening. As though they was flushed with excitement about you movin’ in.’
Guy smiled. ‘That’s sweet. I so look forward to being part of a community again. If you live in a village you must put something back.’
‘Marigold’ll rope you in. She does so much for others.’
‘Particularly at the moment,’ said Bob, looking in amusement at Marigold who was peeling Mediterranean prawns and handing them to Lysander. ‘That boy is the smoothest bit of trade I’ve ever seen, straight out of Fortnum’s toy department.’
Guy, who strongly disapproved of extra-marital frolicking, deliberately changed the subject.
‘What are you doing after this?’ he asked Kitty.
Kitty looked at her watch. ‘Driving back to Rutshire.’
‘Come dine with us, Larry’s booked a table at Hero’s.’
‘I’ve already eaten a ’ole paella.’
‘Have one course. I insist.’
Feeling his warm hand on her arm, Kitty thought Guy was one of the nicest men she’d ever met. It would be lovely having him in Paradise, as an island at parties who one wasn’t frightened of going up to.
Seeing Georgie was nose to nose with David Frost now, Guy said, ‘I’ve got to ring Brian Sewell of the Evening Standard and try and get him along to a preview tomorrow. Have you got any pound coins for a fiver?’
Returning five minutes later, he was grabbed by Georgie.
‘That bastard Larry’s having an affaire with that blonde.’
‘It’s not serious, I’ll explain later,’ murmured Guy. ‘Larry’s about to make a speech. Go and stand beside him.’
As ‘Rock Star’ boomed out from every speaker, people turned to watch the video on the monitor, which showed shoals of fish turning into ink-blot ghosts which, in turn, became boats being shipwrecked, sharks prowling through the deep, lusty fishermen pulling in nets. Then the waves pounded the rock to which Georgie was clinging, until there seemed no hope for her survival. Then slowly the seas calmed, the sun came out, and Georgie was draped against the rock, drenched in her grey rags but smiling.
‘Rock star, rock star, rock star, you are my rock star,’ sang Georgie in her husky haunting voice. And on the monitor appeared a close-up of Guy looking wonderfully macho in a blue denim shirt which brought out the strange light azure of his eyes, with the wind tugging at his arctic-blond hair.
Even people round the buffet, stopped eating and drinking and listened to the track, swaying and dancing to the beat.
At the end when Guy walked up to the rock, picked up Georgie and carried her away across the sands with her wet hair trailing, and a pack of basset hounds raced after them, everyone cheered and stamped their feet. Those who were holding glasses and couldn’t clap, banged their other hand on the table, and cried, ‘Speech, speech’.
Sweat glistening on his forehead, Larry grasped the microphone.
‘We’re very happy to be producing Georgie Maguire,’ he mumbled. ‘We think she’s a bit special, and she’s going to be around for a long time to come. Catchitune hope this album is the first of many. This party isn’t a hype, no big deal, but as we speak “Rock Star” is Number One in the American charts. I give you Georgie Maguire.’
That’s the first draft I wrote, thought the head of publicity indignantly, and I’ve been fired a dozen times today for my pains.
Georgie took the microphone and in a choked voice thanked everyone at Catchitune, and particularly Larry and his lovely wife, Marigold.
‘Hurrah,’ bellowed the Catchitune staff glaring at Nikki.
‘It’s been a long time in the wilderness,’ Georgie went on, ‘which makes tonight even more special. This is the second happiest day of my life. The happiest was when I married my husband, Guy Seymour’ — she emphasized Guy’s surname — ‘the loveliest, strongest man in the world. I’d like you to drink to Guy, my rock.’
Everyone clapped and cheered. Standing beside Marigold, Lysander noticed a girl in front removing her spectacles to wipe away the tears, and realized it was Kitty Rannaldini. He’d say hallo later. Then, in the lull that followed, out of the gloom, Marigold’s very distinct tones could be heard saying to the man on her other side, ‘Are you the chief buyer of Tower Records or a disc jockey for Radio 1? Well, take your ’and off may bottom then.’
There was a howl of mirth.
‘Marigold used to be such a dutiful wife,’ whispered Hermione in shocked tones. ‘What has got into her?’
‘I think that miraculous toy boy has,’ said Bob.
‘Larry’s having an affaire with that ghastly Nikki,’ hissed Georgie, as smilingly she and Guy posed for photographs.
‘Shut up,’ hissed back Guy. ‘The boot’s on the other foot.’
‘Lovely speech,’ said Nikki, coiling her hand into Larry’s.
‘Just going to check the other room,’ said Larry noticing Marigold was missing.
Next door, the smell of dope and hairy male armpits spilling out of sleeveless T-shirts was suffocating.
‘Rock star, rock star, my life would be a zero, without my steadfast hero,’ sang the writhing, gyrating couples in ecstasy.
Indifferent to such proof of a mega-hit on his hands, Larry scoured the room. Then suddenly the dancers parted like clouds at night to reveal two bright stars, Lysander and Marigold, in each other’s arms. Outraged, Larry watched Lysander put a joint in Marigold’s mouth and her breasts swelling provocatively as she inhaled, then Lysander taking a last puff before stamping it underfoot, then French kissing her on and on, with all Catchitune’s staff and distributors dancing round to have a better look. Larry was appalled at the pain. Stumbling upstairs, he roared at the General Manager to close the bar.
As Lysander and Marigold drifted back hand in hand, Georgie noticed the diamond brooch on Marigold’s black velvet coat.
‘Isn’t that lovely?’
‘Lysander took me to Cartier’s this afternoon,’ yelled Marigold over the din of the music as Larry joined the group. ‘It’s the key to freedom.’
Noticing his wife was no longer wearing a wedding-ring, Larry felt sick.
Waitresses were gathering up plates. Guests were ostentatiously up-ending empty glasses hoping for refills.
‘We must go,’ said Marigold.
‘I thought you were coming out to dinner,’ wailed Georgie.
‘We’ve got to get back to Paradise. Patch is on her own. We just dropped in to wish you luck. Not that you’re going to need it. I’ll ring you first thing for a proper gossip.’
Larry and Guy exchanged uneasy glances.
On the way out, Lysander tore another page from Marigold’s diary and peeled off to get Chris de Burgh’s autograph.
Oblivious of Nikki’s chilling, killing stare, Larry bolted after Marigold, drawing her aside. She noticed that his T-shirt could have been whiter. He noticed the softness of her thighs swelling up into the black velvet shorts and the way her breasts swung gently as bells under her white silk shirt.
Oblivious to Catchitune staff, who were handing out little papier-mâché rocks, tapes of Rock Star and Body Shop seaweed extract as going-home presents, he said: ‘You look beautiful, Mar, I’ll ring you.’
Catching them up, Lysander deliberately dropped Marigold’s diary, which Larry pocketed, and was horrified to read: LYSANDER, VENICE scrawled across the next weekend. No wonder she didn’t want the boys.
His evening was further ruined when he arrived with Georgie and Guy and the rest of his party at Hero’s, his favourite restaurant, and was accosted by the headwaiter who was the worst gossip in Soho, and constantly feeding stories to Dempster.
‘Meester Lockton, I am very pleased to see Meesis Lockton dining here the other night with your younger brother. She look very well.’
‘I thought you were an only child, Larry,’ said Hermione loudly.
Once again ignoring Nikki’s killing stare, Larry snarled, ‘Bring me a packet of Silk Cut.’
Primed beforehand, the band struck up ‘Rock Star’ as Georgie entered the dining room.
‘Everyone in the room will be humming it in a week, Panda,’ said Guy proudly, then in an undertone to Larry, ‘we’ve got to get that contract signed, before Marigold gives Georgie an earful tomorrow. Georgie’s insanely loyal.’
But Larry could only think of his own problems. In the past, bored with Marigold, envious of Rannaldini’s effortless promiscuity, he had fallen madly in love with Nikki. Now he was torn between his rapacious sexy mistress, who was at this moment deliberately flirting with Guy, and Marigold who had looked utterly ravishing this evening. How unhappy would I be without either? thought Larry. Catchitune had just recorded The Beggar’s Opera.
Nor had he anticipated how wildly jealous he would be of this Adonis with his public-school accent. He’d been humiliated in front of his entire staff, who knew all about Nikki, because Nikki had told them, and if there were a messy divorce, he might not get his knighthood before Rannaldini, if at all.
In addition, Nikki was not as clockwork as Marigold. She was far less efficient in the office now she had to look after him at home, and last night she had shouted at him for putting his plate in the sink rather than the dishwasher. Before he met Nikki, Larry had never lifted a finger at home except to check the dust on top of a picture.
He was haunted by Rannaldini’s warning:
‘Once she’s hooked you, the mistress becomes the wardress. She knows all the tricks you used to cheat on Marigold.’
Nikki now sat in his office, monitoring his telephone calls from all those young singers, who seemed perfectly happy for Larry to make them, if he was prepared to make their records as well. Since he’d taken up with Nikki and shattered the myth of being an utterly faithful husband, gorgeous girls had been looking at him in the most exciting way. All that promise would be nipped in the bud if he settled for Nikki.
‘They keep a cosh behind their backs,’ warned Rannaldini. ‘You never see it until they’ve got the handcuffs on. I made that mistake with Cecilia. She begrudged me my old freedoms, so I ditched her.’
Larry was fed up with going to the gym, only drinking spritzers — bloody wet — and not smoking and saying ‘No’, to canapés. Ignoring Nikki’s scowl of rage, he accepted a white roll from the waiter, and spreading it thickly with butter, ordered Spaghetti Carbonara as a first course followed by a T-bone and chips.
Georgie was now signing an autograph for an elderly couple at the next table.
‘I’d much rather she signed that contract,’ hissed Guy.
Looking across at Nikki being calmed down by Bob, Larry had a brainwave.
‘I’ll get it,’ he said.
Nipping out to the Rolls, as he had so often in the past when he wanted to ring Nikki, his heart thumping, he dialled Marigold’s number. Just as he was about to ring off the telephone was picked up. There was music and laughter in the background.
‘We oughta talk, Princess,’ Larry told Marigold roughly. ‘I gotta be in Bristol tomorrow. Thought I’d spend the night at home and return your diary.’
‘What took you so long?’ snapped Nikki, as Larry sat down beside her and kissed her fondly on the cheek. After all, he did want a fuck later.
‘Getting this,’ he said, putting a sheaf of papers in front of Georgie. ‘Can I have your autograph, please?’
‘For your wife, your daughter, your mother or your girlfriend,’ said Georgie with a laugh.
‘For myself,’ said Larry.
It was a Catchitune contract for a million pounds.
Not wanting to alert the whole of Paradise to his return, Larry drove rather than flew down the following evening. Arriving as the red flame of sunset finally gave way to the distant russet glow of the Rutminster streetlights, he caught a glimpse of Catchitune written in fading crocuses and breathed in a heady scent of polyanthus, narcissus and newly turned earth, as he got out of a borrowed Mini. The Grange might face north, but it was still the finest garden in Paradise. He noticed a ladder against the house, Mr Brimscombe, the finest gardener in Rutshire, although threatened with the sack, had been trimming the famous Paradise Pearl from around the master-bedroom windows.
Across the valley he could see a single light burning in Valhalla. Kitty was still working, sorting out the tangled skeins of her husband’s life. Soon Rannaldini, too, would be home studying and settling scores in his tower in the woods. Angel’s Reach was in darkness, but shortly Georgie would be burning the midnight oil earning her million pound advance as she worked on her new album to be handed in by Christmas, and to the left he could see the jewel-coloured stained-glass hall windows of the River House. Bob and Hermione must be enjoying a rare evening at home.
Larry gave a sigh of satisfaction — all these people beavering away to put money into Catchitune’s coffers. Despite the doom and gloom, this year’s figures had been good, next year’s should be spectacular. Only when he turned towards his own house did he realize that the only lights on were the carriage lamps by the door.
Letting himself in, falling over one of Lysander’s boots, he only just reached the burglar alarm in time. After initial woofing, Patch slumped back in her basket, sulking because Jack, her boyfriend, had been banished for the evening.
Larry had skipped lunch anticipating a delicious dinner cooked by Marigold, but had planned on working up a further appetite by screwing her beforehand.
In the kitchen he was welcomed by Marks & Spencer’s Chicken and Asparagus and Bread and Butter Pudding, both in foil trays. He loathed asparagus.
There was also a note from Marigold:
‘Larry,’ (not even dear), ‘These will take five minutes in the microwave. Gone out to dinner, back around midnight. Make yourself at home.’
It’s my fucking home, thought Larry furiously.
He couldn’t even ring for someone to run him up steak and chips because he’d laid them all off, and even he wouldn’t summon Mrs Brimscombe from the lodge in the middle of Coronation Street.
There were no curtains drawn, nor a fire in the lounge. He couldn’t complain. It was so mild that in the old days, he would have bellyached about the central heating being left on or a fire lit.
Returning to the kitchen, he found an empty bottle of champagne in the bin, two glasses in the sink and a huge bunch of pink roses with a card on the draining board. ‘Marigold, you were out of this world. All love, L.’
His Harley Street consultant had warned him against stress, but Larry had never been nearer a coronary as he bolted upstairs and was knocked sideways by the smell of Joy. Marigold was tidy to the point of finickityness, but now carrier bags with new clothes littered the bed and the armchairs. In the bathroom he found the top off the scented body lotion, a razor clogged with hair that looked unpleasantly pubic, a Cellophane pack that had contained black, eight-denier, seamed stockings and a size ten label on the floor. Marigold used to be size sixteen. The hairdryer was still plugged in, and worst of all The Joy of Sex on the edge of the bath lay open at fellatio. It was no comfort to Larry that this was exactly the state in which Nikki left their new en suite bathroom in Pelham Crescent.
With a howl Larry hurled The Joy of Sex out of the window, whereupon the clockwork squawking of a pheasant reminded him of his clockwork wife running away. Not wanting to go home to Nikki, who thought he was looking at a new pop group in Bristol, he stormed down to The Pearly Gates and got so drunk he didn’t even notice Marigold, Lysander and Ferdie coming out of The Heavenly Host across the road around eleven.
‘Ay’ve got fraightful butterflies,’ gasped Marigold as Ferdie pulled up outside The Grange.
‘Should be moths at night,’ said Lysander, who’d been getting gloomier as the evening progressed.
‘No more lipstick,’ ordered Ferdie, as Marigold opened her bag.
Ruffling her hair, he undid several buttons of her red dress — ‘You’ve got to look as though you’ve been got at,’ — before allowing her out of the car.
‘Now play it cool, and remember no bonking. We’ll stick around for a sec in case you need rescuing.’
Watching Marigold going up the steps, Lysander felt the same sickness as when his mother, trying not to cry, had walked down the platform after putting him on the school train. But a minute later Marigold came rushing back.
‘He’s gone, without leaving a note,’ she sobbed. ‘Ay’ve blown it, Ay’ve blown it.’
Appalled to find Marigold so devastated, Lysander leapt out of the car.
‘He’ll be back.’ He put an arm round her. ‘Probably just stormed out in a strop.’
‘Must have been one hell of a strop, if he left the door open and the burglar alarm off with Picassos and Stubbs in the house,’ mused Ferdie. ‘Can you see anything missing?’
‘Only Larry,’ wailed Marigold, as Jack jumped into Patch’s basket, snuggling up to her.
Desperate to give Marigold comfort, Lysander poured her a glass of Sancerre.
‘I taped Casualty for you,’ he said. It was Marigold’s favourite programme.
‘Ay’m the only casualty round ’ere.’ Putting her chain-handled bag down with a clatter on the draining board, she was bashing the stems of Lysander’s pink roses with a rolling pin, when the telephone rang.
‘Don’t answer it,’ howled Ferdie. But faster than Nijinsky out of the starting gates, Marigold was across the room. The telephone stopped on the third ring.
‘It’s our secret code,’ squeaked Marigold.
As the telephone began again, she snatched it up before Ferdie could stop her, listened for a second, then put her trembling hand over the receiver.
‘Larry wants to come over. He’s in The Pearly Gates.’
‘That’s the nearest he’s going to get to heaven this evening,’ said Ferdie briskly. ‘Tell him no. You’ve got red eyes and a red nose, and you’re both so wasted it’ll only end in a punch or bunk-up and blow all your advantage. Say you’re tired.’
Ferdie’s square face could look very big and mean. His friends didn’t employ him as a bouncer at their twenty-firsts for nothing.
Meekly Marigold told Larry she was shattered. They arranged to have dinner next week.
‘Who’s that in the background?’ growled Larry, as Lysander sulkily crashed the door of the fridge.
‘Only Patch,’ said Marigold. ‘See you next week.’
‘We’ll plan the whole operation when the time comes,’ said Ferdie. ‘Come along, Lysander.’
And because Ferdie wasn’t supposed to know he’d been bonking Marigold, Lysander reluctantly had to comply. Jack, even more reluctant to be removed from Patch’s paws, bit his master sharply on the hand.
Alone in her pink-flounced four-poster, Marigold couldn’t sleep. She had envisaged a scene from Gone with the Wind, with herself being so provoking that Larry would sweep her upstairs like Clark Gable — well, at least the black moustache was the same — and ravish her — at this point admittedly his technique would become Lysander’s. Then, becoming Larry again, he would swear she was his only love and Nikki a fearful aberration.
Hepped up for conflict, twitching with desire, Marigold longed for Lysander’s tender and exuberant lovemaking after which she always fell into a wonderful sleep. Lysander was better than any pill, and he didn’t leave you feeling woozy and unable to drive in the morning.
Having spent so many nights alone at the Grange, Marigold was unafraid of the dark, and always left her curtains open because no-one could see in except the birds. Outside a full moon was admiring her reflection in the fish-ponds, and a gentle west wind was scratching the bare stems of the famous Paradise Pearl against the window.
Marigold had never masturbated in her life, thinking it a disgusting habit, but Lysander had made her come so wonderfully with his fingers and tongue, she thought she’d give it a whirl and put the duvet over Patch snoring beside her, so the dog wouldn’t be corrupted.
‘Think about something that really turns you on,’ Lysander always urged her.
So Marigold thought about Lysander. Goodness, it was nice and quite easy, her breath was coming faster and faster, when she heard a loud bang on the window, which couldn’t be just windswept wisteria twigs. Then to her horror she saw a man framed in the window, the moonlight behind him. Screaming her head off she whipped her finger from her clitoris to the panic button.
Mr Brimscombe, however, who slept lightly because of his rheumatism, had already heard a car going towards the house. The driver must have had a remote control to open the electric gates, but it wasn’t young Mr Hawkley because his red Ferrari always blared music. Remembering his ladder outside Marigold’s bedroom, Mr Brimscombe set out to investigate.
The Paradise Pearl, a unique silver-pink wisteria, had been propagated by Mr Brimscombe’s grandfather who’d gone to the grave with the secret of its exquisite vigour and colouring. Gardeners came from all over the world to admire and attempt to copy it. Mr Brimscombe’s first ignoble thought when he saw a man up the ladder was not that he was attempting to break in or rape Mrs Lockton, but that he was taking cuttings off the Paradise Pearl.
Shooting across the lawn like a crab, he seized the ladder just as Larry was peering in at the incredibly erotic sight of his beautiful slimmed-down wife playing with herself, the lamplight warming her lovely breasts. Excitement turned to horror, however, when he saw the duvet moving beside her — it must be that young puppy Lysander, not even capable of satisfying her. As Larry banged furiously on the window, his ladder was suddenly shaken down below with even more fury.
‘Come down, you thieving bugger,’ screached Mr Brimscombe.
Instantly obeying, Larry missed the next rung, grabbed a gnarled branch of the Paradise Pearl, bringing it and himself crashing to the ground on top of a whole bed of Crown Imperials.
If Marigold hadn’t recognized Larry and rushed to open the double glazing and alert Mr Brimscombe to his master’s identity, Larry would have been cudgelled to death by a fox-headed walking-stick.
Next morning Marigold rang Ferdie to tell him what had happened.
‘Just a social climb,’ said Ferdie.
Marigold giggled. ‘Larry got off with a bruising and a sprained ankle. He’s just discharged himself from Rutminster Hospital. Oh, and Ferdie, he’s taking me to The Four Seasons tonaight.’
‘Well, play it cool.’
The following morning Marigold summoned Ferdie to The Grange.
‘We never made The Four Seasons. We ended up in bed.’
‘On the first date?’ Disapprovingly, Ferdie dipped a chocolate biscuit in his coffee. ‘You’re a slag, Marigold. When are you seeing him again?’
‘Tonight. He’s going to leave Nikki and come home. Oh, Ferdie, Ay can’t thank you both enough.’
‘We aim to please,’ Ferdie pocketed a £10,000 cheque for mission accomplished and persuaded Marigold she must keep Lysander on a year’s retainer, so he could whizz back if Larry started acting up. ‘And we must return that diamond key to Cartier’s.’
‘How do I explain that to Larry?’
‘That it isn’t ethical to accept presents from young boys if one has made it up with one’s husband. It’s believing Lysander could afford one hundred thousand pounds for a brooch that rattled Larry.’
Marigold was brought up short. She was going to miss Lysander dreadfully. She had found it much easier to forgive Larry, because having Lysander around had made her realize how heady it must have been for Larry having Nikki. But at least if he was on a retainer, she’d see him occasionally. She decided to give him two polo ponies and a set of Dick Francis talking books as he was such a slow reader.
Lysander was so upset at the thought of Larry taking Marigold to The Four Seasons, and no doubt to bed, that he’d gone out and got plastered. Next morning, overwhelmed with hangover, clutching a cup of coffee, he’d gone out to see Arthur in his box.
He found the old horse had eaten all his bedding, a habit from his early days, when he didn’t know where his next meal was coming from, that he only reverted to when he felt very low and neglected.
‘I’m sorry, boy,’ said Lysander appalled, flinging his arms round Arthur’s neck, avoiding the green bits where Arthur had rolled. ‘I’m sorry, Mum and Uncle Alastair. I haven’t forgotten. I’ll bloody well get him sound and have another crack at the Rutminster.’
He emptied his cup into a bucket, because Arthur loved drinking coffee.
Having left Marigold and picked up a hamburger from the pub, Ferdie drove over to Lysander’s. He found him slumped, shivering in the corner of Arthur’s stable clutching Jack like a teddy bear, with Ferdie’s blue coat wrapped round him like a child’s dressing gown. Lysander was deathly pale and looked absurdly young. Arthur having abandoned silent sympathy, was lying flat out with his eyes open snoring loudly to get his master’s attention.
‘Here’s something to cheer you up,’ said Ferdie.
‘Marigold’s divorce papers?’
‘Even better.’ Having taken his ten per cent commission, Ferdie handed over a cheque for £9,000, which Lysander pocketed listlessly.
‘Unlike you I don’t think dosh is the most important thing in the world.’
‘It comes a fucking good second.’ Ferdie handed Arthur a bit of hamburger bun. ‘Don’t be bloody ungrateful. Thanks to me you don’t owe a bean, in fact you’ve got a fat bank balance as well as a Ferrari and some really sharp suits. In the old days, you were always grumbling that you wanted to take Dolly to decent places and become a Lanson lout.’
‘I’ve grown out of that way of life. All those phoneys poncing around at the Catchitune party. I don’t want to be part of that scene any more. Why can’t I stay here and get Arthur sound?’
‘Larry’s coming back. It’ll be easier if you’re not around.’
‘She can’t go back to that overpaid clown.’ Lysander was nearly in tears. ‘He’ll have her back in pie-frilled collars in a week. I’m very fond of Marigold,’ he added defiantly. ‘Being with her reminded me of Mum. I wouldn’t mind settling down with her.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ said Ferdie more gently. ‘You’d have to take her bopping on her zimmer in a few years’ time. And that accent would get seriously on your nerves.’
‘It would not,’ said Lysander furiously.
‘It’s like walking hound puppies. You have to send them back. You don’t have to go back to London. I’ve got another job for you in Cheshire rattling a drain billionaire who’s cheating on his wife.’
‘I’m not interested.’
‘You will be when you see the wife. She’s stunning. And you can take Arthur, Tiny and Jack. Evidently there’s a brilliant vet up there.’
Still lying down, Arthur snored even louder, opening an eye to see if Ferdie was prepared to relinquish any more hamburger bun.
‘Come on, you owe it to Arthur,’ persisted Ferdie. ‘Tomorrow to fresh woods and Porsches new.’
A fortnight later when Guy and Georgie moved into Angel’s Reach, all the removal men were whistling ‘Rock Star’ which now topped the UK as well as the American charts.
Guy, who took a week off work, masterminded the entire operation. Georgie drifted about getting in everyone’s way and going into poetic ecstasies over the lushness of the Rutshire spring. Blackthorn was breaking in dazzling white waves over the brightening green fields. On the first morning they were woken before dawn by the birds. Georgie had never seen so many lambs jumping in the fields or daffodils in a halo round their very own lake. A singer-songwriter could not but be gay in such a jocund company.
Euphoria, however, soon gave way to panic as she realized she’d lost Act One of her musical Ant and Cleo in the move. She daren’t tell Guy as he’d insist on helping her look, and there were all sorts of old love letters and the odd recent one in her boxes of papers which she didn’t want him to find. In the excitement of having a Number One record, she’d also agreed to deliver the new album by Christmas.
‘I’ll never get it done in time,’ she wailed to Guy, who was putting up some rather startling abstracts in the kitchen. The sink was still blocked with flowers wishing them luck in their new home, which Georgie would never get round to arranging.
Putting down his hammer, Guy took Georgie in his arms.
‘Larry’s just rung to say he’s going to bring in some whizz-kid producer to remix and revamp a lot of your old songs, so you’ll only have to write half a dozen or so new ones. It’s so restful here, you’ll do them in your sleep.’
‘No good if I can’t sleep,’ mumbled Georgie fretfully into Guy’s chest.
Having not arranged the making of a single curtain to fit the vast Angel’s Reach windows, she was getting increasingly irritated at being woken by the sun and the bloody birds at five-thirty in the morning.
So Guy, who knew where everything was, unearthed some swirling blue, olive and purple William Morris curtains which had hung in the house in Hampstead and charmed Kitty Rannaldini, who’d left a dozen new-laid eggs in the porch on their first morning, into letting them down.
As Kitty had promised to return the curtains as soon as possible, Guy, who felt sorry for her rattling around in that huge, supposedly haunted house, had invited her over for a late lunch on the Friday after they moved in. Following this, they would all drive over to the end-of-term concert at Bagley Hall, where Georgie’s and Guy’s younger daughter, Flora, and Kitty’s stepchildren, Wolfie and Natasha, were pupils.
Georgie, who’d been failing to work, hugged Kitty in delight as she staggered through the front door, the curtains in her arms.
‘Oh, you are kind! Put them down on the hall chair. Oh dear, you’re wearing a skirt — I was hoping to get away with jeans.’
Although Kitty had never received any affection from her stepdaughter, she felt she ought to support her at the concert because Rannaldini was still away. She had put on a compost-brown suit with a full skirt, which had once looked marvellous on Hermione, but which did nothing for Kitty’s figure or colouring. She had made it worse by trying to add the feminine touches of a pottery flower-brooch and a frilly white Tricel shirt.
‘Guy’s bound to bully me into changing,’ moaned Georgie. ‘Let’s go and murder a huge drink. Don’t worry, Guy’s driving. We’ll need to be pissed to sit through all those Merry Peasants and out-of-tune fiddles.’
Kitty followed her into a kitchen which had just been charmingly redecorated with a cornflower-blue tiled floor, white walls, primrose-yellow surfaces, blue-and-white plates and framed family photographs with blue mounts among Guy’s abstracts on the walls.
‘Ow, it’s so fresh and pretty,’ marvelled Kitty.
‘Guy’s taste,’ said Georgie. ‘He’s awfully clever.’
The kitchen was also surprisingly tidy, except for a large tabby cat with orange eyes, who sprawled most unhygienically, Kitty thought, across a big scrubbed table. She was frightened of animals, particularly of the Rottweilers which guarded Rannaldini, and The Prince of Darkness, the vicious black steeplechaser, who, now the National Hunt Season was over, roamed the fields terrorizing any rambler who ventured on to Rannaldini’s land.
‘What’s he called?’ Kitty tried to be polite, as the cat bopped Georgie with a fat paw as she passed.
‘Charity,’ said Georgie. ‘It’s Guy’s cat. He adores her. Flora chose the name, so we could all say, “Daddy does a tremendous amount for Charity”. And he does. He’s already joined the Best-Kept Village Committee, and he popped down to say hallo to the vicar this morning. He should have been back hours ago.’
‘It all looks lovely.’ Kitty admired the crocus-yellow walls in the hall.
‘And I’ve found a cleaner, thank God, a Mrs Piggot,’ said Georgie. Then, seeing Kitty’s wary look, ‘I’m not sure how hot she is on cleaning, but she’s ace on gossip. She’s already told me the vicar’s a bit of a “puff”.’
She’s so attractive, thought Kitty wistfully, even with her dark red hair going greasy, and last night’s mascara smudged under her eyes, and a split in her jeans where they’d lost a battle with her spreading hips.
Forcing a large Bacardi and Coke on Kitty, Georgie bore her upstairs to a bedroom so large and high that even the massive still-unmade four-poster looked like a child’s cot. Blushing, Kitty averted her eyes from a damp patch on the bottom sheet. Crumpling the duvet was a large basset-hound.
‘This is Dinsdale,’ said Georgie, screwing up the basset’s jowly face, gazing into his bloodshot eyes and kissing him on the nose. ‘The one thing that can be relied on to look worse than me in the morning. Now, let’s look at these curtains. Goodness, you’ve done them well. Although they’re not really bedroomy, I’ve never been very good with flowered chintz. Let’s put them up.’
In no time Kitty found herself standing in her stockinged feet, acutely ashamed of her fat ankles, amid the clutter of Georgie’s dressing table, as she perilously hooked the curtains on to a big brass rail.
‘A bloody girlfriend rang me this morning’ — Georgie gazed moodily at the long blond tresses of the willows lining the lake — ‘saying wasn’t I worried about all those bimbos and separated women in London, waiting to seduce Guy while I’m down here. Guy of all people! He’s so stuffy about people having affaires. Then she said, “Do watch the drink, it gets to you in the country.”’ Georgie took a great slug of her Bacardi.
‘I’m a bit pissed off with Marigold,’ she went on, glancing across at The Grange which was in deep shadow. ‘Apart from flowers when we moved in — some rather awful mauve gladioli — I’ve hardly heard a word. She’s having problems with Larry. Nikki’s proving even more difficult to give up than smoking. He should try Nikki’s hypnotist again, and Nikki intends to take him to the cleaners. Funny when she always forgot to take his suits there when she was living with him. Now she’s never off the telephone screaming abuse at Larry, and dropping the telephone if Marigold answers.
‘And Lysander’s never off the telephone from Cheshire (dropping it natch, when Larry picks it up), offering to fly down and whisk Marigold away, which must be tempting. I didn’t really talk to him at the Rock Star launch, but he was faint-making.’
‘Gorgeous,’ sighed Kitty, remembering how Lysander had come over to kiss her hallo/goodbye as he was leaving the party. ‘There, I fink that’s OK.’
‘Looks marvellous,’ said Georgie drawing the curtains and plunging them into such total darkness that Kitty nearly fell off the dressing table. ‘We must pay you. No, don’t be silly. Let’s have another drink, then I must wash my hair.’
I’m obviously not going to get any lunch, thought Kitty, which was probably a good thing. She’d totally failed to go on a diet for Rannaldini’s return tomorrow.
‘Just as I expected, they look terrific,’ said a deep, carrying voice. ‘Why am I always saying, “You’re a brick, Kitty”?’
Guy looked so handsome that, as he put out a warm, strong hand to help her down, and then kissed her cheek, Kitty wished she looked less shiny from her exertions, and hastily fumbled for her high-heeled shoes.
‘What kept you?’ snapped Georgie, tugging the elastic band out of her hair.
‘Frog-spawn in the village pond, blue-and-white violets on the bank, primroses like day-old chicks. It was such a beautiful day, I walked. I suppose you haven’t remembered to put on the potatoes, Panda?’
‘Hell, I forgot,’ sighed Georgie. ‘I’m sorry, darling, but I’m not really hungry.’
‘Well, Kitty and I are,’ said Guy, ‘which is why I bought smoked salmon, pâté and vine leaves at The Apple Tree. It’s such a sophisticated shop. I arranged for us to have an account there.’
‘Which means Flora will chalk up fags and booze,’ said Georgie.
‘She must be told not to,’ said Guy sharply. ‘There was a list for ordering your hot cross buns. That’s what I call a proper village shop. I can’t believe it’s Easter in a fortnight.’
‘Ow, I love Easter,’ said Kitty. ‘Somehow you can’t wait for Jesus to rise from the dead and walk barefooted in the white dew among the daffodils.’
Then she blushed scarlet as Georgie said rather mockingly: ‘Dinsdale loves Easter, too, because it means chocolate. How was the vicar? Mrs Piggot says he’s gay.’
‘I had coffee with him and his wife,’ said Guy, who disapproved of gossip. ‘They were charming.’
‘Mrs Piggot says he’s a piss-artist,’ went on Georgie.
‘Takes one to know one,’ said Guy dismissively. ‘The gin’s dropped three inches since she’s been cleaning for you.’
‘I must wash my hair,’ said Georgie.
‘You haven’t got time,’ said Guy flatly. ‘You’ve asked Kitty to lunch. It’s already three o’clock and we’ve got to leave by four to get decent seats.’
‘The concert doesn’t start till five.’
‘And the rush-hour starts at four on Fridays in the country, and Flora’s singing a solo. We must be on time, Panda.’
Georgie looked mutinous. She was a celebrity. Everyone would be gazing at her. She couldn’t have dirty hair.
Reading her thoughts, Guy said, ‘You always look lovely, Panda.’
What a wonderful husband, thought Kitty enviously, kind and concerned but so firm like a Danielle Steel hero. ‘I don’t need any din — I mean lunch,’ she stammered.
A certain row was averted by the telephone. Georgie’s work in the last week had been constantly interrupted by the Press ringing up to ask how she was adjusting to the country, or by demands to go on television or the radio, all of which had been turned down by Guy.
‘My wife has shut herself away with a December deadline,’ he was saying briskly. ‘Well, I can answer that one. Dogs mostly.’
‘Who was that? What did they want to know?’ asked Georgie fretfully.
‘The Scorpion. What do you wear in bed?’
‘And you said, “Dogs”?’ Georgie started to laugh. ‘I do love you. People are going to think I’m even more of a slut than I am.’
‘I’ve got an idea,’ said Guy. ‘As we’ve only time for a sandwich now and it’s Flora’s first night in Paradise, I’ll take you all out to The Heavenly Host this evening.’
‘Perfect,’ said Georgie, ‘as a thank-you present for the curtains.’
‘I can’t,’ sighed Kitty, suppressing a simultaneous shiver of terror and longing, ‘Rannaldini’s flying in first fing tomorrow. I must see everyfink’s perfect.’
In fact, Rannaldini was already in England, finally having finished his film of Don Giovanni, which he had produced, directed, conducted, edited and, according to the wags of the music world, probably played the part of the Don with every woman on the set as well.
Arriving a day early at Heathrow in his private jet, he drove straight to the recently built Mozart Hall in Holland Park in order to surprise the London Met, who were rehearsing for a televised performance of Mahler’s Fourth, which he was to conduct on Sunday.
Not content with stalking out of the London Met’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth three weeks earlier, Rannaldini was now outraged to learn from a rather large bird called Hermione that the guest conductor, Oswaldo, had been taking rehearsals with a joint in one hand and a baton in the other — such appalling lack of discipline. The London Met, however, were devoted to Oswaldo. He was gentle, hugely appreciative (Rannaldini had never learnt the English for thank you) and a marvellous musician. He listened to the more experienced members of the orchestra, and sought their advice on how things should be played. He also remembered his musicians’ first names, bought them drinks on their birthday and tried to get them rises.
This was quite unlike Rannaldini, who had the ability to terrorize and hypnotize simultaneously, and who could reduce his entire string section to jelly by raising a jet-black eyebrow. (Telling themselves that the same eyebrow was probably dyed did nothing to reduce their terror.)
As Musical Director of the London Met, Rannaldini’s job was to control the orchestra and staff, choose guest conductors, select the soloists and plan the repertoire for the whole season. But as he was also Musical Director of other orchestras in Germany and mid-America, where the London Met were concerned, he would make a series of snap decisions twice a year over a three-hour lunch with Hermione’s husband, Bob Harefield, his orchestra manager. He then left Bob, and to a larger extent Kitty, to augment these decisions as he whizzed off round the world.
When Rannaldini had joined the London Met eight years ago, he had rowed constantly with the Board. Apart from being away so much, he cost them a fortune in overtime, because he was always late, and then would make the orchestra spend three hours getting three bars right. But, because he had been so successful, he now had them eating out of his very grasping hand and could do what he liked.
For Rannaldini sold records. The London Met loathed him, but he bullied them into perfection. They were the best and most famous orchestra in Europe, and they never had an empty seat.
They were also the best looking. Resplendent himself, Rannaldini liked beauty in others, and knew that audiences liked gazing at beautiful people, particularly when the music became too demanding. Bob Harefield, therefore, scoured the country for attractive young musicians, who played more vigorously, were more malleable and much cheaper. In the London Met, unless you were exceptionally gifted, over forty you were a marked man.
Biographers tended to attribute Rannaldini’s machiavellian nature to his early life. His father, Wolfgang, had been a German army officer, who met Rannaldini’s mother Gina, a chilly left-wing intellectual of great beauty but uncertain temper, during the last despairing days of the war, when the Germans had withdrawn up the leg of Italy.
Returning to Italy after a gruelling three years in a POW camp, Wolfgang found Gina living on the edge of a small Umbrian hill town, unhappily and most unsuitably married to Paolo Rannaldini, an Italian gentleman farmer, who’d lost practically everything in the war. Although Gina had grown less beautiful and more cantankerous, the affaire started again, until Paolo found out, by which time Wolfgang was quite relieved to be seen off with a shotgun. Having failed to withdraw down the leg of Gina, however, the result was a baby called Roberto, who took Paolo’s name but little else.
After this reversal, Paolo increasingly sought refuge in drink and other women and occasionally to beating up little Roberto. Gina, blaming her son quite wrongly for sabotaging the political career which she had always dreamed of, was terribly hard on him, frequently hitting him for displaying the same sybaritic nature as his German father. Even worse, she gave him no affection, particularly humiliating in a country where mothers hero-worship their sons, and took no pride in his achievements.
Irresistible to women, Roberto grew up fatally drawn to those who rejected him, or gave him a hard time like his mother. In return for his savage upbringing, he dealt out savage treatment to his musicians, his staff, and any woman foolish enough to fall in love with him.
In his late teens he left Italy and sought out his father, now a rich Hamburg industrialist who, proud of his unexpectedly glamorous, talented son, gave him some money and introduced him to a rich but plain wife, who supported him through three years at music school and gave him a son, little Wolfgang.
Just after leaving college, Rannaldini had another break, conducting his first performance of Medea, during which he fell madly in love with Cecilia, a famous but incredibly temperamental visiting soprano who was playing the leading role. He married her as soon as he could get a divorce. Cecilia bore him several children, of whom Natasha was the eldest, and helped him hugely with his career.
A musician of genius, who could play several instruments, including the eternal triangle, Rannaldini had been persuaded by Cecilia that he would only have the ultimate control he craved if he became a conductor. Their stormy marriage lasted fifteen years, and only foundered when Rannaldini’s affaire with Hermione became too public and Cecilia’s jealousy too excessive. Leaving her because she was too much trouble, he married Kitty because she was absolutely no trouble at all.
An improviser of genius, Rannaldini expected his musicians to be note-perfect at a first rehearsal. He was lucky in that he had a memory instant as a Polaroid. Glanced at, a page of music was not forgotten. Thus he was always able to conduct without a score, which was good because he never lost vital eye-contact with his orchestra, and because he was too vain to wear spectacles in public.
Rannaldini was a dandy. His tailcoats were only perfect after twenty-five fittings. Women had been known to die for Rannaldini’s back with its broad flat shoulders beneath the polished pelt of pewter-grey hair. The front was even better, with the sculptured, usually tanned, features, the beautifully shaped, slightly thin lips, and the dark, dark eyes that not only mesmerized orchestras, but gazed deep, deep into women’s eyes until their eyeballs melted.
Apart from his childhood which still gave him nightmares, Rannaldini had two great sadnesses. He was one of the greatest conductors in the world, but he minded that he was only an interpretative artist. He had composed in his youth, but, able to absorb other people’s music so effortlessly, he was terrified of being derivative and banal, and not succeeding 100 per cent. Secondly, he would have given anything to be six foot rather than five foot six.
And now he was back, padding stealthily into the new Mozart Hall a day early. The orchestra had already played Mahler’s Fourth to a rapturous reception in Vienna the night before. Afterwards most of the musicians had stayed up for Oswaldo’s birthday party, preferring to catch an early morning plane home for the rehearsal while still tight.
With the cheers of the sophisticated Viennese audience still ringing in their aching heads, they felt there was little need to do more than touch up a few difficult passages and practise with Hermione, who was to be the soloist in the fourth movement on Sunday. As Rannaldini was due back tomorrow, there was very much an elegiac feeling of the last day of the holidays, which was intensified by the players’ paraphernalia of music cases, dinner-jackets, evening dresses in plastic cases and holdalls which littered the front-stall seats and the gangway. No-one even minded that a cleaner was hoovering the red carpet up in the dress circle.
Hands floating above the music like a seagull, tall and gangling with a shock of blond hair, Oswaldo swayed on the rostrum, his ginger T-shirt showing two inches of bony white back each time he raised his arms.
‘This is dancing music,’ he said, calling a halt in the second movement. ‘It should be a little yar.’
Short of English, he pushed his elbows upwards, swaying his narrow hips to illustrate an imaginary beat.
‘Christ, I’ve got a hangover,’ said the leader of the orchestra, calling out to a passing Bob Harefield, ‘Get us an Alka-Seltzer, there’s a love, and let’s have a black-coffee break at the end of this movement, Ossie.’
But suddenly the musicians at the front desks started to shake, without knowing why. Then, gradually, as a faint sweet-musky scent reached the nostrils of the entire orchestra, they realized it was Rannaldini’s horribly distinctive aftershave, Maestro, specially created for him by Givenchy, wafting over them, as he strolled towards the rostrum.
‘A little yar,’ he murmured silkily. ‘What a very specific instruction. Not very OK ya in this case.’
The leader of the orchestra dropped his bow, the percussionist choked on his toffee, a bassoonist hastily put down P.D. James, the harpist stopped painting her toenails, a beautiful violinist in a purple shirt, deliberately placed at the desk nearest the audience, stopped reading a letter from her boyfriend. A female horn player, who’d been infatuated with Rannaldini since he’d bedded her on the orchestra’s last trip to Japan, dived behind the cellist in front, frantically combing her hair, and applying blusher to her blanched cheeks. A paper dart intended for Oswaldo fell at Rannaldini’s feet. Oswaldo melted away like snow in the morning sun. Bob Harefield on his way into the hall with a fizzing glass of Alka-Seltzer went sharply into reverse.
Normally chatter swelled whenever there was a halt, but now the hall was totally silent. Musicians, still trickling in because they hadn’t expected Rannaldini, were greeted with a sabatier tongue which slashed through their excuses.
‘Another pile-up on the motorway? The traffic was terrible from the airport?’ bawled Rannaldini to a little flautist weighed down by Sainsbury carrier bags. ‘The road was perfectly clear ten minutes ago.
‘A train taken off? Balderdash!’ His voice rose to a scream. ‘You’re late! If it happens again you’re fired.’
‘I’m sorry, Rannaldini, there was a bomb-scare in Sloane Square,’ said a front-desk violinist scuttling in.
‘Bomb-scare,’ purred Rannaldini, as the man frantically tuned his violin, twiddling and twisting the nobs with a shaking hand. Then with a roar, ‘I’ll put a bomb under you, all of you! Just look under your cars before you leave.’
Slowly he mounted the rostrum. As gleamingly brown from the LA sun as any of the cellos in his string section, he kept on his black overcoat with the astrakhan collar because he hadn’t adjusted to the cold March weather. Letting the score drop to the floor in a gesture of contempt, he removed his Rolex and laid it on the music-stand, then stood as still as one of his own Valhalla statues, establishing dominance.
The orchestra edged nearer their music-stands, wishing they could have fastened seat-belts against turbulence. Suddenly the music they’d known backwards five minutes ago seemed terrifyingly unfamiliar.
Tapping the baton given him by Toscanini, Rannaldini held out his arms. The leader put his violin under his chin, bow quaking in his hand, as Rannaldini gave the upbeat for the start of the funereally slow third movement.
Eyes missing nothing, gesticulating exquisitely with his beautiful hands, the right one keeping time, the left exhorting his musicians on, he let them have their heads. Economical with his movements, even his stick hand twitching no more than the tail of a cat watching a bird through a window, Rannaldini lulled them into a false sense of security. Perhaps the audience in Vienna had been right, after all.
Then he unleashed his fury, like a Fascist police squad moving in on a defenceless mob with cudgels, finding fault after fault with the performance until the women were in tears, the men grey and shaking, and shredded India rubber covered the floor where they’d erased Oswaldo’s instructions on their scores and replaced them with Rannaldini’s.
Able to identify a wrong note ten miles away, he singled out an oboe player. ‘You make a hundred meestakes.’
‘It’s difficult that bit,’ stammered the player.
‘Rubbish,’ thundered Rannaldini.
Strolling down from the rostrum he picked up the oboe and played it perfectly.
‘You haven’t practised. You’re fired.’ He handed back the oboe.
Then he noticed Bob Harefield’s charming Humpty Dumpty face with its tired bruised eyes, and shouted that he would not conduct on Sunday unless the twenty-four musicians Bob had hired in his absence were fired as well.
‘I no Okkay them,’ he screamed.
‘But every seat is sold, Maestro, and what about the BBC and Catchitune?’ said the manager of the Mozart Hall, almost in tears.
‘It weel ’ave to be cancelled,’ snarled Rannaldini. ‘I weel not play with peegs.’ Howling, he turned on his orchestra and would have kicked over a few music-stands if his handmade black shoes hadn’t been new.
‘I ’ear you murder Beethoven Nine. Poor Beethoven I ’ope they didn’t restore his ’earing in ’eaven. I ’ave tape of Radio Three programme last week when you abort The Creation.’
‘We got very good reviews for both,’ protested Bob, putting a comforting arm round the shoulder of the sacked oboist.
‘Reviewers are stupid peegs, and I want heem sacked,’ Rannaldini pointed at the front-desk violinist who’d rushed in late.
‘We can’t sack him,’ whispered Bob. ‘His wife’s just left him.’
‘Sensible woman,’ said Rannaldini, then, his voice rising to a shriek, ‘I want heem fired.’
A diversion was caused by the cleaner who started hoovering again at the back of the stalls.
‘Another sensible woman,’ said Rannaldini, ‘trying to obliterate this cacophony.’
A further diversion was caused by the arrival of Hermione swathed in mink to sing in the fourth movement.
‘I refuse to put those poor furriers out of business,’ she was saying to her entourage of agent, secretary, make-up girl, seamstress and lighting specialist. ‘I, for one, believe people come before animals.’
Having kissed her on both cheeks, Rannaldini calmed down a little.
‘We will move on to the last movement, since Mrs Harefield has done you the honour of turning up and, unlike you, knows the score.’
Hermione was a nightmare to work with. Beneath the façade of gushing serenity, she was ruthlessly egotistical, always making a fuss about dressing rooms and acoustics, taking against members of the orchestra, or other soloists, creating fearful anxiety as to whether she would go on at all, leaving everyone drained because she’d milked them of so many compliments. Then, once she opened her mouth, her performance would be flawless.
Today as she flapped around, fussing about being properly lit, her husband Bob went quietly round the orchestra smoothing feathers. Holding the score, eating an apple to moisten her throat, Hermione listened unmoved while Rannaldini bawled out a beautiful little blond female flautist who, out of terror, had fluffed the introductory bars before Hermione’s entrance.
Waiting for the nod to bring her in, Hermione stood on Rannaldini’s left, as she had so often in the past while he was making her famous in every capital in the world. It still gave Rannaldini a charge. Hermione couldn’t act for the percussionist’s toffee. She always sacrificed acting for beauty of tone. She irritated the hell out of Rannaldini, but when she opened her mouth and that ripple of angelic sound soared full and clear above the orchestra, he could forgive her anything. In return she seemed to be making love to him with her huge brown eyes, grateful to him for conjuring up magic she was unaware she possessed.
The orchestra watched her wonderful bosom rising and falling with a mixture of lust and dislike, but at the end they gave her a round of applause and even the odd bravo because she expected it.
‘Excellent, Mrs Harefield.’ Rannaldini’s flat bitchy voice could sink to reverberatingly seductive depths when he was in a conciliatory mood.
‘But as for you lot, go ’ome and practise. This is the score.’ Picking it off the floor, he hurled it into the orchestra, narrowly missing a lady clarinetist. ‘Now steek to eet, and eef you ’aven’t learn it properly by tomorrow, I won’t go on on Sunday.’ And he stalked out, leaving Hermione, who was expecting lunch at San Lorenzo, mouthing in outrage.
‘What can we do?’ asked the manager of the Mozart Hall in despair. ‘You can’t sack all those musicians.’
Bob shrugged. ‘Rannaldini’s just jackbooting around because he’s been away and he can’t bear his orchestra playing well for someone else. Also,’ Bob dropped his voice, ‘Cecilia — wife number two — is in London. She’s come over for Lucia at Covent Garden, so he wanted an excuse to storm out early and take her to lunch and double bed at The Savoy. She lives in New York, but he always sleeps with her when she comes over, or if he’s in New York.’
‘What’s she like?’ asked the leader of the orchestra, forgetting his hangover.
‘Little black mamba in little black numbers. Eats men for breakfast, or would if she wasn’t always on a diet.’ Bob shook with laughter.
‘Goodness,’ said the sacked oboe player, momentarily roused out of his despondency, ‘Does Hermione know?’
‘Christ, no! Why upset her? Cecilia’s supposed to be going down to Bagley Hall this evening to some end-of-term concert. Boris Levitsky’s the music master so the standard may have improved a little. I suppose Rannaldini may roll up as well, and Hermione. They’ll all fly in different helicopters.’
‘That guy’s a saint,’ said the leader of the orchestra, as Bob moved off to calm Hermione down.
Bagley Hall was a chic progressive boarding-school set amid rolling green parkland on the edge of the Rutminster-Gloucestershire border. The parents, who tended to be arty or from the media, had chosen the school mostly because they heard the music was wonderful, and they believed that their somewhat problematical darlings wouldn’t come to much harm amid such remote rural surroundings. The former assumption was certainly true since Boris Levitsky had become music master. Last seen threatening to beat up Lysander for comforting his wife Rachel after they met in a London chemist’s, Boris had shortly afterwards left the London Met, where he had worked as an assistant conductor, in an attempt to save his marriage.
Boris had loathed being an assistant conductor, which meant he was a glorified understudy, who took rehearsals, memorized scores and kept a tailcoat hanging in a cupboard backstage, ready to come on at a moment’s notice — but alas the moment never came.
This, with the added frustration of never getting any of his compositions published or performed, had driven Boris into the ego boost of an affaire with Chloe the mezzo.
Envious of Boris’s genius both as composer and conductor and not wanting competition at the London Met, Rannaldini had actively helped him to get the job at Bagley Hall, not least because he felt his daughter Natasha, and less so his son Wolfgang, who was in his last year and musically disinclined, could do with some decent teaching.
Boris found teaching much worse than being an assistant conductor. It was so draining that he had no effort left for composition. He was thirty-one and he was aware of time running out, particularly now that Europe, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, was flooded with Russian musicians. His novelty value was ebbing away. He would never achieve recognition.
Now the concert hall was filling up. Through the thick green velvet curtains, Boris could see Kitty Rannaldini, so sweet and downtrodden being ignored by her stepdaughter, Natasha. A voluptuous sixteen year old, almost incestuously in love with her father, Natasha had inherited both Cecilia’s and Rannaldini’s histrionic temperaments but not alas their talent. Her voice was powerful, but harsh. Assuming it must be good, however, she never listened to criticism.
Boris’s best pupil was Marcus Campbell-Black, who at seventeen played the piano with such sensitivity and imagination that there was little left to teach him. Through the curtain, Boris could see Marcus’s father, the legendarily handsome Rupert. Only dragged here on sufferance by his wife Taggie, Rupert was determined to leave early. He didn’t want to be buttonholed by his ex-wife Helen, who was sitting in the row behind.
Rupert had not forgiven Helen for not sending Marcus to his old school, Harrow. Convinced that there was no money in playing the piano as a career, it had taken Rupert a long time to get over the shock, four years ago, when Marcus had timidly announced that he wanted to become a concert pianist.
Today Rupert was worrying about the recession. At Venturer, the local ITV company of which he was a director, advertising had slumped. The bloodstock market had also taken ä dive. Finally he had been up all night with a sick filly, who was a distinct possibility for the Guineas and The Oaks and he wanted to get back to her.
He was, therefore, the only adult not thrown into turmoil because Rannaldini had just telephoned Natasha to say he would be attending the concert after all. Parents and teachers were all in a tizz in case one of their darlings was discovered. The pupils, on the other hand, were more excited by the presence of Georgie Maguire and Guy Seymour who were becoming cult figures since the launching of Rock Star. Natasha Rannaldini, who saw herself as the victim of a broken home, thought ‘Rock Star’ was the most wonderful song, and that the reason she wasn’t as popular at Bagley Hall as Flora Seymour was because she didn’t have parents as happy as Guy and Georgie. Amazed to see them arriving with her dreary stepmother, whom she usually passed off as the younger children’s au pair, Natasha was forced to speak to Kitty in order to meet them.
‘Shame your father isn’t here to hear you singing,’ said Guy.
‘But he will be.’ From under heavy eyelids, Natasha shot a spiteful glance at Kitty. ‘He just rang to say he’s on his way.’
For a second, Guy thought Kitty would black out with horror as she remembered she hadn’t turned on the central heating in the tower, or put clean sheets on Rannaldini’s bed there or in her bedroom, in case he deigned to sleep with her this evening. There was nothing special for supper, and Rannaldini’s guard-dogs were still down in the village with their handler. He liked a pack welcome.
‘I must go,’ she mumbled white-lipped, ‘I’ll get a taxi.’
‘You will not.’ Firmly Guy took her arm. ‘It’s Rannaldini’s fault for arriving a day early. He can join us at The Heavenly Host.’
Georgie, still smarting because Rannaldini had dismissed ‘Rock Star’ as derivative, was even more livid that Guy hadn’t let her wash her hair. She’d had to make up in the car and now, in the crowded, overheated hall, was terrified that her pale skin would grow red and blotchy. She was also piqued that while everyone else’s children were crowding around asking for autographs, Flora, whom she hadn’t seen since before the American tour, hadn’t showed up.
Although she had only been at the school one term, Flora had already established herself as the Bagley Hall wild child, determined to buck the system. Wolfie Rannaldini had a massive crush on her, so did Marcus Campbell-Black, but he was too shy to do anything about it. Like most of the girls in the school, Flora had a massive crush on Boris Levitsky, who had sallow skin, wonderful slitty dark grey eyes and high cheek-bones. With his long blue jacket and shaggy black hair in a pony-tail, he would be perfectly cast as Mr Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty.
The concert had been due to start at five o’clock. It was now five-thirty, and there was still no sign of Rannaldini. The orchestra had tuned up and up. Parents were looking at their watches. Many of them had long drives home and would be forced to stumble out in the middle, ruining the concert, which was probably Rannaldini’s intention, thought Boris darkly. Determined to impress his old mentor, he was getting increasingly strung up. He was very tired, because sustained by vodka he was playing the fiddle in a Soho night-club to make ends meet.
Out in the hall, distraction was provided by the arrival of the great diva, Hermione Harefield, who’d just rolled up with Bob and plonked herself down between Kitty and Guy in the seat that was being kept for Rannaldini. It was twenty-five to six. Miss Bottomley, the headmistress, vast and Sapphic, had just risen furiously to announce that the concert could be delayed no longer, when Rannaldini’s helicopter landed on the lawn outside, squashing a lot of daffodils. Kitty watched him jump down like a cat, bronzed and impossibly glamorous, with his thick pewter hair hardly ruffled by the wind, and her heart failed, as it always did. Georgie, prepared to detest him because of Hermione’s jibes, thought he was the most attractive man she had ever seen. It was not just the good looks, but the total lack of contrition.
‘Sorry to hold you up, Sabine,’ he called out blithely to an apoplectic Miss Bottomley, as he swept up the aisle asphyxiating everyone with Maestro. ‘We had engine trouble.’ Then, glancing up at Boris, who was fuming in the wings, ‘Carry on, Boris.’
Always engine trouble when Cecilia’s in town, thought Kitty despairingly.
‘Over here, Rannaldini. We’ve saved you a seat,’ called Hermione in her deep thrilling voice.
In fact she hadn’t. It merely meant that Helen Campbell-Black had to move into the row in front and sit next to her ex-husband, Rupert, who had in the past been infinitely more promiscuous and far later for every engagement than Rannaldini, but who was now glaring at him with all the chilling disapproval of the reformed rake.
‘Fucking Casanouveau,’ he murmured to Taggie. ‘Can’t imagine him as a schoolboy. Must have spent his time in the biology lab dissecting live rats.’
Moving down the row to join Hermione, Rannaldini’s eyes fell on a cringing Kitty.
‘Friday is a work day,’ he murmured as he sat down beside her. ‘I assume everything’s in order at home for you to play truant like this.’
‘I fort you was coming tomorrow,’ stammered Kitty. ‘I fort Natasha would like one of us to be here.’
‘Hush,’ said Hermione loudly, ‘Boris wishes to begin.’
Boris had a hole in his dark blue jacket, buttons off his white frilled shirt, a nappy pin holding up his trousers, and his unruly black hair was escaping from its black bow. Mounting the rostrum, he bent to kiss the score of Brahms’ Academic Overture, lifted his stick and began immediately. If Rannaldini was all icy precision, Boris was all fire and romantic enthusiasm. The orchestra played as though they were possessed. Bob Harefield, who never stopped talent-spotting and was now leaning against the wall at the back of the hall, took out his notebook.
Rannaldini, on the other hand, closed his eyes and ostentatiously winced at any wrong note. Rupert Campbell-Black was not much better behaved, his golden head lolling on his present wife’s shoulder as he gently snored in counterpoint to the music, until his ex-wife woke him up to listen to Marcus playing the last movement of Mozart’s E Flat Piano Concerto. This Marcus did so exquisitely, and looked so touching, with his faun’s face, big hazel eyes and gleaming dark red hair, that the audience, despite being kept late by Rannaldini, demanded an encore.
Mopping his brow, looking much happier, Boris tapped the rostrum.
‘Marcus will now play a little composition of my own. I ’op you all like him.’
The audience wasn’t sure, and started looking bewildered and at their watches, not understanding the music one bit.
‘Sounds as though the stable cat’s got loose on the piano. Awful lot of wrong notes,’ muttered Rupert.
‘I think they’re meant to be, because it’s modern,’ whispered Taggie.
‘Hush,’ said Rupert’s ex-wife furiously.
Rannaldini, who’d repeatedly refused to programme Boris’s music, felt totally vindicated, and smirking, pretended to go to sleep again. Through almost closed eyes he was aware of Kitty, plump, white and quivering like a blancmange. It was cruel to compare her with the other very young wife in the room, but Rannaldini did so. Staring at Taggie Campbell-Black, he decided she was very desirable, particularly in that red cashmere polo-neck which had brought a flush to her cheeks. And what breasts, and what legs in that black suede mini-skirt! Her succulent thighs must be twice as long and half the width of Kitty’s. She was reputed to be a marvellous cook, and to be adored by all Rupert’s children, which was more than could be said for Kitty. How amusing to take Taggie off Rupert, thought Rannaldini, who liked long-distance challenges. As if willed by his lust, Taggie turned round and smiled without thinking because he looked familiar. Then, realizing they hadn’t been introduced, she turned away, and Rannaldini suddenly encountered such a murderous glare from Rupert that he hastily looked up the row at Helen. She was stunning, too. Rupert certainly knew how to pick them. Rannaldini wished he had brought Cecilia to redress the balance, but he had exhausted her so much at The Savoy she couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed.
And now it was Natasha’s turn to sing ‘Hark, Hark the Lark’. Her voice was strident and she hadn’t practised enough. Marcus played the accompaniment, and, being a kind boy, speeded up to get her through the difficult bits. The audience, who didn’t know any better, seeing in their programme that she was a Rannaldini, gave her huge applause, led by Hermione.
Rannaldini let his thoughts wander to the little blond flautist he had reduced to tears at the rehearsal. Tomorrow he would be stern at first, then stun her with a word of praise and ultimately ask her to his flat in Hyde Park Square for a drink. ‘I only bully you, dearest child, because you have talent.’
The orchestra, with Wolfie playing the clarinet, Natasha the violin and Marcus Campbell-Black the trumpet, were just murdering the ‘Dove’ from Respighi’s The Birds, and plucking the poor thing as well, and Rannaldini was about to stage another of his very public walk-outs which would take all the attention off Boris, when Kitty whispered that the girl Wolfie was mad about was coming on next.
The orchestra, who were going to end the concert with an Enigma Variation, stayed in their seats. Rannaldini couldn’t imagine his stolid rugger-playing son being mad about anyone interesting, but when Flora strolled on to the platform, he couldn’t take his eyes off her. Despite having several spots, greasy red hair the colour of tabasco and a pale green complexion from drinking at lunchtime, she was the sexiest girl he’d ever seen. Her school shirt, drenched in white wine, clung almost transparently to her small jutting breasts, her tie was askew, her black stockings laddered. Gazing truculently at the back of the hall she sang ‘Speed Bonny Boat’ unaccompanied and the room went still. Her voice was beyond criticism, sweet, pure, piercingly distinctive and delivered in a take-it-or-leave-it manner without a quiver of nerves. Her star quality was undeniable. Georgie clutched Guy’s hand. Deeply moved, Guy couldn’t resist glancing sideways, delighted at the dramatic effect his daughter’s voice was having on Rannaldini. He didn’t want her to become a pop star, but a career in classical music would be different. Perhaps Flora was learning to behave at last.
But when Flora reached the line about winds roaring loudly and thunderclouds rending the air, she so empathized with tossing on a rough sea that she suddenly turned even greener, and, grabbing the nearest trumpet from a protesting Marcus, threw up into it.
The first person to break the long and appalled silence was Rupert Campbell-Black, quite unable to control his laughter.
Sod Wolfie, thought Rannaldini with a surge of excitement, I must have that girl.
Georgie and Guy were so overwhelmed with mortification and, in Guy’s case, white-hot rage that they nearly boycotted the drinks party afterwards. Miss Bottomley, who’d been looking for an excuse all term, was poised to sack Flora on the spot when Rannaldini glided up and smoothed everything over.
Putting his beautiful suntanned hand, which was immediately shrugged off, on Miss Bottomley’s wrestler’s shoulders, he assured her that all creative artists suffered from stage fright.
‘The girl’s impossible,’ spluttered Miss Bottomley.
‘But on course for stardom. I never ’ear a voice like this since I first heard Hermione Harefield. Even Mrs Harefield,’ Rannaldini lowered his voice suggestively, ‘need endless coaxing to go on and very delicate handling.’
Frightfully excited at the thought of handling Hermione, Miss Bottomley agreed to give Flora another chance.
‘I will speak to her parents,’ insisted Rannaldini.
He then astounded Wolfie, Natasha and Kitty by changing his mind and staying on for the drinks party. As Rupert Campbell-Black had led the stampede of cars down the drive, he would at least have the floor to himself.
‘Was “Hark, Hark” OK, Papa?’ demanded Natasha, linking arms with her father as she led him down dark-panelled corridors past gawping staff and pupils.
‘Excellent,’ said Rannaldini abstractedly, ‘you’ve come on a lot. What was the matter with Wolfie’s little redhead?’
Deliberately Natasha let the door into Miss Bottomley’s private apartment slam in the face of Kitty, who was panting to keep up with them on her high heels.
‘Flora got pissed at lunchtime,’ explained Natasha. ‘She’s got this massive crush on Boris Levitsky and she saw him French, or rather,’ Natasha giggled, ‘Russian-kissing some strange blonde — not Rachel his wife — outside the Nat West this morning. That was Boris’s trumpet Flora was sick into. Boris had lent it to Marcus.’
So Boris is back with Chloe the mezzo, thought Rannaldini. Certainly he didn’t regard Flora’s massive crush on the Russian as any competition.
Miss Bottomley’s large study was already packed with parents falling on drink and food like the vultures culture always seems to turn people into. Most of them, Rannaldini noticed scornfully, seemed to be gathering like flies on a cowpat round that ghastly, blousy Georgie Maguire, who kept throwing him hot glances. Ignoring her totally, but accepting a glass of orange juice — he never touched cheap wine — Rannaldini spoke briefly to Boris.
‘Well tried, my dear. Slightly too ambitious. They are still cheeldren, and was it wise to programme one of your own compositions in front of these Pheelistines?’
Boris, whose conducting arm was not aching too much to prevent him downing several glasses of red, wanted to smash Rannaldini’s cold, fleshless, but curiously sensual face, but then Rannaldini murmured something about having a pile of freelance work. Boris needed the money badly.
‘Now introduce me to Flora’s parents,’ he said to Natasha.
‘Oh, didn’t you twig, Papa? Flora’s Georgie Maguire’s daughter.’
Rannaldini didn’t miss a beat. Gliding forward, parting parents like the Red Sea by sheer force of personality, he stopped in front of Georgie, put his hands in the pockets of his soft brown suede jacket, bowed slightly and glared aggressively into her eyes. His trick was to unnerve women by staring them out, then suddenly to smile.
‘Senora Seymour,’ he said caressingly. ‘May I call you Georgie?’ Then raising her hand which was clutching a soggy Ritz cracker topped with tinned pâté and chopped gherkin, he touched it with his lips.
Just one corny-etto, thought Guy.
‘I am sorry I mees your launching,’ went on Rannaldini, ‘I ’op it is not too late to say: welcome to Paradise.’
‘Oh, not at all. How lovely to meet you at last.’ Georgie was totally flustered, as though a great tiger had strolled out of the jungle and was rubbing his face against her cheek. Rannaldini was even more faint-making close up.
‘And I loff Rock Star. It is great music and your peecture don’t do you any justice.’
What could Rannaldini be playing at? Hermione, who’d joined them, was looking furious.
‘Oh, thank you,’ gasped Georgie, then remembering her manners, ‘This is Guy — my husband,’ she added almost regretfully.
‘I haff heard much of your gallery.’ Rannaldini switched his searchlight charm on to Guy. ‘You were first to exeebit Daisy France-Lynch when no-one else had ’eard of her. I ’ave several of her paintings.’
‘Oh, right,’ Guy was totally disarmed. ‘I’d love to see them.’
‘You shall,’ said Rannaldini. ‘First I want to get Bob over to talk about Flora.’
Seeing his endlessly compassionate and good-natured orchestra manager making too good a job of cheering up Boris Levitsky, Rannaldini clicked his fingers imperiously.
Refusing to be ruffled, Bob finished what he was saying and was fighting his way through the mob when Guy said to Rannaldini: ‘You may not have been here to welcome us, but Kitty has been an absolute brick, bringing us new-laid eggs and turning down curtains. You’re a lucky man,’ he added rather heartily, aware that the searchlight beam had dimmed a little.
Rannaldini, who detested Kitty furthering anyone’s interests but his own, much preferred it if she turned down invitations rather than curtains. He even begrudged her taking an hour off on Sunday to go to church.
Aware of a distinct chill but not understanding why, Georgie couldn’t bear to lose contact.
‘We wanted to take Kitty out to The Heavenly Host tonight,’ she stammered.
‘Why don’t we all go? We were planning to celebrate Flora’s first night home, although on second thoughts she seems to have pre-empted us rather too well already. Why don’t you both come to dinner at Angel’s Reach? How about Friday week? We should be a little less shambolic by then.’
Hermione, who was about to draw Georgie aside and explain that the protocol in Paradise was for long-term residents to invite first, awaited one of Rannaldini’s legendary put-downs.
Instead, to her amazement, he accepted with enthusiasm.
On four glasses of cheap wine, Georgie proceeded to invite Bob, who’d just brought Boris over to be introduced, and Hermione who only accepted because Rannaldini had. Then she asked Boris and his wife Rachel, if they were in the country, to make up for the sick trumpet, which Boris reassured Georgie would easily wash out. Then, to placate Miss Bottomley, she asked her as well.
‘Best time to have a house-warming party when it’s not all done up for people to ruin,’ said Georgie happily.
As they drove home, a moon one size up from new was winging its way like a white dove towards a dying flame-red sunset. Slumped in the back Flora was fast asleep.
‘I thought you wanted peace and quiet in the country,’ chided Guy.
‘I got carried away. I thought it would be good for Flora to meet Rannaldini. She needs an older man to direct her. One never listens to one’s parents at her age. He says she’s exceptional. Anyway I can’t cut myself off completely. We can have sausages and mash. People will only expect a picnic as we’ve just moved in.’
Guy, who knew he’d be lumbered with the cooking and the organization, put his mind to the menu.
Georgie lay back in a blissful haze, convinced Rannaldini had only accepted because he fancied her. It was years since she’d felt that loin-churning excitement.
‘Rannaldini’s lovely, isn’t he?’ she couldn’t help saying.
‘Not terribly,’ said Guy shortly. ‘Not to Kitty and he’s clearly terribly two-faced.’
But it was such a beautiful face, thought Georgie dreamily, you didn’t mind there being two of them.
Guy was an ace cook and a wonderful host, but Georgie had never known him make such a fuss about a dinner party. His nose had been in Anton Mosimann for days. As the dining room was still being wallpapered, he took the Friday of the dinner party off and set the big scrubbed table in the kitchen first thing in the morning. He then got enraged when Charity the cat did bending races in and out of the glasses, decanters and flowers, and with Flora when she drifted in at lunchtime with a group of friends and started making toasted sandwiches and leaving a trail of mugs, crumbs and overflowing ashtrays.
‘We met a crowd of spiders fleeing down the drive singing the theme from Exodus,’ Flora told her father. ‘You ought to put one in a glass case to remind us what they look like.’
‘Don’t be fatuous,’ snapped Guy, bashing a lobster claw with unusual violence.
When he wasn’t cooking Guy seemed to spend the whole day cleaning surfaces, tidying and re-arranging the house, and disappearing to get petrol for the mower.
Every superfluous blade of grass must be cut, like a woman waiting for her lover, thought Georgie, who, having been told she was more hindrance than help, retired to work.
She was enchanted with her new study, high up in the west tower and reached by a staircase so narrow they had to hoist her piano, her worktable and Dinsdale’s ancient chaise-longue in through the window. Sitting at her table, pen poised over a blank page of manuscript paper, she was trying to write a song equating love to everlasting candles on a birthday cake.
‘The strongest winds may blow and rack, but I’ll come burning brightly back,’ wrote Georgie. The word ‘rack’ was too obscure: she’d have to think of something else. She got down the rhyming dictionary.
She could see the great lichened curve of an angel’s wing, and if she leant out of the window she could look over a fuzz of wood as soft as rabbit’s fur to the chimneys of Valhalla and Rannaldini’s grey tower beyond. Paradise lived more and more up to its name. Like quill pens plunging into inky-green spring grass, little poplar trees lined the drive. As Guy’s mowing machine paused, Georgie could hear the rattle of a woodpecker.
After the morning’s rain, the mist was rising milky blue down the valley like a thousand smoke signals. Dreamily she imagined herself sending a message to Rannaldini: ‘Guy’s home. His lunch in Bath’s been cancelled. We can’t meet today.’
On the mantelpiece was an unsigned good luck card from Tancredi who’d been the lead guitarist in her first famous group of the sixties. Georgie and Tancredi had been the most passionate and fatal of lovers, and when the group split up, she had settled for Guy and stability, and Tancredi had kicked his cocaine habit and married a homespun middle-American girl and made good in Los Angeles. But they still telephoned each other occasionally, and met up and made love when Tancredi came over to England, agreeing that, although they were far better off with their present partners, there was still an undeniable bond between them. Tancredi was due back in May. Perhaps he could come down to Angel’s Reach when Guy was in London. There were plainly advantages to being alone in the country mid-week, particularly if Rannaldini was around.
Then Georgie looked up at the corkboard where she’d pinned cuttings from the Rock Star launch. Guy — square jawed, clear-eyed, sternly handsome — stared down at her. She must get a copy of the photograph from the Express and have it framed.
Guy was the one who mattered, but it was lovely to be fancied. Feeling dreadfully self-indulgent, she slotted in the tape of Rock Star, glorying in the smoky beauty of her own voice and picked up her pen.
Flora had only agreed to wait at the table, because Boris was coming to dinner. Now she had further enraged Guy by messing up the guest bathroom and annexing his Free Foresters’ cricket sweater. Hearing shouting from downstairs, Georgie wondered if Guy was uptight because he’d picked up the vibes between her and Rannaldini. She felt very excited as she wandered downstairs reeking of Giorgio, in a clinging velvet midi-dress, the same luminous grey as the sky on a moonlit night, which streamlined her opulent body and showed off her tousled red hair.
‘No Spring, nor Summer beauty has such grace, As I have seen in one Autumnal face.’ She could imagine Rannaldini murmuring in that wonderful throbbing basso profundo.
The house certainly looked lovely. The huge rooms, although hell to heat, were a marvellous showcase for Guy’s paintings. Rannaldini and Larry, and to a lesser extent, Bob were collectors, Guy even had hopes of Rupert Campbell-Black, who despite not knowing the difference between a Titian and a Tretchikoff, had one of the finest collections of paintings in the country.
Drifting into the drawing room, however, Georgie found that all their own paintings had been taken down and the stark white walls covered with vast oils of the same copulating couple, a rapacious naked girl coiled round a faceless man in a pin-stripe suit.
Flora, who was still wearing Guy’s cricket sweater, and looking as trampishly sexy as her mother looked voluptuous and replete, was gazing at them in horror.
‘What’s this shit?’ she demanded.
‘Don’t swear.’ Guy’s lips tightened, as he adjusted a picture light. ‘And don’t make comments on things about which you know nothing. These are original Armstrongs.’
‘You’d need strong arms to hoist up a dog like that girl. They’re absolutely gross.’
‘It’s a moving and original interpretation of the Kama Sutra.’
‘Pin-stripe suitra more like,’ drawled Flora. ‘Who’s coming to this bash anyway?’
Guy looked even more bootfaced, but was not prepared to risk a row that might leave him waitressless.
‘Well, I decided in for a penny in for a pound. There’s Julia Armstrong and her husband Ben.’ Going into the kitchen, he gave his raspberry purée, to go with the lobster mousseline, a stir.
‘Who’s she?’ asked Georgie.
Guy sighed. ‘Oh Panda, I’ve told you a hundred times. She’s having an exhibition at the gallery next month. I thought people might enjoy a preview tonight. Ben and Julia live in Islington, but they’ve rented a weekend cottage in Eldercombe. They’ve got young children. Ben’s in computers. I like him a lot. Leave those grapes alone, Flora,’ he said sharply. ‘And you were going to wash a couple of lettuces, Georgie, I’ve done the dressing. And for goodness’ sake, do the placement before everyone arrives.’
Oh God, placement was more taxing than A level maths! There was Julia and Ben, Rannaldini and Kitty, Annabel Hardman, another friend of Georgie’s who lived in Paradise, and Valentine, her brilliant beast of a lawyer husband, who might not turn up. Boris and Rachel, Marigold and Lysander or Larry, and for Miss Bottomley Georgie had invited Meredith Whalen, an extremely expensive, gay interior designer, who was nicknamed the Ideal Homo, because he was so often asked to make up numbers at Paradise dinner parties.
‘I’ll need log tables to work out this one,’ grumbled Georgie.
‘Bottomley’d better go on your right, Mum,’ advised Flora. ‘She’ll need two chairs.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ giggled Georgie. ‘She goes on Daddy’s right and Hermione on his left.’
But Guy, who was spooning caviar on to each plate beside the lobster mousseline, was not in the mood for frivolity.
‘Put Julia Armstrong on my left. She won’t know anyone, and I’ve got to talk shop to her, and put Ben on your left.’
With alarm Georgie suddenly noticed a dozen bottles of Dom Perignon, a battalion of Nuits St George as well as the vat of caviar and four bottles of Barsac in the fridge. They were horrendously overdrawn at the moment, but she didn’t feel she could remonstrate with Guy when he’d done all the cooking and her new grey velvet dress had cost a fortune.
Following him into the drawing room she found him putting on a record. Next moment Mozart flooded the house from every speaker.
‘Oh, lovely,’ sighed Georgie, ‘Rannaldini’s Così.’
‘It’s Mozart’s Così,’ snapped Guy.
He is uptight about Rannaldini, thought Georgie.
Guy was wearing neither tie nor jacket, which was unusual. A cornflower-blue shirt which she hadn’t seen before was tucked into very dark grey cords held up with a leather belt. He looked glowingly handsome, and Georgie told him so. ‘And you’re in great shape,’ she added, putting her arms round his broad athletic back, and feeling his flat taut midriff.
‘Must be humping all that furniture.’
‘You’ve worked so hard,’ murmured Georgie, ‘particularly today. I am lucky. Love you, darling.’
‘Love you, Panda,’ said Guy. ‘Now do the placement, so you can relax and enjoy yourself.’
The evening, in fact, was far from relaxed. By nine o’clock only Miss Bottomley had arrived, roaring up on a motor bike and in a foul mood because she’d got lost.
Then at a quarter-past nine Boris rang full of tearful and mostly incomprehensible contrition. Rachel had found out that he’d been seeing his old mistress, Chloe, and issued an ultimatum. As a point of honour Boris felt he must resign from the marriage, so he couldn’t make dinner, nor understandably could Rachel, which meant a frantic resetting of the table, and a rewrite of the placement — not easy when one was three Bacardis up.
Even worse, Flora, on learning Boris wasn’t coming, retired to her bedroom with a bottle of Barsac and the cordless telephone, and flatly refused to do any waitressing. Bob then arrived with Hermione, looking radiant in an olive-green Chanel suit braided with rose pink. Bringing up the rear, was Meredith, the Ideal Homo.
‘We’re late because Rannaldini sacked two soloists this afternoon and Bob’s got to find replacements by Monday,’ said Hermione, handing her mink to Guy. ‘Gracious, it looks different since the Jennings’ day.’
She then proceeded to go into ecstasies over the dark green wallpaper in the downstairs lavatory which they hadn’t changed, and on peering into the study which had been papered in dark mulberry to set off Guy’s Victorian paintings, said: ‘What colour are you going to paint this dreadfully dark room?’
Meredith, who looked like Christopher Robin with Shirley Temple’s blond curls, and who was tiny, beautifully dressed, and a great giggler, made no comment, on the principle that any praise might do him out of a possible job.
‘I think it looks wonderful,’ said Bob Harefield, hugging a disconsolate Georgie.
By nine-thirty, they were still light on Rannaldini and Kitty, Julia and Ben Armstrong, Annabel and Valentine Hardman and Marigold and whoever. Georgie was so nervous and belted upstairs so often to check her face that Bob wondered if she was on something. Rannaldini’s Der Rosenkavalier was now surging out of the speakers, and Hermione had started to sing along.
‘You better put on the broccoli,’ muttered Guy as he opened another bottle of champagne. ‘I can’t do everything.’
Not waiting for the water to boil, Georgie was returning from the kitchen when through the door came a girl with long hair, the red of springtime copper beeches, and a lot of dark make-up round her fox-brown eyes. She was wearing a cream midi-dress, which enhanced her very pale skin, as falling snowflakes whiten the sky. Her slender neck seemed almost too delicate to support a heavy metal scorpion which hung between unexpectedly full breasts.
Lovely, thought Georgie with pleasure. Not unlike me twenty years ago, I must go on a diet.
‘Panda, this is Julia Armstrong,’ said Guy, ‘and this,’ he added even more warmly, ‘is Ben.’
Ben in computers was bald with protruding eyes, full red lips emphasized by a straggling black beard, and a little frill of black hair flowing over his white collar like a draught extractor. Seeing Guy in a shirt, he promptly removed his jacket to show off a small waist and hips as wide as his shoulders. He then proceeded to explain, in his nasal, very common voice, that they were late because he’d been kept at the office on extremely important business.
‘What a lovely spot, Guy,’ he went on, accepting a drink. ‘How did you find it?’
‘With great difficulty if you had Georgie’s directions,’ boomed Sabine Bottomley, who was gazing in admiration at Julia.
It is sod’s law, thought Georgie irritably, as Julia clapped her hands in joy as she saw her paintings on the walls, that such an enchanting girl should be on Guy’s left and I should be landed with her gh-a-a-stly husband.
But next moment the balance was redressed by the arrival of Rannaldini, who’d been kept on even more important business, some multi-billion Yen record deal with the Japs, and who was livid not to be the last to arrive. Heart-stopping in a dark blue velvet smoking-jacket, he was followed by poor Kitty looking unbelievably plain in burgundy polyester, with just the wrong gathers over the hips for her bean-bag figure.
As Ben was nearest the door and shamefully because they were the two most unattractive people in the room, Georgie introduced him to Kitty.
‘Do you play an instrument?’ asked Ben.
‘She plays the word processor,’ called out Rannaldini bitchily. ‘Don’t give her any other ideas.’
Introduced to Julia, who, in her nervousness, Georgie called Juliet, Rannaldini was all-purring amiability, but grew less so on learning that Flora had pushed off upstairs.
‘Go and get your daughter,’ Guy hissed at Georgie.
Always my daughter, when she’s acting up, thought Georgie, applying another layer of Clinique, and a squirt of Giorgio before banging on Flora’s door.
‘Darling, please come out and be nice. Rannaldini’s bought you tickets for the St Matthew Passion.’
‘I don’t care,’ sobbed Flora who’d drunk nearly a whole bottle of Barsac. ‘The only passion I have is for Boris Levitsky and he’s buggered off with that slag Chloe. My life is over.’
Charging downstairs, Georgie found Guy pointing out the merits of one of Julia’s enmeshed couples to Rannaldini, Bob and Meredith, the Ideal Homo.
‘They’re very strong,’ Guy said warmly. ‘I’m certain Armstrong is going to be very big.’
Meredith, who inveigled vast fees out of his clients with the innocence of a schoolboy touting for pocket money, raised his little grey flannel leg three inches off the ground in imitation of the Pin-stripe Lover.
‘I couldn’t get myself into that position in a thousand years,’ he giggled. ‘He must be awfully fit.’
Irritated he wasn’t taking the painting seriously enough, Guy turned on Georgie. ‘Annabel Hardman has just rung and bottled out,’ he whispered furiously. ‘Valentine’s stuck in London.’
‘And in some blonde, oh, poor Annabel,’ said Georgie.
‘Says she can’t face it on her own,’ snarled Guy. ‘And where’s your friend Marigold? The quails will be totally ruined.’
Next moment a disgusting smell of burnt rubber drifted in from the kitchen.
‘Oh God, I forgot the broccoli,’ wailed Georgie.
Guy’s face tightened. Even worse, Dinsdale, fed up with being tripped over, had hoisted himself on to the big dark gold corduroy sofa in front of the fire and angrily refused to be evicted when Hermione wanted to sit down.
‘No, I won’t have any more champagne. I’m looking forward to a glass of wine at dinner.’ Hermione looked at her Cartier watch pointedly.
She was fed up with fascinating Miss Bottomley who had even more beard than Julia’s husband, with whom Kitty was making very heavy weather.
‘I’m starving,’ muttered Meredith to Georgie. ‘I had lunch with Bob and Hermione, and the old bat just served up stale bread and mousetrap, which would have been turned down by any self-respecting rat. “Hermione,” I told her, “this mousetrap’s been in your larder longer than Dame Agatha’s play.” She wasn’t amused.’
In panic, feeling as if all her guests were set in gelatine, Georgie had another drink. It was plain from the bored expression on Rannaldini’s face that he wasn’t remotely interested in her, and if Marigold didn’t show they’d need speaking trumpets to hear each other at dinner. Her heart lifted as lights came up the drive, but they went round to the back of the house. It was Mrs Piggott, Georgie’s cleaner, whom Flora had nicknamed Mother Courage, because she drank so much beer and who had already arrived to wash up.
We should never have moved to the country and got embroiled in such grandiose entertaining, thought Georgie. But just as they were seated round the kitchen table, and Ben, to his horror, found himself next to dowdy Kitty yet again, the curtain less windows were filled with flashing lights and a helicopter landed on the lawn spewing out Larry and Marigold who was looking stunning in a scarlet satin suit. Clasping hands, they ran across the lawn, nearly tripping over a molehill.
‘Fraightfully sorry we’re late,’ said Marigold as Georgie hastily wrote Larry’s name on a place card instead of Lysander’s. ‘Larry was closing a deal.’
‘Anyone we know?’ asked Bob Harefield.
After some coaxing, Larry admitted that he’d just bought 28 per cent of a vast Japanese record company.
‘He also found taime to make love to me on the office carpet,’ whispered Marigold to Georgie.
The dinner party perked up a bit after this as Larry and Marigold affected everyone with their high spirits. Idly flipping over the piece of paper on which Georgie had worked out the placement, Rannaldini found his cv, which Georgie had had faxed down from the London Met Press Office, so she would be able to talk knowledgeably about his career at dinner. Rannaldini smirked. If Georgie had the hots for him, he’d gain access to her house and Flora more easily. A gaze-hound who hunted by sight rather than scent, having once seen Flora, he wouldn’t rest until he caught her, however long the chase.
On the other hand, Georgie wasn’t unattractive. She looked much better today. It would be an added frisson to play off mother and daughter.
So he turned the charm on Georgie, praising Flora’s looks and blazing talent which could only come from her mother. He then told Georgie about his guest-conducting and filming commitments all over the world, and Georgie didn’t take in a word he said, because, from the way he was looking at her, she felt he’d already taken a degree in the geography of her body without removing a single garment. And that voice, husky, slow, reverberating like the molten depths of a volcano pondering whether to wipe out a nearby town just for the hell of it, made his tritest utterance sound significant.
‘We are both on treadmill, my dear Georgie,’ he was saying now, softly, ‘I in my Lear Jet, you in your leetie study, both making music, but we will meet from time to time in Paradise.’
‘Oh yes.’ Georgie’s heart seemed to be beating between her legs.
Hermione, who detested Rannaldini chatting up anyone else, led the shrieks of praise for Guy’s lobster mousseline, followed by quails en croute in ginger and yoghurt.
With great difficulty, Georgie wrenched her attention away from Rannaldini to talk to the horrific Ben.
‘You have a very beautiful and talented wife,’ she said.
‘Julia is also a caring mother,’ said Ben complacently.
At the end of the table, against the sooty black of the uncurtained window, Julia, her pale skin glowing like pearl, was listening to Guy’s plans for the house.
‘I’ll knock this wall through into a conservatory, leading to an indoor pool,’ he was saying. ‘I mean, when does one get a chance to swim outside in Rutshire?’
And who the hell’s going to pay for it? Only if I write another smash hit, which they’re all so dismissive of, with their fucking classical music, thought Georgie.
Julia was telling Hermione how wonderfully she had sung in Der Rosenkavalier.
Having found out from Marigold the details of the Japanese record company Larry had bought into, Rannaldini was now discussing the sacked soloists across her with Bob. Georgie was dying to gossip to Marigold. How lovely if I had Rannaldini on the side, she thought dreamily, like Marigold had had Lysander.
As there was no broccoli, the salad was now being circulated. Alas, Hermione found half a slug in the lettuce; Georgie hadn’t bothered to wash because it was Iceberg.
‘I’m just worried that some poor person might get the other half,’ Hermione was stage-whispering to Guy.
After that no-one wanted any salad, and conversation moved on to universities, which Kitty took no part in having left school at sixteen. Sitting between Ben and Meredith, who had both turned their backs on her, Kitty wished she was sitting next to Bob — goodness, he looked tired — or to Guy who’d read the lesson so beautifully in church on Sunday and who was being so sweet to that lovely painter. Kitty noticed that Rannaldini, as the Guest of Honour, had been put on Georgie’s right, but did not feel slighted that she as his wife hadn’t been put next to Guy. That privilege was naturally accorded to Hermione, the maîtresse en titre. Every night Kitty prayed not to hate Hermione, and to forgive those who trespassed against her. Georgie plainly had a crush on Rannaldini, too, but her demands on him, Kitty hoped, would be more rollicking, like a red setter wanting a long walk down the valley from time to time.
Rannaldini didn’t really like Georgie and Guy, decided Kitty. That’s why he had been subtly punishing her since the Bagley Hall concert, finding fault with everything, making her feel even more unsure of herself.
‘I don’t think one can beat the Backs at Cambridge,’ Hermione was now saying.
Glancing down the table, Guy noticed Kitty’s eyes were as red as her dress. Rannaldini’s work, he thought grimly.
‘Poor Kitty’s having to put up with the backs of Paradise,’ he said reprovingly. ‘Turn round and talk to her, Meredith.’
‘Sorry, love,’ the Ideal Homo swung round. ‘When’s your sexy husband going to let me loose on the Valhalla dungeons?’
Kitty blushed scarlet, but thought once again, how sweet Guy was.
‘I don’t know how you put up with it,’ she could now hear Hermione telling him, in her idea of an undertone, ‘being dragged into the limelight in a pop song, when you’re such a man of substance. I would never expose Bob to such publicity. My family is sacred.’
‘I agree,’ said Julia, leaving all her pastry and lighting a cigarette, at which Hermione looked pained, until the pudding of guava-and-mango ice-cream with kiwi-fruit purée reduced her almost to orgasm. Guy, however, was incensed that a bottle of Barsac had gone missing.
‘Flora whipped it,’ confessed Georgie. ‘It’s a good thing she’s going back to Bagley Hall next month to dry out. Whoops, sorry, Miss Bottomley.’
Ben pursed his red lips and said he thoroughly disapproved of teenage drinking. Miss Bottomley’s mouth was too full of guava and mango for her to do anything but nod in frenzied agreement.
‘Oh, Flora’s sixteen, going on a hundred,’ sighed Georgie to Rannaldini. ‘I get so worried about AIDS. I sat her down last week and said: “We must have a good talk about sex”.’
The room fell silent.
‘A good talk about sex, because I was worried,’ went on Georgie, ‘and Flora put her pretty head on one side, and said: “Oh, poor Mum, are you having trouble with Dad?”’
Georgie laughed so loudly at the sheer impossibility of such a thing that everyone joined in. But it was one of the few light moments of the evening. Georgie was dying to get into another heart-to-thumping-heart with Rannaldini, but, without a waitress, she seemed to spend her whole time leaping up to remove plates and filling glasses.
It was a relief finally to whisk the ladies off upstairs. On the way Miss Bottomley shot into the downstairs 100.
‘I’ll use this one.’ Julie disappeared into another loo on the landing, whereupon Hermione vanished into Georgie’s bathroom.
‘Three old ladies got stuck in the lavatory. I wish Hermione would stay there.’ Georgie collapsed on to her bed between Marigold and Kitty. ‘Now we’re alone, how are you?’ she asked.
‘Wonderful,’ said Marigold, fluffing on face-powder with a red brush. ‘Larry’s faynally given Nikki the push and Pelham Crescent, it cost over a million, can you imagine? But he’s bein’ magic to me. He bought me these.’ She turned her head to show off ruby earrings big as strawberries. ‘And he’s going to buy me a flat in London, and take me on a second honeymoon in Jamaica.’
‘Lucky you,’ said Georgie petulantly, thinking of herself nailed to the desk for months to come.
‘I’m so pleased for you, Marigold,’ said Kitty, who didn’t feel there was much point in repairing her face.
‘How’s Lysander?’ asked Georgie.
‘Never off the telephone, the sweetie-pay. He’s raydin’ in a point-to-point in Cheshire this weekend, and wants me to go. Ay must say, I’m sorely tempted.’
When they went downstairs, Larry, who normally liked nothing better than to cap other men’s achievements over a large glass of brandy, had already joined the ladies.
‘What recession?’ he was saying to Sabine Bottomley. ‘If you’re liquid, it’s bonanza time. You can pick up companies, like shopping in Oxford Street.’
‘Fed up with talking about wife avoidance?’ Marigold asked him teasingly.
‘Not at all. Rannaldini, Bob and Meredith all wanted to know what Guy had done to those quails. Not my board-game.’ He sat down on the arm of Marigold’s chair. ‘This is, though.’ He took her hand, then added to Georgie, ‘Don’t she look great? See the earrings I bought her?’
‘How’s the album going?’
‘Good,’ said Georgie truthfully. ‘I wrote a song today.’
Looking at the big red scented candle flickering on a side table, she suddenly found the answer for her lyric: ‘Swept by tempests, drenched by rain, I’ll come burning back again.’
‘Could we play one of your old albums, Georgie?’ asked Kitty, as Der Rosenkavalier finally ended.
‘Wait till Rannaldini goes,’ said Hermione.
Georgie gritted her teeth.
To gain the ascendancy before he left, Larry bought three of Julia’s paintings, and actually wrote Guy a large cheque. Bob, egged on by the Most Beautiful Voice in the World, put down a deposit on one of the smaller ones. Rannaldini bought the most erotic and said he’d talk to Guy about money later. Proudly Guy went round putting red stickers on them. Julia was in heaven. She didn’t say much, but her skin flushed faintly like the crimsoning on the underside of a wood anemone.
Larry and Marigold left immediately afterwards. They were followed by Rannaldini, who was flying to Milan first thing to do The Barber of Seville at La Scala.
Just for a second, as he and Georgie were alone in the hall together, he took her hands.
‘I’d love to talk to you sometime about Flora’s career,’ she heard herself stammering.
‘Of course,’ said Rannaldini. ‘Let us have lunch, and then we will have a chance to talk about ourselves.’
She felt he was just about to kiss her when Kitty came out, saying what a lovely evening it had been, and that Georgie and Guy must come over to Valhalla next time Rannaldini was home.
Georgie had the feeling that, with the departure of his boss, Bob would have liked to stay on and unwind, but that, for the same reason, Hermione felt the evening had lost all point, and dragged him away.
‘Look after Julia,’ Guy called out briskly to Georgie. ‘I’m taking Ben and Meredith round the house.’
Georgie was a little alarmed about what grand redecorating schemes Meredith might lure him into, but it was bliss to kick off her shoes, throw another of their own logs on the fire, and relax with a bottle of Kümmel and Julia.
‘How beautiful both Marigold and Hermione are,’ said Julia. ‘I’d so love to paint either of them.’
Feeling slightly deflated Julia didn’t want to paint her, Georgie suggested Julia approached them through Larry and Bob.
‘They both obviously love your work, and Larry’s on such a high with Marigold at the moment, he’d commission anything. I do hope it lasts.’ Georgie collapsed on the floor so she was level with Dinsdale on the sofa. ‘Larry’s been such a shit to her. I’m sorry I was so uptight this evening, but two couples cancelled at the last moment because their marriages had gone up the spout.’
Julia had chewed off her lipstick and her eyeliner had smudged beneath the fox-brown eyes, but her skin was unlined in the candle-light, and the scorpion glinted evilly between her breasts as though it might plunge its sting into the soft white flesh at any moment. She must be Scorpio, that most passionate and complicated of signs, thought Georgie.
‘I’m so lucky to be married to Guy,’ she went on hazily. ‘I used to be very wild when we were first married,’ and a bit now, she thought, luxuriating at the prospect of lunch with Rannaldini. ‘I think Guy feels so much safer now I’m tucked away in the country. Even when I used to go into the West End from Hampstead, he used to police my every move.’
Dinsdale, half-asleep, grunted with pleasure as Georgie scratched his back.
‘Guy’s been so wonderful about my career,’ she went on. ‘So happy to bask in any reflected glory, but he’s going to get glory himself soon — not just your exhibition which I’m sure will be terrific — but because of Rock Star. I know The Scorpion’s a rag, but they’ve nominated Guy Hubby of the Year, and if he wins, he gets ten thousand pounds. I expect Guy will insist on it going to charity, but it means he’ll be a star in his own right. It’s lovely that people have started recognizing him in the street and asking him for his autograph.’
Julia’s eyes seemed to get bigger and bigger.
‘It’s so sad when marriages break up. You hang on to your Ben,’ urged Georgie, then thought, I don’t think she should at all, he’s ghastly, I must be pissed. As she refilled their glasses, she noticed an adorable china puppy tangled in blue ribbon clambering out of a flowered bowl among the ornaments on a side table.
‘How lovely! Victorian,’ she examined it, ‘I wonder where that came from.’
‘Geraldine and the girls from the gallery gave it to me as a moving-in present,’ said a returning Guy smoothly. ‘I kept forgetting to bring it home.’
‘The puppy’s exactly like Dinsdale,’ said Georgie enchanted. ‘How clever of Geraldine.’
Saying they must go, Ben bore off Julia and Meredith whom they were going to drop off on the way.
‘Nice, aren’t they?’ said Guy, gathering up glasses.
‘Juliet’s lovely,’ said Georgie. ‘Not sure about him though.’
‘She’s called Julia,’ said Guy, ‘and Ben’s a genius.’
The next morning Guy and Georgie were woken ridiculously early by the telephone.
‘Leave it,’ mumbled Guy.
‘Someone might have died.’
‘Well, I wish they’d die later in the day.’
The sleepy smile was wiped off Georgie’s face when she found it was Hermione, too lazy to write, but priding herself on her good manners.
‘Thank you for a pleasant evening. We so enjoyed meeting Julia Armstrong.’
Hermione wanted recipes of everything Guy had cooked — anyone would think he’d had a baby or landed on Mars, thought Georgie irritably. Then, before ringing off, she announced, ‘Sabine Bottomley has asked me out to lunch.’
She doesn’t seem like a Sabine, thought Georgie as she put back the receiver. She’s the one who’d do the raping.
For a few moments she tried to burrow like a mole back into the dark furry tunnel of sleep, but Guy was stroking her breasts and putting increasing pressure on her clitoris, like a stiff button on the cordless telephone, until grumbling Georgie lumbered out of bed, muttering that she must clean her teeth and wash, but Guy pulled her back. ‘I want you now.’
Head turned and mouth clamped shut to divert garlic-and-wine fumes, she admired her bobbing body in a long dusty mirror, wondering if she should move more, and tried to remember to grip Guy with her inside muscles. She found it hard to come unless she was still and concentrating on her orgasm. Beneath her Guy looked tired, his face rumpled, and his white-blond fringe fallen back off his forehead.
‘Tell me about the last time you went to bed with Tancredi,’ he whispered.
So Georgie told him about the last time Guy thought she had been to bed with Tancredi.
Afterwards, he said, ‘I’m sorry. That was selfish of me,’ and he brought her breakfast in bed with grape hyacinths in a little vase. Only able to keep down the coffee, Georgie buttered the croissant for Dinsdale. When she staggered down, hungover to the hairline, everything had been cleared up, and once again she realized how lucky she was to be married to Guy, her rock star.
She felt less chipper when she opened their joint bank statement. The outgoings had been horrific and had almost mopped up the massive advance from Catchitune. The advance on Ant and Cleo had been spent months ago. Conciliatory before a screw, brisk afterwards, Guy was waving the bank manager’s letter and just getting into his must-tighten-our-belts routine when all worry temporarily evaporated because The Scorpion rang to say Guy had been voted Hubby of the Year.
‘To be quite honest there wasn’t a lot of choice,’ the reporter confided to Georgie. ‘Faithful husbands are an endangered species. Can we come and interview you and him tomorrow for Monday’s paper?’
At least the house had been bulled up for the dinner party, so Guy didn’t have to spend the rest of the day tidying. Sunday was a lovely day. After the reporter left, they sat watching an orange sun setting like a tiger down the black bars of the wood listening to the Top Twenty on Radio I, apprehensive almost to the end, until they heard the opening bars of Dancer Maitland’s ‘Recession Blues’ at Number Two, and knew it hadn’t knocked Georgie off the Number One spot. When ‘Rock Star’ came on, Guy turned up the wireless, so it blared round Paradise.
‘I’m so proud of you, Panda,’ he said opening the only bottle of Dom Perignon left from the dinner party.
‘I wish I could really tell you how much I love you,’ said Georgie.
Then, in a brief twilight wander round the garden, Guy outlined his long-term plans for the house and garden.
‘A new heaven and a new earth,’ murmured Georgie.
She must get on with Ant and Cleo tomorrow to pay for it.
Guy was in amorous mood again at bedtime.
‘Don’t be too long,’ he urged Georgie.
But Georgie got stuck into the Penguin Book of Narrative Poetry in the bath, and by the time she’d finished The Pied Piper, marvelling at Browning’s gift for rhyme, particularly as there were no rhyming dictionaries in those days, Guy was snoring with the light on.
Next morning he set off for London in his new BMW looking splendid. His blue-striped shirt and indigo tie brought out the light Messianic-blue of his eyes, as if he was some explorer setting out to discover new continents. Noticing his beautifully brushed pin-stripe jacket and his cases in the back and breathing in his English Fern aftershave as she hugged him goodbye, Georgie felt utterly desolate at being left on her own for five days. Flora was away staying with friends. But it would be nice to watch what she wanted on television, not tidy up and work all night if she felt like it.
It had rained heavily in the night, and where the valley was drying off, mist the same blue as Guy’s eyes drifted upwards. Georgie wondered how far away Julia Armstrong lived and if she sent up smoke signals to some lover. She couldn’t be in love with that fearful Ben.
Georgie was just looking at The Scorpion headline: ‘CARING GUY, THE HUNKY HUBBY’, when she realized he’d forgotten to take the little Hockney drawing to be framed for Flora’s birthday which was on Sunday. Ringing him, she found his car telephone engaged. He must hardly have reached the outskirts of Paradise, but it remained engaged for the next thirty minutes.
Georgie was distracted by her agent ringing, saying the Gas Board were definitely firming up the offer for her and Guy to do a commercial, and that a champagne firm had rung to check out Georgie’s availability.
‘Better pay us in kind after Friday night,’ said Georgie.
Remembering it was dustbin day, and Mother Courage wasn’t due for half an hour, Georgie started to empty the waste-paper baskets. In the basket in Guy’s study she found a pink envelope, torn up into pieces smaller than confetti. Was it practising for this that one did so many jigsaws as a child? thought Georgie. Having laboriously pieced the envelope together, she saw it was addressed to: GUY SEYMOUR, private, at the gallery.
‘I must not let it put me off my work,’ she told herself sternly. ‘Women have always had crushes on Guy. Look at the way Kitty Rannaldini goes scarlet every time he speaks to her.’
All the same, she jumped as though she’d been caught snooping when the telephone rang. It was London Weekend asking how she was getting on with Ant and Cleo and whether there was anything they could see.
‘It’s going really well, but it’s still in draft form,’ Georgie told them airily, but starting to shake.
After they’d rung off, she decided to look for Act One. Perhaps Guy had picked it up. His study was so tidy, she was frightened of disrupting anything. Opening a desk drawer, searching for a sheaf of manuscript paper, she stumbled on the most charming nude drawing of a girl in a primrose-yellow bath cap with, except for the full breasts, a long slim, almost childish, body. It was a second before Georgie realized it was Julia. The drawing was unsigned, but it didn’t have the narrow-eyed, scowling intense look of a self-portrait.
It was perfectly normal for Guy to buy drawings of artists he exhibited; but Georgie nevertheless felt her happiness seep away like water out of a crooked plughole.
There was the bloody telephone. How was she getting on in the country, asked the girl from the Daily Mail. Was she meeting lots of interesting people?
‘I don’t meet people down here, I meet fucking deadlines,’ snarled Georgie, then had to apologize to the reporter, who knew what hell deadlines were, and who congratulated her on Guy being voted Hubby of the Year, and asked if she could do a telephone interview with her about Guy.
Feeling guilty that she’d been harbouring jealous thoughts about pink envelopes and nudes, Georgie was even more glowing about her husband than usual.
The rest of the week was punctuated by thank-you letters for the dinner party praising Guy’s cooking. Not to be outdone, Georgie wasted a whole workday making a fish pie for Guy’s return on Friday night. Putting the first bluebells in his study and his dressing room, she welcomed him with clean hair and a rust angora jersey which he loved because it made her feel all soft and cuddly. As he came out on to the terrace after unpacking, he handed her the Evening Standard.
‘They’ve given Julia’s exhibition a terrific advance plug, I brought it down to show you. God, it’s beautiful here.’
A week of sun had brought out the wild cherries and palest gold criss-cross leaves like kisses on the willows.
‘From you have I been absent in the spring,’ murmured Guy, sliding his hands up under the rust angora. ‘Will that deliciously smelling fish pie keep for half an hour?’
Next day was just as beautiful, and Georgie decided to walk down to Paradise with Dinsdale, trying out the new path that had been hacked out through the wood. On either side, trees soared tall and gangling from being planted too close. Many of them were smothered to the top in ivy. Georgie noticed how many of the trunks had been daubed with silver paint, which meant they would soon be cut down to make more room for the others. Georgie felt really sad. Some of the condemned were really splendid trees, happily putting out palest green leaves, unaware of their fate. Would that make a theme for a song? She was about to scribble the idea on the back of her shopping list when she realized she’d left it behind, and calling to Dinsdale, who was baying in the woods after rabbits, ran back home.
Climbing back in through the low kitchen window, she found Guy on the telephone.
‘All alone in a huge house,’ he was sighing, ‘God, if only you were here.’ Then, seeing Georgie, without missing a beat, he said, ‘I’m sorry, you must have got the wrong number. This is 284 not 285. OK, no problem,’ and hanging up, ‘Hallo, Panda, what did you forget?’
Georgie collapsed astride the window because her trembling legs wouldn’t hold her up.
‘Who were you talking to?’
‘But I heard you saying you were alone in a huge house, and if only whoever it was, was here.’
‘I beg your pardon?’ Guy’s mouth gave a little pop of incredulity as he pronounced the ‘B’ of beg. His eyes were as innocent as a kitten’s.
‘Guy, I heard you.’
‘Are you out of your mind? If I get a wrong number, you accuse me of having other women. You’re spending too much time on your own. Ask Kitty over to supper next week, or get some pills from the local doctor. Benson he’s called. Everyone swears by him.’
Such was his assurance that Georgie felt she was the one in the wrong. She ought to have left well alone, but she was badly frightened.
‘Who were you spending thirty minutes talking to on the telephone within seconds of leaving the house on Monday then?’
‘Harry,’ replied Guy calmly. ‘I was bringing him up to date about selling all those Armstrongs, and talking about a couple of British Impressionists Rannaldini’s after. He is my partner and we had a lot to catch up on. I had a week off moving you, and a Friday off to organize your dinner party.’
‘You asked Julia and Ben. No, stay outside, darling, I’ll be with you in a sec,’ Georgie added as Dinsdale’s lugubrious face appeared at the window.
‘And who sent that pink envelope marked “Private” which you tore up and threw in your waste-paper basket?’
‘I haven’t a clue,’ snapped Guy, sliding a squeezed-out dishcloth along the runnels of the sink. ‘Geraldine and the girls in the gallery probably sent it as a joke.’ He extracted a piece of bacon rind and fish skin, both of which she supposed she should have removed from last night’s fish pie, from the plughole.
‘And what about the charming nude of Julia?’ she hissed.
‘That does it,’ said Guy, losing his temper. ‘You said you liked Julia, so I kept back that little nude for you for Easter. It’ll be worth a lot one day, and I know how you like women,’ he added nastily.
Georgie flushed. In her wild sixties days, she and Tancredi had had the odd threesome with other girls.
‘And don’t you get turned on hearing about it?’ she said furiously.
The row escalated, until Georgie burst into tears and said she was sorry. Then Guy apologized. He hadn’t meant to be ratty, but he was worried about their overdraft.
‘We must pull in our horns.’
Cuckolds have horns, thought Georgie as she hugged him in passionate relief.
She was particularly glad the row was made up because Flora was coming home on Sunday for her birthday before going back to Bagley Hall for the summer term in the evening. Having forgotten to get the Hockney framed, Guy gave her a cheque instead. Georgie gave her a sand-coloured shorts suit from Jigsaw which she’d wanted. Dinsdale, who’d been decked out in a big blue bow for the occasion, gave her a basket from the Body Shop.
‘I don’t want to go back,’ grumbled Flora, chucking all the clothes, which were marginally more crumpled after Mother Courage had ironed them, into her trunk, and putting two hundred Marlboros on the top.
‘Ought you to take these?’ asked Georgie. ‘You’ll ruin your voice. Do try and do some work, darling, and don’t get caught drinking. You know how it upsets Daddy.’
Guy had seldom looked less upset as he walked in.
‘Goodness, what a shambles,’ he said. ‘Panda, that’s worked out really well. You remember that old boy in Wales whose private collection hasn’t been looked at for fifty years? He’s just rung. He’s going abroad tomorrow, but he’s invited me up to stay at the local and have dinner with him tonight.’
‘Oh, a jaunt,’ said Georgie in excitement. ‘I’ll come with you.’
‘You can if you like.’ Guy didn’t sound too enthusiastic. ‘But he’s an old queen and doesn’t like women, so I’d better go on my own. As I had to book at the last moment, I only got a single room.’
‘When we were first married we slept on sofas,’ said Georgie sadly.
‘Darling, be reasonable. You’ve got to work and someone’s got to look after Dinsdale.’
‘Will you come back here on the way to London?’ Georgie hated to plead.
‘I really ought to get up first thing and bash up the motorway,’ said Guy, removing one of his favourite jerseys from Flora’s trunk. ‘I’ve got a lunchtime meeting with an American collector. I can take Flora back to Bagley on the way to Wales. So get your finger out,’ he added to Flora.
Georgie worked late that night until she was so tired that she slept through a massive thunderstorm which blew down several of the silver-painted trees in the wood. Then she had a marvellous morning’s work, joyfully playing the piano, singing, scribbling and rubbing out. She could hear all the themes of the individual instruments in her head, and she kept doing different things to prove to herself that what she’d written in the first place was the right thing.
By a quarter-past one, she’d drunk so much black coffee she was beginning to jump, so she went down to the kitchen to get some lunch. Mother Courage had already left, so she decided to cook that ox’s heart for Dinsdale. As she was looking for it, the telephone rang. It was Geraldine from the gallery.
‘You don’t know where Guy is? His lunch date’s arrived and his car phone’s on the blink. I rang The Leek and Daffodil. They said he checked out at eight-thirty.’
‘Oh, help,’ said Georgie going cold. ‘You don’t think he’s had a shunt?’
‘No, probably a tree across the road or something. They had force ten gales in Wales last night.’
‘Will you ring me when he gets in?’
‘Sure. How’s the country?’
‘Bliss. While you’re on, Geraldine, you might be able to help me. A lovely puppy vase with blue ribbons turned up in the move. Someone must have sent it to us as a moving-in present, or to me for going to Number One. You’ve no idea who it could be?’
‘Haven’t a clue, sounds lovely though,’ said Geraldine. ‘I must go and force-feed Moët to Guy’s disgruntled lunch date.’
Heart thumping, Georgie collapsed on the window-seat. Guy, who was so truthful he made George Washington look like Matilda, had been caught out in a second lie — first the wrong number, now the puppy coming from Geraldine. Feeling dizzy and sick, she found she had thrown all today’s post in the dustbin. Loathing herself, she rang directory enquiries, and then The Leek and Daffodil.
‘I’m awfully sorry, this is Georgie Seymour.’
‘Oh, Mrs Seymour,’ gushed the manageress, ‘I’m so glad you rang. We’re such fans, and it was lovely the way your husband signed you in under another name. We all thought you looked so young and lovely. I expect you’re ringing about your scorpion necklace.’
‘That’s right,’ said Georgie numbly.
‘My daughter found it in the bed. If you give me the right address, I’ll post it back to you.’
‘It’s Angel’s Reach, Paradise Lost,’ said Georgie and hung up.
In the Exhibitions in Progress file in Guy’s office, she found a formal letter from Julia and dialled her number.
‘She’s not back from Wales,’ said a voice with a strong Rutshire accent. ‘I was expecting her hours ago. Who’s that speaking?’
But Georgie had hung up again. Her first emotion was passionate relief that she hadn’t been going crazy, thinking Guy was up to something. He’d always been so adamant about his utter fidelity and now he’d been caught out. Wondering what to do next, Georgie decided to drive over to Julia’s and confront her. It couldn’t be very far with a Rutshire address, SHADOW COTTAGE, MILES LANE, ELDERCOMBE, said the letterhead.
On the way, it started to bucket down again. Georgie got terribly lost and nearly bumped into several cars. But finally she found the ravishing Stanley Spencer village, with a lazy, weed-choked stream meandering between the High Street and the faded red cottages. The rain had driven everyone in, so there was no-one to ask the way. On the right of the war memorial she found Miles Lane.
Getting out of the car, Georgie realized Dinsdale was still wearing his blue birthday bow and whipped it off, putting her belt through his collar, as she started to trudge through the deluge. She hoped Miles Lane wasn’t miles long, and wished she knew on which side was Shadow Cottage. But the next moment, Dinsdale’s nose had gone down and, sweeping her past three modern houses, tail waving frantically, he took a sharp right up the path of the prettiest garden filled with scillas, primulas and early forget-me-nots. Toys were neatly stacked on a table in the window, and someone had left a paper-bill addressed to Armstrong in the porch. Dinsdale’s tail was really going, bashing Georgie’s legs.
The door was answered by an elderly woman in a red mac and a crinkly plastic rain hat.
‘Mrs Armstrong?’ asked Georgie.
‘No, she’s out.’ It was the same Rutshire accent that had answered the telephone.
‘I’m Mrs Seymour.’ Georgie tried to control her breathing, ‘Guy’s wife. He’s putting on an exhibition of Mrs Armstrong’s work.’
‘Oh, right.’ The woman in the rain hat looked suddenly more friendly. ‘You must be Georgie Maguire. We’ve got all your records at home. Can I have your autograph?’
Somehow Georgie held the pen to sign the piece of paper.
‘I’m expecting Julia any minute. She’s so excited about her exhibition. She’s just rung. She’s been ’eld up four hours on the Severn Bridge. There were cross winds so they reduced the traffic to single line. I’ve just got to pop out and pick up the kids. If you want to wait, she won’t be long.’
That woman doesn’t know anything about Guy and Julia, thought Georgie, watching her splashing down the path. Perhaps I’m imagining things. Julia’s cottage was absolutely gorgeous inside, a rainbow riot of pastel colour with her paintings on every wall.
If she’s taken my husband, thought Georgie, I’m entitled to help myself to her drink. There was only elderflower wine, but it was better than nothing. Georgie took a slug, then opened the desk by the window, and nearly died. For there were a sheaf of Rock Star cuttings and the same Express picture of Guy in a handsome silver frame.
Slamming the desk shut, Georgie was pleased to see Dinsdale had left muddy pawmarks all over Julia’s pale blue sofa, and when the telephone rang she answered it.
‘Ju Ju,’ said Guy’s voice.
‘No, it’s Georgie.’
For a few seconds Guy thought he had rung home by mistake.
‘Panda, hallo,’ he said, cheerfully. ‘I’ve only just got to London. I was stuck on the Severn Bridge for four hours.’
‘I’m at Julia’s,’ said Georgie quite matter-of-factly. ‘How long have you been having an affaire with her?’
Desperate to wriggle out of the situation, Guy found his mind moving as sluggishly as maggots in a dustbin surprised by a torrent of boiling Jeyes fluid. All he could manage was a feeble, ‘Are you mad?’
‘You’re the mad one, mad about Julia,’ Georgie’s voice rose to a screech. ‘You bastard, Geraldine didn’t give you that puppy. And you took Ju Ju-fucking-Armstrong to The Leek and Daffodil last night, and passed her off as me. “You look so lovely and young, Mrs Seymour, you left your scorpion necklace behind, Mrs Seymour”, and they’ve put it in the post to me at Angel’s Reach, so you haven’t got a clay foot to stand on. How long’s it been going on?’
There was a long pause, during which Guy decided against bluffing it out.
‘Well, I’ve taken her out once or twice in London.’
‘Not before last night. I’m sorry, Panda, we’ve been working very hard, getting ready for the exhibition. These things happen. She’s only a child and she’s got this terrific crush on me, probably because her marriage isn’t very happy, and I’m getting her work recognized, and you know how gratitude turns into hero-worship. Dad had it all the time as a bishop.’
‘I hope he didn’t end up in the Leek and Daffodil. Do you want to marry her?’
‘Of course I don’t. Look, she’ll be home any minute. Don’t say anything that’ll encourage her to blow it up into anything more serious. You’ve got to protect me. Go home and I’ll come down. I’m leaving now. I love you.’
‘How dare you bring Dinsdale into this bordello?’ shouted Georgie.
She got even more lost on the way home. The torrential rain had let up, rainbows were lacing a sky the colour of Guy’s cornflower-blue shirt. The white cherries were luminous in the unearthly light. Only when she got home did Georgie realize she was still wearing her pyjamas.
Georgie was so shivery that she had a bath and was just cleaning her teeth to get rid of the terrible sick acid taste when the doorbell rang.
Running to the window, she could see hair as red as dried blood. It was Julia. She must find out if her version tallied with Guy’s. Throwing up the window, she said she’d be down in a minute. Having pulled on an old grey jersey and a pair of leggings, brushed her hair and slapped on a bit of base, she was amazed to see she looked rather beautiful. Scent, she decided, was pushing it. She would play the whole thing magnanimously. Running downstairs, she saw Julia in the hall dressed in jeans and a black polo-neck. Her hair was pulled back from her deathly white face into a pony-tail. She looked younger than Flora.
Georgie held out her arms. ‘Julia, poor little duck, I’m so sorry.’
‘Don’t touch me!’ Julia thrust her violently away.
‘Well, at least let’s have a drink.’
Only as they went into the drawing room did Georgie remember Julia’s faceless pin-stripe lover in the paintings. Two of the paintings were still on the wall.
‘I don’t want a drink.’ Julia was shuddering as though she had malaria, her eyes staring. ‘How much has Guy told you?’
‘That he went to bed with you for the first time last night, that he’s taken you out one or twice in London. Guy’s a kind man. Girls are always getting crushes on him.’
‘A crush?’ Julia collapsed on the gold corduroy sofa. ‘Guy and I have been having an affaire for nearly two years. Since you moved to Angel’s Reach we’ve spent virtually every night together when he’s up in London.’
‘Virtue doesn’t seem to have much to do with it,’ said Georgie, pouring herself such a massive Bacardi that there was only room for an inch of Coke.
‘He loves me,’ said Julia flatly. ‘He’s never had another woman since he’s been married to you.’
‘I know,’ admitted Georgie. ‘He’s been a wonderful husband.’
‘And you’ve totally neglected him. All you did at that dinner party,’ reproved Julia, ‘was burn the broccoli and leave slugs in the lettuce.’
Guy’s been sneaking, thought Georgie, taking her drink to the window and admiring the pale green of the wood against the navy-blue thunderclouds.
‘You don’t take any interest in the gallery. You didn’t even know my Christian name.’
‘I hope now I may call you Ju Ju,’ said Georgie gravely; she was getting rather a charge out of being bitchy. The Bacardi was beginning to put fire in her empty belly.
‘You don’t share any of his interests,’ said Julia, flushing.
‘Well, I certainly didn’t share his interest in you.’
‘And you had endless affaires.’
‘I did not. I had the odd one-night stand when we were first married years ago,’ said Georgie, thinking that Tancredi had been going on so long and so infrequently that he didn’t count.
Dinsdale was slumped on a coral-pink chair on the other side of the empty fireplace, which still contained the ashes from the dinner party. Georgie crossed the room to sit on the arm.
‘I had a wonderfully happy marriage with Ben,’ Julia was saying bitterly. ‘Guy pestered and pestered me to sleep with him. Ben used to joke about it and call him my Dirty Old Man. Finally I gave in, because I felt sorry for him, he seemed so lonely and bored with his marriage, and now I’ve fallen in love with him, and he’s totally fucked my marriage.’
‘And you too, by all accounts.’ Georgie was nettled by the DOM reference. She was the only person allowed to slag off Guy. ‘I can’t imagine him pestering anyone. Guy and I love each other. Bored husbands don’t police their wives’ every moment.’
‘You stupid idiot,’ said Julia almost pityingly. ‘The reason why Guy polices your every move when you’re in London is because he doesn’t want you to bump into him and me.’
Fumbling in the back pocket of her jeans, Julia brought out a red diary.
‘Look!’ She turned the pages. ‘Georgie recording, Georgie Promo, Georgie recording, Georgie in America — that was a bonus.’ The green pentelled arrow went through two weeks in February and into March.
‘Guy told you he couldn’t leave the gallery. It was me he couldn’t bear to leave. Here’s the key to Guy’s flat.’ Like a hypnotist, she swung it in front of Georgie’s nose.
‘Do you need a key?’ said Georgie, taking another great gulp of Bacardi to fortify herself. ‘I would have expected you to come in through the cat flap.’
‘Stop taking the piss,’ screamed Julia.
‘And how does Ben fit into this?’ asked Georgie, taking Dinsdale’s ginger ears and putting them on top of his head like a Second World War pin-up. ‘Is his software not hard enough for you?’
‘Ben works in Chelmsford,’ said Julia through gritted teeth, ‘and he’s abroad selling computers all week. It wasn’t difficult.’
‘The writing on the pink envelope.’ Georgie examined the diary again. ‘It’s yours.’
‘Of course. And I gave him the china puppy for his birthday, and when he’s in the country he rings me the whole time, when he goes for petrol for the mower, when he’s having drinks with the vicar.’
Julia was hissing down a bobsleigh run now and couldn’t stop. ‘I saw Angel’s Reach before you did,’ she stammered. ‘We slept in the spare room when you were in London with the Mail on Sunday.’
Letting Dinsdale’s ears fall, Georgie shut her eyes and breathed in. The anaesthetic of shock was beginning to wear off. Getting to her feet, she tried to gather the shattered rags of dignity round her.
‘I don’t believe a word you’re saying. Guy isn’t like this.’
She felt strengthened by the sight of headlights in the drive and by Dinsdale’s thick tail whacking her thighs once again. Guy was home. She was so desperate to run to him, that the bad dream should be over.
‘He called me his second Peregrine,’ said Julia quietly.
Georgie stopped in her tracks. The knitting-needle dipped in acid plunged straight into her heart.
‘His second Peregrine.’
Peregrine had been a schoolfriend Guy had loved at Wellington, the one great unconsummated passion of his life. When Peregrine had drowned falling out of a punt at some wild Cambridge party, Guy confessed that it was only his faith that had kept him from suicide. It was this sadness, and the fact that for ages he didn’t make a pass at her, that had drawn Georgie to him when they’d first met. Peregrine was sacrosanct, a love Georgie respected and of which she had never been jealous.
‘I’ve got letters to prove it and photographs Guy took of me in the nude,’ sobbed Julia.
‘Hardly conclusive evidence, unless he’s in them, too,’ said Georgie as Guy came through the door.
He looked sulky and aggressive, like a small boy caught stealing sweets.
‘It seems your affaire with Mrs Armstrong is more extended than you’ve admitted.’
Guy pursed his lips and looked proconsular.
‘Well, if she says it is.’
‘She does.’ Georgie moved towards the drinks table.
‘If you care to come upstairs with me, Ju Ju, and look into a suitcase under Guy-Guy’s bed, you’ll find a large folder of photographs Guy’s taken of me with nothing on. Some, I hate to tell you, with Angel’s Reach in the background.’
‘You said you never slept with her,’ Julia turned, screaming at Guy.
‘Ah, but then he told me he’d only been to bed with you once. I think you two ought to get your stories straight.’
Grabbing the Bacardi bottle Georgie turned to Guy. ‘You’re a fucking hypocrite, and I’m leaving you tomorrow. I’m going to sleep in the spare room.’
On the kitchen table, she discovered a note Mother Courage had left earlier.
‘Georgie — change in the envelope, heart in the deep freeze.’
Upstairs in the spare room, Georgie felt boiling hot. She took off her clothes and crawled under the duvet. Then she remembered that this was where Guy had slept with Julia. It was the repository of all their worst furniture, even a china Alsatian which Flora had won at the fair on Hampstead Heath at the age of eight. On the windows were ghastly curtains put up by a previous occupant, which clashed with the equally ghastly wallpaper. Would Guy have explained that this room hadn’t been done yet, or had he been too busy bonking? She gave a groan and took a huge slug of Bacardi. She’d ring the Ideal Homo and order new curtains tomorrow morning — but what was the point when she was leaving anyway? Seeing the reflection of her flushed face on the pillow, she realized the mirror on the dressing table had been adjusted so that you could see what was going on in bed. Guy’d always liked watching himself. She heard a car starting up, and, rushing to the window, saw Julia’s car lighting up the little green beacons of the poplar colonnade.
‘Whore,’ she screamed after her, and was so plastered and furious that she rushed downstairs in the nude and went completely berserk. First she smashed Julia’s puppy and then she rushed into the kitchen and started breaking glasses.
‘Stop it!’ Guy came rushing in. ‘Don’t be infantile, Julia’s a complete fantasist. It’s all lies.’
‘She knows my diary better than I do, and what about fucking Peregrine, or rather fucking your second Peregrine, you bastard?’
Georgie’s yelling face was like a tomato that had been hurled at a rock. Guy ducked as a pint mug hurtled towards him. Finally, having taken down one of Julia’s paintings, and tried to smash it over Guy’s head, ‘It’s you in the pin-stripe suit, you disgusting lech,’ Georgie raced off into the night.
In panic, Guy rang Larry who was in the middle of making love to Marigold.
‘Julia came down and dumped.’
‘Christ,’ said Larry, who when he was with Nikki, had made up several foursomes at dinner with Julia and Guy. It was all much too close to home. ‘We’re off to Jamaica in a few hours,’ he added, ‘or I’d say come on over. Are you OK?’
‘No, I’m not. Georgie’s run off bollock-naked into the night.’
‘No sweat,’ said Larry. ‘Snow’s forecast. She’ll come home when she’s cold.’
‘But what if people in the village see her?’ spluttered Guy. ‘The road goes straight past the vicarage. There’s a meeting to discuss my election to the Parish Council on Friday.’
Larry tried not to laugh.
‘I’d put your feet up, watch the boxing and have a large Scotch.’
‘I can’t. Georgie’s broken every glass in the house, and plate, too, for that matter.’
‘People who live in Cotswold-stone houses shouldn’t throw glasses,’ said Larry. ‘At least it shows she cares. Take her away for a little holiday.’
‘Guy’s mistress has come down and dumped,’ he told Marigold as he switched off the telephone and took her in his arms.
‘Guy’s got a mistress?’ said Marigold, collapsing back on her ivory silk pillows in amazement. ‘Ay can’t believe it. Gay’s not laike that. He’s so upraight. Georgie must be shattered.’
‘It’s plates that are being shattered. She’s throwing them at Guy,’ said Larry, not displeased that Guy, who was always so sanctimonious, had been caught with his hand in the sexual till.
‘Oh, poor Georgie!’ Marigold climbed back on top of her husband, then gave a shriek of anguish as she impaled herself on his upright cock: ‘Oh, may God!’
‘What’s the matter, Princess?’ said Larry in alarm. ‘Are you still sore down there?’
‘No, they’re our plates,’ wailed Marigold. ‘They were a matchin’ set, Ay lent to Georgie for the dinner party.’
Sitting in the kitchen, Guy lined up all the milk bottles Mother Courage never put out on the kitchen table, so Georgie’d have something to smash when she came home.
Georgie actually burst out laughing when she saw them, then the laughter turned to tears, and although they rowed most of the night, in between sobbing on each other’s shoulders, Guy felt by morning that he had calmed Georgie down enough to go back to London.
‘I’ll call you the moment I get to London,’ he promised, but as she waved him off, Georgie felt like Demeter seeing Persephone disappear into the Underworld.
Slowly she began to piece together the horrors of the previous night. One moment she was freezing, the next boiling hot. She kept putting on and taking off jerseys. She still couldn’t get rid of the sick taste in her mouth.
Mother Courage had laid out a page from the Sunday Telegraph under the cat’s plate. As Georgie emptied a tin of Choosy on to it, she noticed a large piece by Peregrine Worsthorne about John Major.
You don’t call a child who won’t leave you alone, your second Peregrine, thought Georgie, and felt so furious she rushed into Guy’s study and put a message on the ansaphone saying: ‘Go screw yourself.
Then she put on another jersey and cleaned her teeth again. She felt she was rotting inside. Half an hour later Mother Courage came storming up the drive.
‘I’ve just had Mr Seymour on the telephone. He can’t get through. Can you ring him urgent?’
Sulkily Georgie dialled Guy at the gallery.
‘What the hell are you playing at, Panda?’ thundered Guy. ‘You’re totally over-reacting. What happens if the Press ring, or, even worse, the vicar or Lady Chisleden?’
‘I don’t care,’ screamed Georgie.
Out of the window she saw that a sudden fall of snow had covered the sweet spring promise of the primroses, and burst into tears.
The marriage limped on full of spats. Guy came down at midday on Good Friday looking wretched and carrying a box of glasses. ‘To replace the ones you threw at me,’ he said heavily, then, priding himself on his frugality: ‘From the Reject Shop.’
‘Why don’t you put me in the window,’ snarled Georgie.
Unable to suppress a craving for information that Guy was plainly not going to volunteer, Georgie asked if he’d seen Julia.
‘We spoke briefly on the telephone,’ said Guy, who had his back to her at the drinks table. ‘I’ve talked to Harry, and because we’ve sent out the invites and done a lot of press lobbying and advertising, we’ve decided to go ahead with her exhibition.’
‘Did Julia mention me?’ asked Georgie.
‘We didn’t discuss you,’ said Guy crushingly, pouring half an inch of whisky into one of his new glasses. ‘Harry will deal with Julia from now on. But I shall obviously have to attend the private view.’
‘Thought you’d viewed her enough in private.’
‘Don’t be petty. Julia wants us to be friends, as much as we can be. She’d like you to be there as well.’
If he says ‘to err is human, to forgive divine’, I shall scream, thought Georgie.
‘To err—’ began Guy.
‘I’m not gracing her private view,’ said Georgie flatly, ‘just because she needs a celeb to pull in the Press.’
‘That is the most horrible remark I’ve ever heard,’ said Guy. ‘It’s my gallery and I make fifty per cent out of every sale. I would have thought you would have wanted to attract the Press.’
And Georgie had promptly burst into tears and run out of the house.
As she ran down the path Guy had cut out of the wood for her, she heard the cuckoo for the first time. The angelic third floating through the trees.
‘Unpleasing to a married ear, cuckoo, cuckoo,’ sobbed Georgie.
Ahead lay Valhalla. She was tempted to dump on poor Kitty Rannaldini, who had been endlessly cuckolded and survived — just. But as Rannaldini might be there, who would be amused rather than sympathetic, she stumbled on. There had never been anything like the pain.
Wandering aimlessly she arrived home to find the BMW gone. The red sun was disappearing over the horizon, a cricket-ball hit for six — like Guy over Ju Ju. Sunsets were only bearable because the sun would rise again tomorrow. If Guy never came back, she’d die. Leaping into her ancient Golf she set out to look for him. She didn’t have to go as far as Eldercombe. There was the BMW crookedly parked in the churchyard, which in the twilight was still lit by daffodils. The church was decked for Easter. Breathing in the smell of narcissi and furniture polish, Georgie saw Guy slumped over the front pew, head bowed on clasped hands. When she touched his shoulder, his face was streaming with tears.
‘Oh, Panda,’ he sobbed, ‘I’ve made such a cock-up of my life, but I love you so much. Please don’t leave me.’
Georgie pulled his head against her belly.
‘It’s OK I love you, too. I nearly died when I saw the car gone. I thought you’d gone to her.’
‘Never, never, never.’
Stumbling out of the church, they stopped to kiss each other in the doorway, and were seen by a photographer who worked for the Rutminster News on his way home from football. On Monday morning The Scorpion printed a picture of the happiest couple in England.
The truce was fleeting. In the weeks that followed Guy talked of commuting, but he never did. The weight fell off Georgie, who tried to glam herself up when he came home, but however quick she was in the bath, he was asleep by the time she came to bed.
Georgie was distraught. She couldn’t stop crying, and, unable to believe Guy’s protestations that he wasn’t seeing Julia any more, she felt as venomous and rejected as ragwort in a field of cows. Not only had she lost her hero and her best friend, but her image of herself as a nice person, which Guy’s great imagined love had given her.
The rows were terrible, with Georgie boozing and ranting into the night, then apologizing in panic in case she’d gone too far and Guy really would leave her.
The wastage was awful, too: milk going sour because it wasn’t taken in; Dinsdale getting the casserole Mother Courage had made for the weekend, which no-one had touched; fuzzy potatoes on their third day in a saucepan of water; black volcanic shapes discovered in the Aga days later; and all the vegetables leaking in the rack. Even Dinsdale finally went off his food. The Press were also sniffing around. So many marriages were breaking up, they wanted to know the secret of a happy one.
‘Ignorance,’ Georgie told The Scorpion in an unguarded moment.
On automatic pilot, she managed to go up to London, talk about Rock Star on Aspel, open a supermarket and have a long session with the whizz-kid producer who was revamping some of her old songs for the new Catchitune album. ‘Rock Star’ still topped the charts, but every time she heard this celebration of Guy’s dependability on the radio she felt sick.
She also had to live through the nightmare of Julia’s exhibition. She didn’t go to the private view, Guy didn’t want any more glasses smashed. But there was a large piece in You magazine. Julia, from the photographs, had cut her hair, and now had a head of russet curls rather like the Bubbles painting.
‘There is a wistful air about lovely Julia Armstrong,’ ran the copy. ‘Slim as a boy…’
More like the first Peregrine than ever, thought Georgie savagely. But it made her realize how awful it must be for Julia reading about her and Guy all the time.
Poor Guy wasn’t having much fun either. Julia’s paintings had sold well, but the art market had taken a dive and he’d also bought a couple of minor French Impressionists for a property developer, who’d suddenly called in the receiver. Guy was left with the bill.
But he could have put up with business being so awful, and Georgie’s tantrums, and the nightmare of his marriage, if he’d still had Julia to lighten his darkness. He missed her terribly. It broke his heart when she rang up and tearfully pleaded with him to see her.
Nor were his men friends any help. Larry, in his now-married bliss in Jamaica, showed no interest in buying Guy’s paintings, but insisted on being incredibly sanctimonious.
‘If I can give up Nikki, why can’t you give up Julia?’
‘She’s refusing to give me up.’
‘Get an answering machine. That’ll stop the dropped telephone calls.’
‘I’ve got an answering-back machine at home,’ said Guy. ‘It’s called Georgie.’
Rannaldini was vastly amused by the whole thing.
‘Find another mistress, dear boy. There are plenty more fishwives in the sea.’
Guy was fed up. How could he find anyone else? He was desperately strapped for cash. There were all those pretty separated women who made warm eyes at him at gallery parties and in church on Sunday, but he could hardly afford to buy them a drink.
In the old days both Julia and Georgie had adored him, told him he was marvellous and asked his opinion on absolutely everything — two loves had he of comfort and comfort. Now they were both displaying all the venom of tabloid newspapers denied an exclusive. Hell certainly knew no fury like two women scorned. Guy felt like a worm done over by a blackbird.
Georgie couldn’t work. There had been no rain in Paradise for weeks, and as the springs that had hurtled past her study window when they moved in had dried up, so had her inspiration. Trailing through St Peter’s churchyard with Dinsdale towards the end of May, she noticed Queen Anne was losing her lace and the wild garlic its flowers. There were white petals everywhere, and yellowing leaves flattened probably by lovers, but not by her. Georgie’s eyes were so full of tears she didn’t see Kitty Rannaldini approaching with her arms full of huge scented pink peonies to decorate the church.
‘Ow are you, Georgie?’ Seeing she was plainly not all right and not knowing what to say, Kitty added, ‘Come and ’ave dinner on Monday, about one o’clock.’
Arriving at Angel’s Reach on Monday morning, Mother Courage persuaded Georgie not to cry off.
‘Nice girl that Kitty. Rattledicky gives her the run around. She’ll have cooked you something nice. Do you good to fatten yourself up.’
‘Seven stone twelve on the scales this morning,’ said Georgie.
Getting thin was the only good this terminally ill wind seemed to blow her.
‘Make a nice day out for you,’ encouraged Mother Courage. With Georgie gone she could help herself to the gin and slope off early. ‘Be a tonic.’
‘Only if she adds vodka,’ said Georgie gloomily. ‘However, I’d quite like to see inside Valhalla.’
‘It’s ’aunted,’ said Mother Courage, getting a black dustbin bag out of the cupboard. ‘I don’t know ’ow Kitty can sleep there on her own. She ought to get the vicar in to circumcise the ghost. Mind you that Rattledicky’s pretty spooky. In his watch tower he’s got one of them Ju-Jitzu baths.’
Had Guy ever had a Ju Ju-Jitzu bath with Julia? wondered Georgie.
At twenty-three Kitty Rannaldini was exactly half her husband’s age (and his better half according to most people who knew them). Brought up in the suburbs of London, she had had a strict but happy childhood. Her father had been nearing retirement as a station master when she was born, and her mother, who took in ironing and minded other people’s children, had been in her forties. Every Sunday, Kitty had been taken to St Augustine’s Church round the corner, which her mother had cleaned for nothing. Nowhere else had brass gleamed more brightly. An industrious rather than a bright pupil, Kitty had left school with eight O levels at sixteen and taught herself to type. The family were staunch Tories — the only time Kitty remembered a bottle of wine being opened at home was when Mrs Thatcher first became Prime Minister. So it was natural that, as well as the Guides and the Youth Club, Kitty should have joined the Young Conservatives where she met a local bank clerk called Keith to whom she was engaged when she went to work as a temp for Rannaldini.
It took Rannaldini less than a week to realize Kitty’s genius as a secretary. He was in the middle of a production of Rigoletto, everyone was walking out, writs were flying around like Valhalla bats at dusk. In twenty-four hours, Kitty somehow restored order. She was not only meticulous, conscientious, unobtrusive, worked till she dropped and exuded an air of absolute calm, but somehow, by listening patiently to everyone from soloists to scene shifters and sympathizing with their problems, she diffused the all-out warfare.
Exceptionally kind by nature, she was very shy and cautious. Decisions took a lot of thought. It had, therefore, taken Rannaldini a long time to persuade her to work for him permanently, involving as it did a long journey into London every day, and leaving her mother to nurse a sick father. One of the few impulsive acts of Kitty’s life, and she never stopped feeling guilty about it, was to chuck Keith and all the plans for setting up house with him and her now-widowed mother, and run off with Rannaldini a week before the wedding.
But it was not until Rannaldini promised that her mother would at least be financially provided for that Kitty had agreed to leave home. In fact the financial provision was never enough, and Kitty had to scrimp constantly on the housekeeping and take in typing Rannaldini didn’t know about to help her mother out.
Beneath her calm exterior, Kitty was not only a worrier but an incurable romantic. She admired people who were wild and free-spirited and stood up for themselves. Although her temperament and looks conditioned her to hold back, the moment her gentle heart was moved, she was the softest touch in the world. She didn’t resent all she did for Rannaldini, but her greatest pleasures were the occasional hours snatched in church or in reading another chapter of Danielle Steel when she went to bed, which was often long after midnight.
Kitty had been desperately upset by the rumours about Guy and Georgie. Their apparent happiness had briefly restored her faith in marriage which had been shattered by the examples around her in Paradise, particularly her own.
Guy was so kind, thoughtful and thoroughly boy-scout decent. Seeing how he protected Georgie and did so much both at the Rock Star launch and at the Angel’s Reach dinner party had convinced her he was an exceptional husband. Being married to Rannaldini, Kitty knew about living in someone’s shadow. Happier in the shade herself, she felt it must have been difficult for a man as forceful and as charismatic as Guy. Although shocked to hear he was having an affaire with Julia, she could see he might need the boost to his morale, and working with someone was so seductive. She had only to remember the way she had given in to Rannaldini.
Guy had looked so wretched in church recently, and when he stayed praying long after the service, she had noticed there were holes in the soles of both his shoes. She felt he longed to talk, but thought it was a weakness to dump. Kitty didn’t judge, but she felt Georgie didn’t look after Guy as well as she might, and knew whose side she was on. Then she met Georgie trailing through the churchyard in tears and she felt so sorry for her that she asked her to lunch.
The boiled chicken in white sauce and the roast potatoes were now in the oven, the mint lying on top of the new peas, and the apple tart waiting to be warmed up. Kitty was a good, plain cook. Plain in all senses of the word, she thought, wiping her steamed-up glasses before glancing ruefully at her round, sweating face in the mirror.
The telephone rang and she guessed it was Georgie cancelling. But it was Guy.
‘Darling Kitty!’ Oh, that deep commanding voice. ‘You’re such a brick for having Georgie to lunch, I’m going to call you “Brickie”. She’s bound to be late. She’s so unhappy and got everything so out of proportion. Please try and calm her down.’
Even on a hot, brilliantly sunny day, with white hawthorns exploding everywhere like grenades and cow-parsley still foaming up to touch the foliage of great trees, nurtured over the centuries, Valhalla looked sinister. Pigeon-grey, hidden from the road by a great conspirator’s cloak of woodland, mostly evergreens, the house itself had originally been built as a medieval monastery, but had been considerably enlarged during the Restoration. The result was H-shaped, with rooms of all sizes on different levels, and low beams and doorways, which concussed every visiting male except Rannaldini.
Hurtling up the long drive because she was late and disappearing into the protective cloak of dark woodland, Georgie was shivering as she emerged. Ahead, through rusty iron gates, lay a mossy courtyard leading to the back of the house. Following the drive round the north side of the house, Georgie parked outside more ancient gates, with Omnia vincit amor written in rusty iron lettering across the top. Despite such an optimistic message, and a charming paved path up to the front door, which was overgrown with thrift, moss and saxifrage, and bordered by scented pale pink roses rising out of drifts of green lavender, the house gazed suspicious and unwelcoming out of its narrow mullioned windows.
Before Georgie had time to tug the ancient doorbell, Kitty came rushing out, looking comfortingly modern in a Ninja Turtle T-shirt and an overstretched grass-green skirt.
Although she kissed Georgie shyly, she actually put her lips to her guest’s cheek, rather than merely clanking jaw-bones like the rest of Paradise. She also hid the fact that she wasn’t wild about Dinsdale joining the party.
Not in a noticing mood, Georgie was only aware of a trek down scrubbed, winding flagstoned passages, past panelling dark and shiny as treacle toffee and hung with tapestries, crossed swords and the occasional family portrait. To left and right she caught a glimpse of rooms with leafy Jacobean ceilings and vast empty fireplaces.
‘Rannaldini wanted rooms big enough for two grand pianos and sometimes entire orchestras,’ explained Kitty, hastily looking the other way, as Dinsdale hoisted a red-and-white leg on some dark blue velvet curtains.
Finally they reached the tidiest kitchen Georgie had ever seen. Apart from the corkboard with the telephone numbers of Rannaldini’s children’s schools and a large smouldering poster of Rannaldini, there was nothing on any of the surfaces at all, except the newly bleached and scrubbed kitchen table which was laid for two at one end. At the other were two neatly stacked piles of envelopes and signed photographs of Rannaldini, which Kitty had been sending out to fans while she waited.
‘How Guy would love this house,’ said Georgie, ‘everything so wonderfully ordered and lined up.’
She picked up one of the photographs in which Rannaldini was smiling slightly, a fan of wrinkles at the corner of each smouldering, dark eye.
‘Beautiful man,’ murmured Georgie, thinking how odd that she would have secretly nicked one of the photographs, had she come to lunch a couple of months ago.
Giving a deep sigh, Dinsdale lumbered on to the crocus-yellow window-seat which gave a glorious view of silver hayfields and sloping lawns, no doubt paced over the centuries by monks wrestling with temptation.
Rather gingerly Kitty poured out Georgie a large Bacardi and Coke, and made a cup of tea for Mr Brimscombe, who’d recently been poached from Larry and Paradise Towers by Rannaldini and who was now clipping a yew peacock out of the vast dark green side of the famous Valhalla Maze.
‘I daren’t face Marigold when she comes back,’ said Kitty, ‘particularly as Mr Brimscombe’s tending a cutting of the Paradise Pearl in the greenhouse.’
Listlessly picking up a photograph of Rannaldini surrounded by adorable sloe-eyed children, Georgie asked Kitty who looked after them.
‘Well, Cecilia, that’s Rannaldini’s second wife, she’s livin’ with a record producer at the moment. He’s pretty wealfy, so she’s got the kids wiv her and a couple of nannies, but if it breaks up, they might come back ’ere.’
‘How awful,’ shuddered Georgie. ‘Are they monsters?’
‘They’re sweet,’ said Kitty, ‘but very Italian. Cecilia believes kids should ’ave supper and go to bed when they want to, and do what they like. Are you hungry?’
‘A bit,’ lied Georgie as Kitty poured white sauce on two slices of breast.
‘Lovely house.’ Georgie was making heroic efforts not to talk about herself. ‘Mother Courage said something about a ghost.’
I shouldn’t have said that, she thought, as the colour drained from Kitty’s face.
‘There was a young novice, very ’andsome evidently,’ mumbled Kitty. ‘He died here. Sometimes at night I fink I hear him crying, but it’s probably the wind.’
Georgie shivered. ‘Don’t you get frightened here all by yourself?’
‘I’ve got a panic button and the burglar alarm’s wired up to the police station. Security’s very tight, Rannaldini don’t want his furniture or pictures nicked.’
‘You ought to have a dog,’ said Georgie, as Dinsdale, lured by a delectable smell of chicken, lumbered off the window-seat, and took up baleful drooling residence beside her.
‘I’d be more scared if I ’ad them,’ said Kitty, sitting down at the table. ‘I didn’t mean to be rude to Dinsdale. He’s OK, but Rannaldini’s guard dogs frighten me to deaf. Stupid livin’ in the country and being terrified of dogs.’
‘You ought to have someone living in.’
‘Rannaldini doesn’t want it. Cecilia had a living-in nanny, and when Rannaldini fired her, she went to the Press.’
Georgie was staring into space, so Kitty pushed the carrots, peas and mashed potato dishes forward so they were in a ring round her plate.
‘Shall I ’elp you?’
‘Oh, yes please.’
Georgie had finished her Bacardi and Coke, so Kitty gave her another one.
‘Nice kitchen,’ said Georgie, admiring the walls, covered with exotic brilliantly coloured flowers, snakes, humming birds and monkeys like a Malaysian jungle. ‘I’d never have dreamt of having wallpaper like this in a kitchen.’
‘Meredith did it,’ said Kitty, ‘but Rannaldini told him what to do.’
‘Ouch, that hurt!’ screamed Georgie, as Dinsdale scraped her skinny thigh with his paw, leaving great white tracks.
‘Guy’ll probably employ Meredith to wallpaper over the cracks in our marriage,’ she went on bitterly. ‘Nice wife, nice family, nice house in the country, nice BMW, nice mistress. He believes in the united front for the outside world.’ She was twisting her napkin round and round.
‘Try and eat, Georgie,’ said Kitty gently. ‘I don’t mean to pry, but you looked so very unhappy in the churchyard.’
And like a burst water main, Georgie’s misery came flooding out. Kitty was appalled when she’d finished.
‘I can’t believe Julia showing you her diary and telling you all those fings.’
‘She was distraught. On balance, she probably loves Guy almost more than I do, but nothing’s ever hurt me so much in my life.’
‘It must have been a sort of fatal attraction.’
‘Fatal distraction,’ said Georgie in despair. ‘I can’t work, and we sink more and more in debt. I’ll have to pay back the advance on Ant and Cleo. I thought I might re-title it Octavia and write it from the angle of the cuckolded wife.
‘Every morning,’ Georgie dripped white sauce all over the floor, as she gave a piece of breast to Dinsdale, ‘I read Julia’s horoscope, then Guy’s and then mine. I bet Julia does the same thing. Then I feel sick. Guy and I are so terrified of touching each other, we keep bumping into the furniture. I know I should be sweet and loving with my legs permanently open, or he’ll go back to her, but I can’t stop sniping.’
Georgie was eating nothing because she was talking so much, and Kitty was reduced to giving herself second and third helpings. No wonder listeners got fat.
‘I don’t know what’s got into men,’ said Georgie despairingly. ‘They’re all at it, they ought to change the name of London on the map, and call it Bloody Adventure Playground. Doesn’t Rannaldini hurt you?’ she asked. ‘Hermione must. She’s such a cow.’
‘Yes,’ admitted Kitty, ‘but I knew what he was like before I married him. I love him so much, Georgie, even a bit of him is better than nuffink. An’ he’s forty-six, he might settle down one day.’
‘If only we could find nice lovers down here,’ sighed Georgie, as Kitty removed her untouched plate. ‘But men are so dire at the moment. Annabel Hardman went out with a quantity surveyor the other night, he just lay back on the sofa, said he wanted to hear all about her life from the age of two, and then fell asleep. Then he was terrible in bed, and expected her to drive him home afterwards.’
Kitty giggled, and put the kettle on. There didn’t seem any point offering Georgie apple tart, but she cut a slice for a lurking Mr Brimscombe who was weeding the flower-bed outside.
‘What are you going to do?’ she asked Georgie.
‘It’s the duty of all prisoners of war to escape,’ said Georgie, ‘so I’d better start vaulting over a wooden horse. My problem is I can’t stop telling people — ancient marinading I call it — I think I’ve gone a bit mad. It’s such a comfort to dump, but you feel so disloyal afterwards, and it’s bound to reach the Press soon.’
Kitty’s wide-set eyes behind the thick spectacles were full of tears.
‘I’m so sorry, Georgie. You and Guy are such lovely people, I can’t bear you both being so unhappy. I’m sure you’ll work it out.’
‘You are nice,’ Georgie hugged her. ‘I’m awfully worried about you being lonely in this huge place.’
‘I’m OK. Natasha and Wolfie come ’ome at weekends, bringing lots of friends. And you know Flora’s coming to stay on Sunday. I’m so looking forward to meeting her.’
‘Are you sure?’ said Georgie. ‘She always cheers me up, but it’s a bit of a strain having to pretend everything is OK in front of her.’
‘Wolfie adores her,’ said Kitty, ‘and Rannaldini says she’s got a wonderful voice.’
Meanwhile, in counterpoint to this tragi-comedy, Rannaldini was taking advantage of the boiling hot summer and the collapse of Guy’s and Georgie’s marriage to pursue Flora. At first he made no progress. None of his witty postcards from all over the world were acknowledged. Flora was simply not interested. She was carrying a torch for Boris Levitsky, who was still teaching at Bagley Hall, but looking increasingly gaunt and miserable at having left his wife. She had loads of boys in the school after her; she had a hankering for Marcus Campbell-Black who was terribly shy and wrapped up in his piano playing, and she much preferred the tall blond Wolfgang, who was now cricket captain and a year ahead of her, to his father.
As part of his campaign, Rannaldini encouraged Natasha to make friends with Flora. Natasha, who was feeling neglected because of her mother’s affaire with the record producer, was in turn gratified that Rannaldini was suddenly taking so much interest in her schooling, even rolling up to watch her play in a tennis match one Sunday which he’d never done before.
Longing to please him, she found she could always gain his attention by talking about Flora. How she was always climbing out of her dormitory window at night and running off to a night-club called Gaslight, and how Miss Fagan, their housemistress who was always pinging bras, far from being furious, looked really excited when Flora streaked through the house for a bet, and how Flora passed her French oral.
‘The examiner asked her what her father did for a living. Flora said: “Mon père est mort,” then he asked her what her mother did, and Flora said: “Ma mère est morte aussi,” and burst into tears. The examiner spent the rest of the exam comforting her and gave her an A. It simply isn’t fair. She’s so sexy, everything falls into her lap.’
Including Rannaldini, who, on the day Natasha had a music exam, offered Flora tickets for a concert at the Albert Hall. Flora jumped at it. Anything to get out of Bagley Hall — particularly when Rannaldini sent the helicopter for her. Arriving at the Albert Hall, she found queues hoping for returns, coiled like an ancient lady novelist’s plaits round the building.
Typically, Rannaldini delayed and delayed his entrance, so the packed audience would be panicked into thinking he wasn’t coming on. When he finally appeared, women didn’t actually scream, but they gasped, cheered, clapped, bravoed and then swooned at the incredible beauty of Rannaldini’s back on the rostrum. The gleaming pewter pelt emphasized the wide muscular shoulders beneath the impeccably cut midnight-blue tailcoat. The beautiful suntanned hands were shown off by the Kitty-whitened cuffs with the silver cuff-links, which Leonard Bernstein, whose showmanship, if not his excessive emotion, Rannaldini had greatly admired, had given him for his fortieth birthday.
And if Berlioz conducted with a drawn sword, Rannaldini conducted with a newly sharpened Cupid’s arrow. Flora was the only woman in the front row not wearing one of Catchitune’s yellow-and-purple — I LOVE RANNALDINI T-shirts. As he mounted the rostrum, she caught a whiff of Maestro and the white gardenia flown in for his buttonhole wherever he conducted.
The programme might have been chosen for Flora: Strauss’s Don Juan, followed by his Four Last Songs, sung by Hermione. Every time Rannaldini turned to bring her in with Toscanini’s ivory baton, the audience caught a tantalizing glimpse of his haughty profile.
He also took such liberties with a score, branding his own personality on it so forcefully, that afterwards his interpretation seemed to have become the true one. You felt it couldn’t be bettered, and it couldn’t be otherwise.
He and Hermione took bow after bow at the end of the first half. Her gushing ecstasy, blowing kisses and clutching Cellophaned roses to her heaving bosom, was in total contrast to Rannaldini’s cold stillness which became even colder when, glancing down, he saw Flora engrossed in Woman’s Own.
Strauss was followed in the second half by Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which portrays a virgin, who has been offered up for pagan sacrifice, dancing herself to death, and which is difficult enough to unnerve the most sophisticated orchestra.
Having told Hermione he couldn’t see her later that evening because Kitty was in London, Rannaldini had left a note at the box office with Flora’s ticket, saying that, if she met him at Daphne’s in Walton Street at ten o’clock, he would buy her dinner.
Whizzing through The Rite of Spring even faster than Stravinsky himself, so that Toscanini’s stick was a mere blur, in order to get to Flora sooner, Rannaldini’s sexual excitement seemed to have transmitted itself to the orchestra. At the end the audience went berserk.
After a performance, Rannaldini always left the London Met rung out like a dishcloth, but there was not a drop of sweat on his forehead as he unsmilingly took his thirteenth bow. Only then did he deign to look in Flora’s direction, anticipating delirious adulation — her little hands with their bitten nails sore and scarlet with clapping. But her seat was empty. The briefest scrawl on a diary page left at the box office told him she’d had to leave before the end to meet some friends.
Rannaldini was so furious, he went back to the green room and fired ten musicians, including Beatrice, the little blond flautist whose bed he’d been intermittently warming since March. But Flora’s indifference only fuelled his lust.
Justifying his actions by saying Georgie and Guy needed space to sort out their marriage, he encouraged Natasha and the totally smitten Wolfie to invite Flora to Valhalla for half-term.
As Valhalla had many rooms on different levels, it was possible to look out of windows into rooms near by. An outraged Mr Brimscombe, who was increasingly tempted to go back to Larry, was told to leave the shaggy pink clematis montana round Rannaldini’s dressing room which had long since finished flowering, so Rannaldini could peer through it into Flora’s bedroom. But, far worse, Mr Brimscombe was then ordered to hack back from around Flora’s window a rare honeysuckle just as it was emerging into its gold-scented glory. Such was his desire that Rannaldini would have ripped out the Paradise Pearl.
Valhalla, with its tennis and squash courts, cricket pitch, which the village team was occasionally allowed to use, and huge swimming-pool protectively ringed with limes, was a paradise for teenagers. There were also horses to ride and to add excitement, the famous Valhalla Maze planted in the seventeenth century, while the abbey was briefly in the hands of the laity, by Sir William Westall for the entertainment of his descendants. Now twenty feet high, with nearly a quarter of a mile of dark, convoluted alleys, it was alarmingly easy to get lost in.
Beyond the maze, deep in the wood was Rannaldini’s tower, and beyond a path had been cut through the undergrowth to the edge of the Valhalla Estate near to Hermione’s house. This was kept clear by Rannaldini’s henchman, Clive, a sinister blond young man, given to black leather on his day off, who doubled up as his master’s dog handler. Outside the tower, Rottweilers prowled, frightening off fans, trespassers and, most of all, Kitty.
When Flora arrived at Valhalla, Rannaldini was away recording Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony in Berlin. A heat wave which had caught the country on the hop was into its second week. The darkening woods seemed to smoulder in the burning noon-day sun. The hayfields quivered. As though his battery was running down, the cuckoo called laboriously from a clump of horse chestnuts, whose candles were already shedding their white and bright pink petals. The dark maze drew the eye like a magnet.
‘It’s always more relaxed when Papa isn’t here,’ said Natasha, as she and Flora peeled themselves off the leather seats of the Mercedes in which Clive had collected them. ‘Papa’s wonderful, but when he doesn’t get his way, the whole building shakes.’
Looking up at the house, grey, brooding and secretive with its tall chimneys, Flora noticed blinds drawn on most of the windows.
‘Imagine Dracula’s victims languishing behind them, unable to take the sun.’
‘Papa likes them down during the day,’ explained Natasha. ‘Sun ruins pictures and tapestries. Beautiful, isn’t it?’
‘Quite.’ Flora refused to be fazed. ‘Bit Hammer House of Horror. In fact, extremely so,’ she added, as Natasha led her in through a side door past a darkly panelled room containing rows of gleaming black riding boots and a daunting collection of spurs, bits with chains and hunting whips, many of them with lashes. ‘I didn’t know your father was into SM.’
Normality was restored by a delicious smell of mint and fennel drifting from the kitchen. Kitty, spectacles misting up, her face as red and shiny as a billiard ball, damp patches under the arms of her straining blue cotton dress, was cooking Sunday lunch.
‘This is my stepmother,’ announced Nastasha disdainfully, dumping two carrier bags of washing on the floor at Kitty’s feet. ‘And please handwash my purple flares. You shrunk my red pair last time.’
‘I thought stepmothers were supposed to be wicked,’ said Flora. ‘My mother has never handwashed anything in her life. You’re bloody lucky, Natasha. How d’you do?’ she smiled at Kitty.
‘Pleased to meet you,’ Kitty wiped a red hand on her apron. ‘Blimey, it’s ’ot.’
‘I’m afraid these melted in the car.’
Giving Kitty a squashed box of Terry’s All Gold, Flora reflected that Kitty reacted as though they really were gold, going even brighter red with pleasure.
‘’Ow very kind of you, Flora, that’s really fortful.’
‘Not really,’ said Natasha bitchily. ‘Wolfie gave them to her, but she doesn’t want any more zits.’
‘That was another box,’ snapped Flora.
‘How are yer mum and dad?’ asked Kitty.
‘OK, but Mum’s getting horribly thin. These are hers although she doesn’t know it.’ Flora held out the bottom of the slate-grey shorts she was wearing with a pale pink camisole top. ‘They’re part of a size ten suit, and they’re already miles too big for her.’
‘They’re gorgeous.’ Natasha took a bottle of wine from the fridge and sloshed it into two glasses. ‘I wish I had a mother over here who was trendy enough to nick clothes from.’
Flushing, Kitty asked her how work was going.
‘Boring, and even more boring talking about it.’ Natasha handed a glass to Flora. ‘I’ll show you your room. I don’t know why you’re bothering about lunch, Kitty. It’s much too hot to eat.’
‘I’m starving,’ said Flora. ‘See you in a bit, Kitty.’
Later she and Natasha sprawled in the window-seat looking at old photographs.
‘Isn’t Papa ravishing?’ sighed Natasha.
‘Quite.’ Flora examined a coloured photograph of Rannaldini shooting in the bracken. ‘He’s a bit urban, as though he pays some peasant to throw mud over his gumboots every morning, and tread in his new Barbour in the autumn like grapes. He is good looking for a wrinkly though,’ she added kindly. ‘What’s his Christian name?’
‘I shall call him Bob,’ said Flora, draining a second glass of wine.
‘I wouldn’t,’ said Natasha. ‘An American baritone called him Bob at a dress rehearsal, and never made the opening night.’
‘Bob Harefield’s a sweet man,’ said Flora giggling. ‘That ghastly Hermione isn’t short of a few Bobs, is she? Oh Christ!’ Flora suddenly remembered Kitty, who fortunately seemed to be preoccupied, putting peeled prawns and sliced cucumbers round a sea trout.
‘I’m starving now.’ Natasha grabbed a chunk of Cheddar from the fridge and, removing the clingfilm, took a bite, before smoothing away the toothmarks with her thumb. ‘Thank God! Here’s Wolfie; we can have lunch.’
Having been given a Golf GTi for his eighteenth birthday, Wolfie Rannaldini insisted on driving everywhere. Blond, ruddy complexioned, beaky nosed, solemn and ambitious, when he wasn’t training for various school teams, he was swotting for his A levels. He had taken after Rannaldini’s German side, while the volatile, histrionic, over-emotional Natasha seemed all Italian. Unlike his sister, he gave Kitty a hug, before pulling Flora up from the window-seat, seeking her mouth and letting his hand slither under the pink camisole top for a quick squeeze. Having dismissed love as a girl’s concern, he had been knocked for one of the sixes he was always hitting by Flora.
‘Did you beat Fleetley?’ asked Kitty.
‘Slaughtered them.’ Wolfie got a can of beer out of the fridge.
‘A hundred and twenty, and three wickets.’
‘But that’s wonderful.’
Kitty is nice, thought Flora, who could never work up an interest in cricket.
‘They were pissed off,’ went on Wolfie. ‘When we got out of the bus, the Fleetley XI sneered at us, and said: “What’s it like being at a second-rate public school?” I said: “I don’t know, I’ve only just arrived,” and then we buried them. This is seriously funny.’ He unrolled a long school photograph. Flora and Natasha screamed with laughter, for there grinning in the third row, just behind Miss Bottomley was Flora wearing a gorilla mask.
‘They’ve printed six hundred and sent most of them out without checking,’ said Wolfie in amusement. ‘Bottomley will go ape-shit.’
‘Gorilla-shit,’ said Flora. ‘Come and look, Kitty.’
Kitty giggled so much she had to remove her glasses and wipe her eyes.
She’s not much older than us, thought Flora in surprise, and on closer examination decided that if Kitty wasn’t remotely beautiful, she had a sweet crumpled face, and certainly wasn’t the total dog Natasha made out.
‘You look nice, Tasha,’ she said, turning back to the photograph.
Too voluptuous at present, despite long thin legs, Natasha had shaggy black curls, Rannaldini’s heavy-lidded dark eyes, a big pouting mouth like a frog, and a sly, sliding, slightly Asiatic face, giving off the possibility of great glamour to come. Watching the three of them laughing together and seeing Wolfie’s hand creep round Flora’s slim waist to find her breast again, Kitty felt a wave of envy. Then she turned in terror and nearly dropped the potato salad, as the room was plunged into darkness by the unexpected arrival of Rannaldini’s helicopter blotting out the sun.
‘Fuck,’ said Wolfie, who’d been planning to spend the afternoon in the long grass with Flora.
‘Just then flew down a monstrous crow, as black as a tar-barrel,’ said Flora.
Only Natasha was delighted when five minutes later the house was flooded with Mahler and Rannaldini stalked in. He was followed by Tabloid, his favourite and more ferocious Rottweiler, who would have plunged his teeth into Nastasha, when she rushed forward to hug her father, if Rannaldini hadn’t shouted and given the dog a vicious kick in the ribs, which triggered off a serious of howls.
‘Pavarottweiler,’ said Flora disapprovingly. ‘I heard you bullied your soloists.’
‘Was the recording cancelled?’ asked Natasha hastily.
‘I made everyone rise early to beat the heat.’
Once home, Rannaldini established his ascendancy with the inevitable jackbooting. A brilliant imaginative cook, he often produced Sunday lunch himself, cooking as he conducted, keeping five saucepans going at once, mixing, tasting, stirring, ordering Kitty around like a skivvy. But today, as lunch was ready, he kept everyone waiting out of malice, sending Kitty scuttling to get him a drink, going through the synopsis she’d typed of his post, faxes and telephone messages, finding fault with everything, snarling like Tabloid, who lay panting at his feet, if she didn’t know the answer.
In his post was a letter from some distinguished composer saying the concert in the Albert Hall, out of which Flora had walked, had been the most marvellous thing he’d ever heard.
‘A peety you meesed most of it.’ Rannaldini chucked the letter across to her.
‘Expect the old sycophant wants you to commission another symphony,’ said Flora unrepentantly. ‘Basically I thought the Don Juan very self-conscious. You couldn’t hear Strauss for Rannaldini, and I’ve never liked it as music. You keep longing for that divinely soppy theme tune to be repeated and it never is. And I’m not surprised those were Strauss’s Four Last Songs, if he’d known Hermione was going to sing them. My mother’s voice is far more beautiful than that gurgling canary.’
Terrified that Rannaldini might see her laughing, Kitty gave the mayonnaise a stir to check it hadn’t curdled.
‘You will never find a more exquisite voice,’ said Rannaldini icily.
‘Passion and thrust are what matters. Hermione’s got no soul.’
Beneath the pale red fringe which was tangling with her sooty eyelashes, Flora’s cool cactus-green eyes, a mixture of Georgie’s seaweed brown and Guy’s pale azure, were scornful and utterly unafraid.
I must get that girl into bed, thought Rannaldini.
‘Are we never going to have lunch?’ he snapped, turning on Kitty, and when she had laid out a beautiful pink sea trout, a huge bowl of yellow mayonnaise, which he complained should have been sauce verte, a green salad including the tiniest broad beans, and new potatoes, he made no comment, only rejecting the bottles of Muscadet and sending her scuttling back to the dungeons, of which she was terrified, to get some Sancerre.
‘Why don’t you have a little train to get your drinks for you?’ said Flora, unfolding an emerald-green napkin. ‘Then Kitty wouldn’t have had to run around like a barmaid in Happy Hour.’
But Rannaldini was looking at The Times crossword which was normally faxed out to him wherever he was in the world, filling it in as easily as a passport form.
‘Who, Like a black swan as death came on, Poured forth her song in perfect calm?’ he asked the assembled company. ‘Presumably none of you dolts know.’
‘St Cecilia,’ said Flora, accepting a plate of sea trout from Kitty. ‘Yum, that looks good.’
‘Correct,’ said Rannaldini. ‘Unlike my children, you read books.’
‘I’m doing Auden for A level.’
Natasha was still studying the school photograph.
‘Nice one of Marcus Campbell-Black. Have you snogged him yet, Flora?’
‘Too shy. Wouldn’t mind snogging his father though.’
‘Rupert Campbell-Black was the man we voted we’d most like to lose our virginity to,’ Natasha told Rannaldini. ‘But you were second, Daddy,’ she added hastily.
Rannaldini’s vile mood returned. Although the food was delectable, he immediately emptied a sootfall of black pepper and a pint of Tabasco over his sea trout before taking a bite. Then, when he had taken one mouthful, snapped at Kitty that the fish must have died of natural causes, and gave the whole lot to Tabloid who promptly gobbled it up, then yelped, his eyes spurting tears, as he encountered the Tabasco and pepper.
‘This sea trout’s perfect,’ protested Flora. ‘You kept lunch waiting. You’re lucky it’s not old and tough, like certain people round here, and that was bloody cruel to that dog.’
Ignoring her, Rannaldini started talking in German to Wolfie. Kitty said nothing throughout lunch, as still as an extra on stage, not wanting to attract a second’s attention from the actor who is speaking. There was another explosion when Rannaldini found the Brie in the fridge.
‘I’m sorry, Rannaldini,’ stammered Kitty, ‘but it was running away in the ’eat.’
‘Don’t blame it,’ said Flora, ‘if it gets shouted at like you do.’
In the silence that followed, Natasha, Wolfie and Kitty gazed at their green ivy-patterned plates and shook.
Rannaldini glared at Flora for a moment, then laughed. ‘You have to practise this afternoon, Natasha. You have homework, Wolfie. I will show Flora the ’ouse.’
Ducking unnecessarily so as to avoid hitting his sleek grey head on the low beams, Rannaldini whisked Flora through endless twisting and turning passages and dark-panelled rooms. Occasionally from the shadows grinned the white or yellowing teeth of a grand piano. On the way Rannaldini pointed out ancient tapestries, Tudor triptychs and family portraits, belonging to other people, because sadly, his left-wing mother had flogged off those of his own family. In the great hall with its minstrels’ gallery, Rannaldini had commissioned a red-and-gold mural of trumpeters, harpists and fiddlers, and a bust of himself in front of the huge organ.
‘Something wrong there,’ said Flora slyly. ‘Surely you should be behind the huge organ?’
Ignoring the crack, Rannaldini led her up the great stone staircase, where sunlight poured through the stained-glass window of St Cecilia at yet another organ.
‘Blessed Cecilia appear in visions, To all musicians,’ murmured Flora. ‘Is that Burne Jones?’
‘A copy,’ said Rannaldini. ‘The original’s in Oxford.’
Leading the way up to the attic, stepping over stray angels’ wings and broken chalices left behind by the monks, Rannaldini pointed to a rope running down a groove in the thick stone wall.
‘What’s that?’ asked Flora.
‘The rope of the punishment bell,’ said Rannaldini caressingly. ‘The Abbot used to ring it from his study after vespers every Friday evening, telling the monks to return to their cells and flagellate themselves for the duration of the misericordia. This went on until a Father Dominic came up here and valiantly clung on to the rope, and the practice was finally stamped out.’
‘How gross!’ Flora fingered the rope with a shudder.
Through a narrow slit of window, she could see the valley lit by chestnut candles and beyond, green fields streaked with buttercups and dotted with red-and-white cows, like the backdrop to some medieval madonna. It was very cold in the attic. In some distant room, she could hear Natasha sulkily thumping out a Chopin Nocturne.
‘I suppose you use the punishment bell on Kitty,’ blurted out Flora.
‘Only when she needs it,’ said Rannaldini silkily.
Flora shivered, but was determined not to appear afraid.
‘Mum said Kitty’s terrified of a ghost here.’
‘The Paradise Lad,’ murmured Rannaldini softly. ‘He was a very beautiful young boy. A novice here, and very loving and charming and not entirely sure of his vocation. Then he fell in love with a village girl, and decided he wanted to leave the order. Denied this, he was caught with the girl. The Abbot loved the boy, and was so insane with jealousy that he threw him down in the dungeons before ordering him to be flogged and rang the punishment bell on and on, until finally the monks grew quite out of control and flogged the boy to death. Many people say they ’ave heard his ghost sobbing at night.’
Rannaldini’s face was enigmatic, but there was a throb of excitement in his deep voice.
‘That’s horrific,’ said Flora, utterly revolted.
‘And probably apocryphal,’ said Rannaldini, idly examining a battered cherub, wondering if it could be restored. ‘The wind howl down the chimneys ’ere. That’s probably all the screaming people ’ear. Let’s go and play tennis.’
Rannaldini’s passion for Flora was severely tested on the tennis court. Unaware of the honour of being his partner, she simply didn’t try, and ducked, collapsing with laughter, each time Wolfie and Natasha, both powerful, much-coached players, hit the shocking pink balls straight at her. She and Rannaldini ended up in a screaming match.
‘Your father’s insanely competitive,’ she grumbled, as she and Wolfie cooled off in the big blue swimming-pool which was tiled like a Roman bath.
When he simmered down, Rannaldini was reduced to watching her through binoculars while she sunbathed topless, envying the Ambre Solaire Wolfie was rubbing into her high freckled breasts. At bedtime, peering through the montana, he caught a tantalizing glimpse of her undressing before she slipped on the outsize pyjamas which had come into fashion that summer. He imagined his hand stealing under the trouser elastic. With her cropped red hair, she’d be just like a schoolboy. Next moment he heard Wolfie’s door open and shut, followed by creaking floorboards, then Flora’s door opening and shutting. Then the light went out. Rannaldini was demented.
Stalking along the landing, he barged into Kitty’s bedroom without knocking. She was wearing a high-necked white cotton nightgown and knitting a custard-yellow jersey for her mother’s Christmas present. On the shelf were little bottles of shampoo, moisturizers and transparent bathcaps in cardboard packs which Rannaldini brought her from hotel bedrooms on trips abroad. She never threw out anything he gave her. Looking up at her husband in fear and longing, she waited for the next hammer blow.
‘Time for the real thing,’ said Rannaldini, dropping Danielle Steel on the floor.
Returning to the kitchen after waving goodbye to Natasha, Wolfie and Flora the following evening, Kitty gasped in horror. Flora had added a moustache, a squint, some long earrings and a mass of tight curls to Rannaldini’s poster on the cork board. Underneath she had written: STOP BEING SHITTY TO KITTY. Kitty removed it only just in time.
Over the next few weeks the heat wave intensified and so did Rannaldini’s obsessive passion; but whenever he flew home he found Wolfie and Flora wrapped round each other like Labrador puppies. He was in despair. Then, on the last Saturday in June, in the middle of Wimbledon fortnight, having despatched Kitty to stay with her excruciatingly dull, suburban mother, so he could install a two-way mirror between his dressing room and the spare room into which Flora had been moved, Rannaldini dropped in for a drink with Georgie and Guy.
As the sun had lost a little of its heat they sat out on the terrace, gazing down on a valley lit by white elderflower discs and garlanded by wild roses that shrivelled in an afternoon. Only docks, nettles and ragwort had been left by the ravenous sheep and cows. Both lake and river below it were dangerously low. Dinsdale panted gloomily under Georgie’s deck-chair.
Georgie, in a pair of oatmeal Bermuda shorts and a sage-green T-shirt, which showed the skin falling away from her upper arms and thighs, gazed into space. She had dried up like the valley around her. Great cracks split the footpaths. The ivy round the house was showering down yellow leaves and the lawns of Angel’s Reach, because Guy, unlike Rannaldini, observed the hose-pipe ban, had already turned brown.
Georgie and Guy were just reeling from another frightful row. While Guy was fussing around making Pimm’s, Georgie unbuttoned to Rannaldini.
‘Guy says he hasn’t seen Julia since her exhibition. Then he buggers off for two hours this afternoon and returns with poor Dinsdale utterly exhausted and reeking of Je Reviens. The shoe-maker’s children may be the worst shod, but adulterer’s dogs have the sorest paws.’
‘My dear, I cannot theenk why you’re upset.’ Rannaldini put a soothing hand on her razor-sharp shoulder. ‘You are cross with Guy so he seeks approval elsewhere. Having an affaire is like going on television, one gets the chance to talk at length about oneself in front of an admiring audience.’
‘But I don’t understand,’ pleaded Georgie. ‘If he needs her, why does he insist on sleeping with me all the time? I locked myself in the spare room last night and he broke the door down.’
‘Quite seemple,’ Rannaldini smiled. ‘He feel guilty and he know eef he stop fucking you, you will suspect something, and if he ees thinking so much of Julia, he needs the release.’
‘Ooo!’ said Georgie in anguish. ‘Is that the reason?’
‘My dear child, Guy will only really want you again when you find yourself a new man.’ He paused as Guy came out with a clinking tray.
‘Sorry, Rannaldini, I’d forgotten Pimm’s takes such a long time. Do you think Becker’s going to win?’
Guy, who always became more military when he sensed combat, had had a too short haircut. Rannaldini noticed with a stab of pain that Guy’s newly revealed, rather pointed, ears were very like Flora’s, as were his flat cheek-bones and square jaw. But Flora’s luminous white skin, her earthy animal features and big sulky mouth were all Georgie’s.
‘How’s my friend Kitty?’ asked Guy, putting a piece of mint in everyone’s glass.
‘Staying with her mother, a pair of clacking false teeth in an armchair, and sorting out my VAT,’ said Rannaldini.
‘Kitty’s a saint,’ said Guy heartily. ‘They always say behind every famous man there’s a clockwork wife.’
‘And behind every famous woman there’s a wildly unfaithful husband,’ snarled Georgie.
Turning puce, Guy shot a see-what-I-have-to-put-up-with glance at Rannaldini. Fortunately the telephone rang and Guy bounded in to answer it.
‘I found a bill for Janet Reger under the lining paper of his pants’ drawer,’ hissed Georgie. ‘Do you think he’ll claim VAT — virtue annihilated tax — on that? When in silks, paid for by Guy, my Julia goes, Christ!’
‘You are on form this evening,’ murmured Rannaldini noticing Georgie go quiet, trying to work out if Guy was talking in code.
‘Hallo, Sabine,’ he was saying. ‘Did you beat Radley yesterday?’
‘Single-handed, I should think,’ said Rannaldini.
Guy returned looking absolutely furious.
‘Sabine’s had to suspend Flora until the end of term for three offences: drinking in a pub, smoking in church — in church! — and being caught half-naked behind a combine harvester this afternoon with your son, I’m afraid, Rannaldini.’
‘L’après-midi d’un fornicator,’ said Rannaldini, enviously.
‘Hell, it’s only a few fags, half a bottle of Sancerre and a roll in the hay,’ said Georgie, who thought it was funny. ‘At least she’s gone astray with the right sort of chap.’ She clinked her glass against Rannaldini’s. ‘Has Wolfie been suspended, too?’
‘Evidently not. He wasn’t caught smoking and drinking and the XI’s got a needle match against Marlborough tomorrow and Wolfgang still has two A levels to take. Flora shouldn’t have got caught,’ said Guy disapprovingly.
‘That’s always been your attitude,’ said Georgie flaring up.
‘I never did anything wrong,’ snapped back Guy.
Rannaldini was ecstatic. At last a chance to get Flora on her own while Wolfie and Natasha were still incarcerated.
‘And Sabine says Flora’s got a singing exam in ten days,’ said Guy, taking such a large gulp of Pimm’s he tipped cucumber and apple over his face. ‘I’d better go and collect her.’
And pop in on Julia on the way, thought Georgie despairingly. She shouldn’t have made those bitchy remarks, she’d have to crawl later.
‘Send Flora over to me,’ said Rannaldini. ‘I’ll go through her songs and give her a bit of coaching.’
Returning from a tele-recording in a suffocatingly hot London studio two days later, Rannaldini went straight into the shower. On the white porcelain floor lay a huge spider. A second later Rannaldini had assassinated it with a boiling jet of water. In almost intolerable sexual excitement he took a long time choosing what to wear, then opted to show off the depth of his tan and the broadness of his shoulders with an ivory silk shirt, tucked into cream chinos. Having brushed his hair till it gleamed, combed his black brows, which could splay like centipedes, and drenched himself in Maestro, he went downstairs to the summer parlour.
Here the cheerful serenity of primrose-yellow curtains and walls and drained blue and white striped sofas and chairs was somewhat marred by savage hunting scenes of lions and bears fighting off packs of dogs and men with spears. Rannaldini had just switched on Wimbledon and his own magnificent recording of Shostakovich’s Tenth, when Flora rolled up looking sulkier than ever.
‘Christ, I didn’t come all this way to watch Becker. He’s got white eyelashes like Dad, and why’d you always listen to your own records? D’you spend hours conducting in the mirror?’
For a second Rannaldini listened to the growling brass.
‘I’m playing this in New York next week. It’s important not to repeat oneself. Shostakovich wrote thees music to encourage the Russians to resist the Germans.’
‘You’re half-German — I don’t need any encouragement to resist you,’ said Flora rudely.
Unfazed by her sniping, Rannaldini handed her a glass of Krug.
The sunshine, which had browned everyone else, had merely sprinkled a few freckles on Flora’s turned-up nose. She wore no make-up, but at least she had washed her hair. Her cornflower-blue espadrilles were trodden down at the back. Her lighter blue skirt had been shredded round the hem by her bicycle. A black shirt of Wolfie’s was knotted under her breasts.
‘You look good in black.’
‘Matches the blackheads. Where’s Kitty?’
‘With her mother.’
‘Then I’m off,’ said Flora crossly. ‘I’m not staying here unchaperoned.’
‘Don’t be silly.’ Rannaldini took her and the bottle of Krug down some stone steps on to the terrace around which the Valhalla garden had reached perfection.
Sprinklers undulated languidly like strippers casting off rainbows of light over the emerald-green lawns. Old roses in every pastel shade, tawny honeysuckle, regale lilies, single and double white philadelphus, pale yellow lime blossom all seemed to be dabbing their sweetest scent on the pulse spots of the valley. Like women in their Ascot finery jostling forward to watch a big race, the herbaceous border was overcrowded with white-and-pink phlox, dog daisies, red-hot pokers, foxgloves, yellow snapdragons and soft blue cathedral spires of delphinium. A strange, very clear light heightened every colour, the smell of each flower intensified by the hot muggy air.
For a while neither Rannaldini nor Flora spoke, watching black-and-white cows like scattered dominoes in the fields below and listening to the tetchy bleating of sheep and the rattling hoof-beats of Rannaldini’s horses as, maddened by flies, they galloped about neighing. A red tractor chugged back and forth cutting Rannaldini’s hay. Swallows dived after insects.
‘It’s going to thunder,’ Flora said finally. ‘Mum’s got a ghastly headache.’
‘Perhaps she doesn’t want to sleep with your father.’
Rannaldini flipped through Flora’s music. ‘D’you want to sing to me?’
On the inside page of ‘The Magnet and the Churn’ she had written Flora Seymour, Lower Sixth A.
‘Beautiful trochaic name, Flora.’
‘It’s gross. How’d you like to have flat-stomached men mouthing your name across supermarket freezers? And as for Interflora, you can imagine what the boys at Bagley Hall made of that.’
Black clouds were edging round the sinking sun. Saying he had to walk his dogs, Rannaldini took Flora round the garden which seemed deliberately designed for love. Despite the drought, streams still hurtled through narrow ravines. Naked statues were strategically placed in sheltered glades. A little summer-house here, a white seat under a weeping ash there, beckoned dalliance. As he passed, Rannaldini let his hands rove suggestively over each romping nymph.
‘It’s like a nudist colony,’ grumbled Flora.
She was more charmed by Rannaldini’s Rottweilers who bounded ahead, muzzles covered in grass seed, soothing their thistle-pricked, nettle-stung paws in the streams, attacking clods of wet turf and wood, shaking and worrying them, emerging with dirty wet faces, giving skips in the air and bouncing fatly away.
‘Avant-garde dogs — they’re sweet.’ Flora hugged Tabloid.
‘To people who are not afraid,’ observed Rannaldini. Passing under a pergola fantastically entwined with pale pink roses and acid-green hop, they reached a frantically rushing stream, almost a river, but narrowed to a width of six feet between dark, drenched, very slippery rocks.
‘The sounding cataract ’aunted me like a passion,’ said Rannaldini softly, gazing down into the white churning water. ‘This whirlpool is called the Devil’s Lair. In the eighteenth century the young Westalls and their friends had bets eef they were brave enough to jump across. Several young men were keeled.’
Springing across like a great cat, Rannaldini turned towards her.
‘Come, leetle Flora.’
‘It’s a hell of a long way,’ snapped Flora, as the Rottweilers, distraught at being separated from their master, but not brave enough to jump, whimpered and barged round her legs. ‘Unlike you, I’m much too young to die.’
‘Life ees about taking risks,’ whispered Rannaldini, his dark eyes glittering, his teeth gleaming in the half-light. ‘Jump, leetle animal, or are you scared?’
Refusing to be beaten, Flora took a great leap, slipped on the damp moss and was only just pulled to safety in time. For a second Rannaldini held her shaking with fury and terror.
‘Let me go, you fucker,’ she screamed, ‘I want to go home.’
Releasing her, Rannaldini trailed a warm caressing hand over the goose-flesh of her bare waist.
‘Why you fight me?’
‘Because I really like Kitty, because I’m not into gerontophilia and because I’m sleeping with your son.’
‘And he satisfies you?’
‘He’s known as Trunch at Bagley Hall,’ spat back Flora.
‘Hush.’ Rannaldini put a finger, which smelt of wild mint, over her mouth. ‘I want confirmation not details.’
‘And if that weren’t enough,’ went on Flora, ‘you’re utterly unselective. Natasha told me about Hermione and jumping on her mother every time she hits London, and bonking every female musician in the London Duodenal, not to mention choral sex with all those panting groupies in their — I LOVE RANNALDINI T-shirts. You just pick them off.’
They had reached a little bank, covered in pink-spotted orchids. A blushing sun was retreating behind the wood. Kicking off her espadrilles Flora cooled her dusty feet in the long wet grass. Like Rannaldini, his sprinklers went everywhere.
‘I am Don Juan,’ said Rannaldini, sticking to the path above which made him taller, ‘or, being Italian, Don Giovanni. I seek the perfect woman and always despair of finding her because all women are the same. You would be different. You are not classically beautiful, but you light up when you smile.’
‘Dad doesn’t smile when I light up.’
‘You shouldn’t smoke when God has given you a voice.’
‘I’d rather he gave me Boris Levitsky,’ taunted Flora, disappearing into the fringed depths of a weeping ash.
‘Boris not Goodenough,’ said Rannaldini chillingly.
‘Why did you marry Kitty?’ Flora emerged from the far side of the weeping ash. ‘Was it an act of deliberate sadism? Did they toll the punishment bell at your wedding? Did the Paradise Lad howl on the first night?’
Rannaldini gave a shrug. ‘Kitty run my life. She was brought up by elderly parents so I seem like spreeng chicken, and she help her mother look after other people’s children.’
‘So she has no problem with your brat-pack?’
‘Correct.’ Rannaldini moved off down the ride, pausing to caress the upturned face and breasts of a naked wood nymph, then letting his hands stray downwards.
‘Eef one is going to run more than one woman,’ he continued, ‘one must have a loving wife rather plain so one’s mistresses don’t get jealous, rather working class, so women think Keety is fortunate to be plucked from her humble origins and to have landed such a mesmerizing — ’ Rannaldini paused mockingly over the word — ‘husband that she cannot expect heem to be faithful to her.
‘Above all,’ he went on with a satanic smile, ‘Keety is the perfect alibi. Eef Hermione is being difficult and I want to see Cecilia, I tell Hermione that Keety is in town so I cannot get away. Eef I want to see someone else, you, for example’ — briefly he touched her cheek — ‘I tell both Hermione and Cecilia, Keety is in town. If I want to drop someone I say: “I am so sorry, my dear, Keety has found out, and I cannot ‘urt Keety.” If a woman suddenly refuses to get out of my bed or one of my ’ouses, I say: “Keety is due any minute, you must go.” Finally eef any of them are foolish enough to want to marry me I tell them I cannot leave Keety, she do nothing wrong, it would be like throwing a freshwater fish into the sea.’
He has got the most beautiful voice, thought Flora, husky, caressing, anodyne. Perhaps it was an essential of adulterers because so much of their campaigning was done on the telephone.
‘You’re such a shit,’ she said fascinated.
‘Like Byron.’ Gently Rannaldini fingered the crutch of the wood nymph. ‘We love our men of genius not because they are perfect but because they are great.’ Then, running his hand over the wood nymph’s bottom, ‘Still warm from the sun as though she has been given a spanking, I would love to spank all the bad temper out of you, leetle Flora.’
‘You bloody wouldn’t.’ Outraged, yet excited, Flora plunged back into another weeping ash. As she emerged Rannaldini drew two ropes of fronds round her neck, trapping her.
‘I ’ave a ’ole in my heart from Cupid’s arrow,’ he whispered, tightening the fronds. Aware that he could throttle her, Flora gazed into his mocking, sensual, infinitely cynical, face.
‘My father was a Spanish Captain,’ she sang softly,
‘Went to sea a month ago,
First he kissed me, then he left me,
Bid me always answer No.’
She paused so long on the high note that Rannaldini felt the hair rising on the back of his neck, then she smiled and went on:
‘Oh no Juan, no Juan, no Juan no.’
Rannaldini’s straight black eyebrows underlined a forehead almost without lines. Not a man who worries or who suffers from guilt, thought Flora. His lips were absolutely on a level with hers. She was sure he was going to kiss her and shut her eyes. Then he laughed and moved away.
‘Come and see my tower.’
Flora could hear the distant hum of a tractor trying to get the hay cut before the storm. The sun had set, but the heat was still murderous. As they moved through the wood Rannaldini held back nettles and brambles and, having climbed a stile overgrown with elder, turned to help her. The starry elderflowers that fell into her hair were as creamy as her skin. Overcome with lust, Rannaldini let his hand stray over her right breast testing its soft springiness.
Leaping away, livid with her heart for pounding like the hoof-beats of Rannaldini’s horses, Flora hurled a clump of goosegrass at him to lower the tension.
‘Clinging but instantly detachable, like the perfect woman,’ said Rannaldini, peeling it off his silk shirt and throwing it back at Flora who ducked and ran down the path. As she reached the clearing a crack of lightning lit up Rannaldini’s tower, then thunder boomed like a twelve pounder. The Rottweilers collided against their master’s legs in terror. Rannaldini just had time to kick them into their kennel and bustle Flora into the tower when the heavens opened.
The ground floor, where Rannaldini worked, was completely walled by records, tapes and editing equipment.
‘It’s soundproof, so however much you scream—’
‘It won’t sound as awful as Hermione,’ mocked Flora.
As the soundtrack of Rannaldini’s film of Don Giovanni flooded the tower and its surrounding woodland, Flora bounded up a sprial staircase into a sitting room furnished with pale grey sofas and chairs and two high footstools covered in buttercup-yellow and crimson silk.
Flora looked up at the bright scarlet walls and ceiling. ‘Like being wrapped in the flames of Don Giovanni’s hell,’ she said.
On a side table beside a shoal of silver photographs of Rannaldini being congratulated by the famous, including Gorbachov and Princess Diana, stood a big yellow bowl overflowing with pink-and-green grapes, peaches, mangoes, persimmons and fruit so exotic Flora had never seen it before. A yellow Aubusson carpet swimming with roses and oak leaves caressed her bare feet. The only pictures were an Eric Gill panel of an ambiguous-looking madonna offering a perfect breast to a rather too-knowing and adult baby and a Picasso girl whose eye squinted over Rannaldini’s ivory-silk shoulder as he opened another bottle of Krug.
The bathroom, also in pale grey and scarlet with a mirrored ceiling and walls, was dominated by a vast Jacuzzi.
‘Mother Courage’s famous Ju-Jitzu bath,’ giggled Flora. ‘I can’t tell you how much I admire her, she makes my father’s shirts look as though Dinsdale’s slept in them and she told Mum that Mrs ‘Arefield ’ad just had her back passage painted bottle green. You should know presumably.’
Even though a faint smile flickered at the corner of Rannaldini’s mouth Flora decided not to tell him about Rattledicky.
‘I could listen to her for hours.’
‘Unlike Boris Levitsky’s compositions,’ said Rannaldini handing her a glass. ‘To us.’
‘To my guardian devil.’ Trying to suppress her surging excitement Flora sauntered next door into a bedroom which was all bed, with a mural above it of an endlessly applauding opera audience, beautiful bare-shouldered women in wonderful jewels, handsome men in dinner-jackets, all cheering and clapping so realistically you could smell the carnations in their buttonholes and hear the bravoes ringing out.
‘Christ, you’re a narcissist,’ snapped Flora. ‘Do you delay your entrance even here? How’d you take out your teeth without a bedside table?’
She jumped as a huge clap of thunder burst overhead. Her heart was beating almost as loudly. Any moment Rannaldini would pounce.
‘Vile seducer,’ sang Hermione, ‘like a fury I’ll pursue you, haunt you to your dying day.’
‘Exquisite,’ sighed Rannaldini and, going downstairs, he turned on Wimbledon to watch a replay of an excruciatingly boring women’s singles match.
Feeling absurdly let down Flora slumped on one of the silk footstools, sulkily consuming an entire bunch of green grapes, pips and all, by which time Leporelló was listing Don Giovanni’s conquests to a distraught Donna Elvira.
Dark, blond, fat, thin, tall, tiny, all were fair game to the Don.
‘But his favourite form of sinning,
Is with one who’s just beginning,’ sang Leporelló.
Realizing that the rain was no longer machine-gunning the roof and windows Flora knocked back her Krug.
‘Well, I can’t stay here all night gazing up Miss Sabatini’s knickers.’
‘I’ll walk you home. Are you tired?’ Rannaldini switched off the television and the soundtrack.
‘Ees the same thing.’
As they were leaving he flicked on his answering machine. Suddenly the tower was filled with desperate weeping.
‘Rannaldini, it’s Beatrice, I must see you, I love you so much.’
With an irritable shrug Rannaldini turned off the machine. ‘Some stupeed flautist want her job back.’
‘And you, too, by the sound of it,’ reproved Flora. ‘How can you hang a cross round your neck and behave so horribly?’
‘Theenk how much worse I would behave if I didn’t wear it. Women make such a fuss. As a sex, you will soon be expendable. The Japanese invent a robot that makes exquisite love. Afterwards you sweetch it off.’
‘It must be called Hermione.’
‘You should scowl more often,’ mocked Flora, going towards the door, ‘you’re too attractive when you smile.’
Rannaldini punched her gently in the belly.
‘You wanna go ’ome?’
‘While I still can.’
‘Peety, you have no idea of the unimaginable pleasure you will miss. See these leetle footstools. They are very old. Italian voluptuaries used to kneel their mistresses up on them so they could spend hours licking their bottoms.’
‘How disgusting.’ Flora was rigid with shock.
She’s a child, thought Rannaldini.
‘Come, leetle wild thing.’ Putting a warm hand on her neck, he drew her towards him and kissed her gently on each corner of her mouth, then slowly worked inwards, his mouth cool and tasting faintly of Krug.
Supported by the door, Flora just remained standing.
‘Now I can tell them at Bagley Hall I’ve snogged Rannaldini.’
Outside night had fallen. The wood steamed like a tropical jungle. The rain had bowed the trees into a dripping green tunnel and pestled a rank sexy smell out of elder, nettles and the last yellow leaves of the wild garlic. As they emerged the maze reared up, a great jet-black wave waiting to topple over them. An owl hooted warningly, a bat swooped.
‘Duck — it’s the Count,’ said Flora, through desperately chattering teeth.
‘Go into the maze,’ whispered Rannaldini.
‘Give me a ball of thread, Ariadne. Although you’re more like the Minotaur.’
‘Keep your hand on the wall and you’ll reach the centre.’ Rannaldini buried his lips briefly in her neck. ‘I geeve you a minute’s start.’
Never one to resist a challenge Flora plunged into the maze feeling her way between drenched lowering yew cliffs. With a scream she ducked in terror as a sinister dark figure reared up ahead like a black cowled monk about to pounce on her. Then she gasped with relief: it was only one of Mr Brimscombe’s yew peacocks. Shivering, yet pouring with sweat as her feet crunched on the wet, cold, pebble floor, she felt she was walking down an endless beach into a sea of no return.
Turning, twisting, falling to her knees, losing both her espadrilles in her panic, she could hear Rannaldini behind her like the Hound of Heaven (should be hell), his footsteps deliberate but relentless, stealthily drawing closer.
Oh Christ, she could hear breathing in front now — someone else was in the maze, or was it the way it twisted back on itself? Terrified, she started to run, piercing herself as she crashed from one massed wall of sharp twigs to another. Twenty feet above, a thin strip of dun, starless sky gave her no direction.
Her breath was coming in such gasps she would have none left to scream for help. She’d never get out. Meeting a dead end she stumbled to the left, hands desperately searching. Rannaldini was going to murder her, the maze was a trick, there was no centre. She gave a sob as an owl hooted overhead.
Then suddenly she breathed in the headiest smell. The path seemed to widen. Her feet must have touched a pressure point because soft light suddenly flooded a bower of bliss in which an ancient stone bench was fantastically garlanded by great clumps of rain-soaked philadelphus and jasmine with white rambler roses clambering to the top of the yew ramparts, all wafting their sweetness. Flora gave a moan of relief and joy.
Next moment Rannaldini’s arms were around her. She could feel the burning heat of his body, Don Giovanni in the flames.
‘You made it, leetle wild thing.’
‘I’m waiting for Mr Rite of Spring to come along.’
‘You must not mock.’
This time he kissed her with real passion, quivering with tension, his tongue stabbing and probing her mouth, his hands untying the black knot of Wolfie’s shirt. Laying bare her dove-soft white breasts, he covered them with kisses, murmuring endearments in Italian.
Then he seemed to gain control of himself and pushed her gently away.
‘Now we play games,’ he said softly. ‘You must do what I say. You are leetle village girl who wishes to enter the great Convent of Paradise. But first the all-powerful Abbot of Valhalla must inspect you to make sure of your purity and innocence. It ees his privilege.’
His face was totally impassive.
‘Are you some kind of nutter?’ stammered Flora backing away.
‘Take off your clothes,’ said Rannaldini sharply.
Furiously Flora stepped out of her rain-soaked blue skirt and pink and white striped pants.
‘Sit down.’ He pushed her on to the stone bench. ‘Now the Abbot will examine the leetle girl fully. He touches her breasts,’ Rannaldini’s warm hands were stroking, squeezing, searching, ‘and he theenks what a tragedy that two such lovely theengs should be hidden for ever under a nun’s black robes.
‘The little girl is frightened now,’ he went on, sensing Flora’s apprehension, ‘but just when she think the touching has gone on too long for decency the Abbot moves downwards. He is delighted to find her a little plump. Her puppy fat will protect her from the bitter cold of the convent.’
In time to the deep, husky, caressing voice Rannaldini’s hands roved over her belly and thighs, slowly, meticulously, assessing and examining.
Once again Flora was appalled to find herself revolted but wildly, hopelessly excited.
‘Sturdy legs, too,’ murmured Rannaldini. ‘Good for kneeling for hours on a cold chapel floor.’
Then, as he pushed her back on the bench, ‘Now she must lie down and put her knees up to her breasts for the crucial examination to begin. The test of her virginity.’
‘What sort of fucking pervert are you?’ hissed Flora, but, powerless to resist, she lay back, raising her legs and giving a wail of pleasure as his fingers slid inside her.
‘They go in too easily,’ purred Rannaldini, ‘the leetle girl try to tighten up to pretend she is still intacta but she is far too excited. As the Abbot explore probing her most secret places she cannot stop herself gripping his fingers. She is embarrassed how wet she is getting. She knows the Abbot is excited, too. He no longer care eef she is virgin.’
Rannaldini’s iron-hard thigh was rigid against Flora’s bare leg. She began to gasp with helpless pleasure as his finger moved up to her clitoris.
‘See the hood is back. From this tiny pink bud blossoms all female joy. It is so pretty. The Abbot will cure all her tensions, all her fears and geeve her such a lovely feeling.’
‘Oh, you bastard!’ Flora arched her back, went rigid and came.
‘That was nice?’ crooned Rannaldini, delightedly gathering her against his chest and stroking her hair.
‘Bliss but utterly bent.’
‘Is only the beginning. Tomorrow you can be little nun who has been caught in some wickedness.’
‘And you’ll be the Abbot of Valhalla ordering me to be flogged. Not bloody likely.’
Desperate to regain the upper hand, Flora dropped to her knees, unzipping his fly, lowering the blue silk boxer shorts and burying her face in the scented powdered hair flattened by the tight trousers, as the thick powerful cock flew up like a jack in the box.
‘Oh, wow,’ sighed Flora.
But, feeling her tongue, Rannaldini pulled away.
‘I weesh to come inside you.’
‘Pity, I wanted to have my cock and eat it.’
For a second she thought he was going to hit her.
‘Stop taking the pees.’
Lifting her back on to the stone bench he roughly parted her labia and shoved his cock deep inside her.
‘Aaaaaaah, lovely,’ cried Flora, starting to move.
She was used to over-excited schoolboys who came in an instant. Rannaldini now totally in control, could have been a metronone for The Rite of Spring. His rhythm was so exact and so relentless.
‘Keep your eyes open,’ he ordered, his face satanical above hers, ‘I want to see you come. Are you bored now?’
‘Not as much as I was. Twelve bored more likely.’ Ah, those deep slow thrusts, Flora was battling not to abdicate herself completely. ‘For a pervert you’re seriously good at straight fucking. Although this bench is even harder than you — oh my God, on second thoughts perhaps it isn’t… Oh, Rannaldini, oh, Rannaldini.’
At the end of a week’s suspension Flora was allowed back for the Leaver’s Ball, because Wolfie Rannaldini, who’d won every cup and prize going, interceded with Sabine Bottomley.
Two days before the ball Flora, who was supposed to be practising ‘Who is Sylvia?’ with Rannaldini in his tower, was actually perched on his huge treble bed rubbing baby oil into him while he finished the crossword.
‘Ah that’s good. Deeper, deeper. You learn fast.’ Later he combed back the hair between her legs.
‘You are very charming, like a rose called Felicia. I cannot wait to shave you.’
‘Do you shave all your women?’
‘Usually. Cecilia ’ave a brush like Bernard Shaw’s beard so I ’ad to.’
‘You are decadent. You should publish a coffee table book of all your ladies and call it Clitoris Allsorts. Anyway you can’t shave me until after the Leavers’ Ball. Think of the raised eyebrows if we all go skinny dipping.’
‘You are not going to Leavers’ Ball.’
‘I must. I feel so dreadful about Wolfie. I promised I’d go with him two months ago. I’m not letting him down in front of all his friends. I’m off backpacking soon, so he and I will just peter out without his knowing about you.’
‘Eef you go to that ball, do not come back to me.’
It was her first experience of Rannaldini’s intransigence. She knew she mustn’t give in. She was horrified how difficult she found it.
Having persuaded Georgie to buy a slinky black dress covered in sequins for The Clive Anderson Show so she could borrow it for the ball, Flora discovered it was too tight on the hips. Resorting to half a packet of Ex-Lax she spent the day of the ball on the 100 groaning that she was dying.
That makes two of us, thought Georgie.
Deathly pale, buckling at the knees, Flora managed to gird her ransacked loins to get ready. At least the dress fitted perfectly. Georgie was just fastening her own jade pendant round Flora’s neck when Flora asked her point blank if she’d ever been unfaithful to Guy.
‘No, of course not.’
As Georgie crossed her fingers the jade pendant slithered between Flora’s breasts.
‘And has Daddy ever been unfaithful to you?’
This time, as she crossed her fingers, Georgie held on to the pendant with her thumb.
‘Of course not.’
‘How very boring,’ said Flora. ‘Marriage must be like a prison.’
Next moment her mother had burst into tears, but denied there was anything the matter, just saying work was going badly.
As Wolfie was playing cricket against the fathers and going to be pushed for time, Guy — the ever-willing chauffeur — dropped Flora off at Valhalla where the roses were scattering pale petals all over the lawns.
Rannaldini, who’d just flown in from a wonderfully successful performance of Shostakovich’s Tenth, was delighted to see Flora looking so wan. But she had the wonderful skin of youth where sleepless nights only put darker blue shadows under the eyes and made her look more appealing. He had never wanted anyone more, but icily he ignored her.
Before she left with Wolfie and Natasha, they paraded before the grown-ups in their finery.
Oh, I’d love to be beautiful and thin and go to a ball, thought Kitty longingly.
Wolfie asked his father to tie his tie. He had made another century this afternoon and looked bullish, very brown and handsome.
‘None of our generation can tie bow-ties,’ said Natasha.
‘Family ties are more important,’ said Flora pointedly.
For a second, as his father had to stand on tiptoe to see over his shoulder into the mirror and flick and slot the yellow Paisley tie in and out, Wolfie had a spookie feeling Rannaldini wanted to throttle him.
‘You all look be-yootiful,’ called out Kitty as they drove off.
As Kitty sorted through the mountains of washing from her stepchildren’s trunks the following afternoon she felt really depressed — not only had she got the curse, which meant yet again she wasn’t pregnant, but also because she’d just switched on Wimbledon and seen Hermione and Rannaldini sitting together on Centre Court.
She’d just removed the clothes which Natasha, who was flying to New York the next day, might need, when Wolfie tottered in still wearing his dinner-jacket. At first she thought he was drunk, then, as he collapsed at the kitchen table, she realized he was crying.
‘Christ, I hate my father.’
Kitty went cold. Mindlessly she filled the kettle.
‘Flora was impossible all evening,’ said Wolfie, furiously wiping his desperately bloodshot eyes. ‘Then she vanished and came back all lit up. I thought she was on something. She refused to dance, the sides of the marquee were up because it was so hot, she kept looking up at the stars. Then she gives this shriek of excitement and runs across the pitch leaving her bag, her shoes and her green jacket behind as my father’s helicopter lands on the pitch.’
Wolfie couldn’t go on. The wind from Rannaldini’s blades had blown Flora’s skirt over her head, and his last memory had been of her black legs and suspenders and her red bikini pants.
‘She was so crazy about Boris,’ he said despairingly, ‘and Marcus Campbell-Black, but I thought I’d seen off the competition. But how can I compete when my father comes out of the sky like Close Encounters?’
Wolfie was a kind boy but so deranged with grief he’d forgotten who he was talking to.
‘My mother’s still in love with him and they’ve been divorced for years,’ he went on bitterly. ‘When we were in Salzburg Papa swanned up and put his hand on her shoulders: “You’re looking lovely, Gisela,” and Mum started shaking and shaking. He can have anyone. Why does he have to take Flora as well?’
Suddenly Wolfie realized the cup Kitty was putting down in front of him was spilling tea all over the table.
‘Oh Jesus, Kitty, I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’m saying. You must have known what a bastard he was when you married him.’
When his father returned, even browner, from Wimbledon, having been denied the satisfaction of seeing Boris Becker winning, Wolfie asked for five minutes alone. Expecting trouble Rannaldini was surprised when Wolfie bleakly announced that instead of an eighteenth birthday party he’d like the money to go round the world. Relieved to see the broad back of his son, Rannaldini wrote him a surprisingly generous cheque.
‘I feel terrible,’ said Flora, when Rannaldini telephoned to tell her, ‘and I doubt if he’ll ever forgive you.’
‘Course he will. Sooner or later he’ll need money or a leg-up in his career so bad he have to forgive a leg-over.’
‘You’ve no fucking heart and I’m worried about Mum. If she’s writing a musical called Ant and Cleo, why is she reading Othello?’
Returning to Paradise from her second honeymoon in Jamaica in late July, Marigold rang Georgie and suggested they went for a cheering-up lunch at The Heavenly Host.
‘I can’t face the outside world at the moment,’ mumbled Georgie.
‘Ay’ll bring some smoked salmon and several bottles straight round. We’ve got to talk.’
Half an hour later Marigold rolled up at Angel’s Reach looking gloriously suntanned but a bit plump with an apricot-pink shirt worn outside her shorts to cover the bulges.
‘Ay’m so sorry,’ she hugged Georgie. ‘Kitty filled me in. Ay didn’t realize how awful it’d been.’
She was horrified by Georgie’s appearance. The magnolia complexion which men used to write songs about was all blotchy. She was desperately thin, her skin hanging like loose clothes on a skeleton. She couldn’t stop shaking.
‘Poor Dinsdale’s aged more than I have. He’s been walked so much as an excuse to get out of the house that he hides behind the sofa whenever his lead’s rattled. Oh God, another single magpie.’ Frantically Georgie crossed herself. ‘I keep seeing them.’
‘They’re always single in July because the females are feeding their babies and protecting their nests,’ said Marigold. ‘Now where’s the corkscrew? We both need a noggin.’
‘He’s still seeing Julia.’ Georgie couldn’t keep off the subject. ‘I ought to get out, but I’m like a hotel coat-hanger, useless when detached from my moorings.’
‘I was like that,’ said Marigold. ‘How are you and Guy when you’re together?’
‘Terrified. We never stop apologizing like British Rail. I bitched about him so much to Annabel Hardman the other day with the answering machine on that I had to record Dire Straits over the whole tape.’
‘There.’ Marigold put a huge blue-green glass of Chardonnay in front of Georgie.
‘Thanks. Larry was so hellish to you I’d never have signed that Catchitune contract if I’d known about Nikki, but you look so stunning now. How did you ever get him back?’
‘Promise, promise not to tell?’ whispered Marigold. ‘Ay paid Laysander.’
‘Ferdie, Laysander’s flatmate, orchestrated everythin’. They put me on an awful diet, took me joggin’ and made me act totally unconcerned whenever Larry rolled up. Ay gave Laysander some lovely clothes and a Ferrari and we hired jewels for him to give me. Larry was so mad with jealousy he came roaring back.’
‘It really worked!’ Georgie showed the faint flicker of animation of the dying castaway hearing the chug of a helicopter.
‘Far better than before,’ said Marigold, taking the smoked salmon out of its transparent paper and laying it on a blue plate from the Reject Shop, which had presumably replaced her plates Georgie had smashed.
‘You know how hopelessly undomesticated Larry was,’ she went on, searching among the spice shelf for red pepper. ‘Now he brings down his washing and even loads and unloads the dishwasher. Ay’m thinkin’ of writing Nikki a thank-you letter. And he’s become so marvellous in other ways.’ Marigold unearthed a tired-looking lemon from the bottom of the fridge. ‘Not just terribly loving and not being able to keep his hands off me, but he doesn’t rev up any more or shout at me if Ay map-read wrong and he gives me the remote control when we watch TV and smothers me in YSL. That’s why I’m looking so good and best of all I don’t have to go to Masonic dinners any more.’
‘Golly.’ Georgie found herself peeling off a bit of smoked salmon. ‘I wonder if it would work with Guy? How much did you pay Lysander?’ she asked. Then, bleating in horror when Marigold told her, ‘I can’t afford that!’
‘It’s worth it,’ urged Marigold. ‘You’ll never be able to pay back the Ant and Cleo money and Larry’s hell-bent on having your album by Christmas. He’s mean about deadlines. It’ll be such fun having Laysander back in Paradise and he’ll keep Larry on his toes,’ she added dreamily.
‘Did you sleep with him?’
‘May word, no,’ Marigold crossed her fingers. ‘He’s just there to rattle one’s hubby. Do give it a go. He was in Cheshire bringing some drain billionaire to heel and now he’s in Mayorca on some rescue mission. Ay promise he and Ferdie are brilliant.’
Feeling anything but brilliant, Lysander huddled in the only bit of shade on the burning deck of the motor yacht, Feisty Lady, as she chugged round the rocky Majorcan coast. He was seven days into the worst job Ferdie had ever found him: to rattle a fabulously rich arms dealer appropriately called Mr Gunn, who had brought his appalling bimbo on the cruise as well as his equally appalling wife.
Bloody Ferdie had also pooh-poohed Lysander’s gloomy prognostications that he was bound to be seasick.
‘That was rowing boats at school. Large boats are quite different.’
Large boats turned out to be infinitely worse. The minute Feisty Lady left the Hamble, Lysander started heaving his guts out. It was absolutely no consolation, particularly during a storm in the Bay of Biscay, that the busty, braceleted Mrs Gunn spent her time vying with the ship’s crew who were all as gay as crickets (Mr Gunn was taking no chances) over who should minister to Lysander on his death bunk. Nor that Mr Gunn became so jealous of Mrs Gunn playing Florence Nightingale twenty-four hours a day that he dumped the bimbo in Gibraltar and was now bonking Florence Nightingale so vigorously in the master cabin below deck that Feisty Lady was pitching worse than in the Bay of Biscay.
It was Lysander’s first day up. A molten midday sun blazed down out of a royal-blue sky and he felt too dreadful even to watch Goodwood on satellite or crawl to the telephone to ring his bookmaker. His wracked stomach was even more concave than that of the bronzed deckhand in frayed hotpants who seemed to be spending an unnecessarily long time polishing the nearest life buoy.
‘It’s really kind, Gregor, but I honestly don’t want anything,’ mumbled Lysander.
He tried to concentrate on yesterday’s Sun. But the cheery forecast for Pisces bore no resemblance to the horrors of the day before and he was depressed by a survey in which the majority of female readers said they preferred men to be well read rather than well hung. Lysander hadn’t finished a book in years. Sick for a home that no longer existed, he longed for Jack or Arthur to cuddle. He was terrified once Mr Gunn stopped emptying himself into Mrs Gunn he would empty one of his Kalashnikovs into the catalyst. And wretched Ferdie, who had a maddening habit of going off air when he wanted Lysander to stay put, was always out of the office and refusing to return his calls.
Listlessly he gazed across a tie-dyed turquoise and navy-blue sea at the pine-spiked cliffs falling into the sea. They were so like hedgehogs he half-expected them to curl up, taking their tower blocks and hotels with them as the yacht approached. The buildings themselves were like the egg-box castles he used proudly to take home from playgroup for his mother who, to his father’s irritation, always put them in the drawing room. He always missed her more when he was feeling ill.
They were approaching Palma. Feisty Lady was bucking ominously and Lysander was wondering if he had the strength to stagger to the side or anything left to throw up when a huge yacht overtook them.
‘That’s Britannia, Sandy, isn’t she lovely?’ sighed Gregor the deckhand.
Raising his binoculars with effort, Lysander scoured the deck for Princess Diana or the Queen. He seriously admired the Queen, no-one knew more about racing. If she fell overboard he could dive in and rescue her, although in his weakened state he probably couldn’t swim that far. Perhaps Princess Diana could rescue him. She was supposed to swim every day. He imagined her firm hands on either side of his head, her soothing voice saying: ‘Not long now,’ as she towed him towards Britannia. At the thought of her beautiful long legs doing a vigorous backstroke Lysander’s mind misted over. He was roused by the ship’s cook waving a cordless telephone smelling of garlic at him.
‘Nice sounding man for you, Sandy.’
As Ferdie was the only person who knew he was on board, Lysander grabbed the telephone in a fury.
‘Gemmyoutofhere, you bastard. Where the hell have you been? I’ve been propositioned by every bum bandit in the British navy.’
‘Chill out,’ said Ferdie, who had an irritating addiction to modern slang. ‘What’s the state of play?’
Lysander told him, then after a long pause in which Ferdie outlined his next assignment, Lysander gave a whoop of delight.
‘Georgie Maguire, fucking hell, the Georgie Maguire. She’s gorgeous. All right, I am keeping my voice down. I thought she was happily married… the bastard. I’ll get the next flight out of Palma.’
‘Wait till tomorrow,’ said Ferdie, ‘then I can meet you.’
The following afternoon as the temperature soared into the nineties Ferdie was amazed to see Lysander sidling through the Nothing-to-Declare doors at Gatwick, smothered in an enormous camel-hair overcoat, swathed in long scarves, sending fellow passengers flying as his trolley, hopelessly over-loaded with duty-free, polo sticks and expensive suitcases out of which protruded shirt-tails and legs of boxer shorts, veered out of control.
‘Where’s the fucking car?’ he hissed to Ferdie.
‘In the car park.’
‘Well, take this trolley and move it.’
‘Move it, for Christ’s sake.’
Even when he was shaking like a leaf with sweat pouring down a yellowing face, people stopped and gazed at Lysander.
Hell, thought Ferdie, he’s picked up a fever, or worse.
It turned out to be worse. The moment they were alone and going up in the grey car-park lift Lysander parted his stifling coat to reveal a pink nose and a pair of totally crossed eyes. Tucked under his arm was a painfully thin, bedraggled, reddy-brown mongrel puppy who nevertheless managed to twitch its curly tail and stretch up to lick Lysander’s chin.
‘What the fuck is that?’
‘What does it look like? Sweet little thing. I had to trank her so she’s very dopey.’ Lysander dropped a kiss on the puppy’s head. ‘All the way from Palma, Jesus, if another hostess asks if she can take my coat! I’ve never had so many women trying to get my clothes off. Isn’t she adorable?’
‘And probably rabid,’ hissed Ferdie, then as the lift stopped, ‘cover it up for Christ’s sake.’
The row continued in the car.
‘Have you ever seen anyone with rabies?’ Ferdie was practically diving out of the window to avoid contact.
‘No, nor anything like this puppy. She’s got cigarette burns all over her back. Christ, people are bastards.’
‘You could go to prison for ten years, so could I for abetting you.’
‘Thanks for reminding me. I must have a bet.’ Lysander reached for Ferdie’s car telephone.
‘Put it down. Don’t change the subject. That dog could have rabies.’
‘Course she hasn’t. Her owners kept her locked in a cupboard. The boys from the boat took me clubbing and we heard her howling. We had to break in after-hours to rescue her. I really like gays. Basically they’re so brave and so kind to animals. It took Gregor and me an hour to wash the shit off.’
‘So it’s stolen as well,’ said Ferdie sternly. ‘That’s fifteen years.’
‘Anything’d be better than that bloody boat. I am not into bateau-ed wives.’
Ferdie didn’t smile. ‘You’re so fucking impulsive, like that time you hi-jacked the school cat. Jack will be wildly jealous.’
‘Jack will be delighted — once he knows she’s female.’
‘Then they can have lots of rabid puppies.’
Lysander giggled. ‘I’ve got you a huge bottle of Jack Daniels and some Toblerone for fat Jack and scent for Marigold. I can’t wait to see her. God, it’s bliss to be back. I hate abroad. People can’t understand me and I can’t understand the television. When are we going to see Georgie?’
‘About half-past six.’
‘How exciting. She looked so stunning at her launching party. Perhaps she’ll write a song about me called “Cock Star”!’
‘You are not allowed to bonk her.’
‘No, well. I better have a shower before we see her. I’ve got pee all over my shirt.’
‘What have you called that puppy, Death Threat?’ asked Ferdie.
‘No, after this girl in The Mill on the Floss.’
‘What are you reading that for?’
Lysander, who was now marking runners in Ferdie’s Evening Standard, his hand edging towards Ferdie’s mobile, explained about the survey in the Sun.
‘How far have you got?’
‘Page three. He’s quite a good writer, this George Eliot.’
Lysander was very hurt when Ferdie roared with laughter. He knew he was thick but he’d just executed a dangerous assignment with great skill and put a lot of dosh into Ferdie’s pocket.
‘Mrs Gunn was so grateful this morning, she’s given me twenty grand to spend at Ralph Lauren so I can buy lots of sharp suits.’ If he’d been bitchy he’d have added that Ferdie had put on a lot of weight and there was no way he could get into any of them. ‘And she offered me a yacht with my own mooring at the Hamble whenever I want, which I told her I didn’t.’
‘You dickhead!’ exploded Ferdie. ‘Ring her up and accept and we’ll flog it.’
Marigold was overjoyed to see Lysander.
‘Chanel Number Fayve, oh you remembered, oh Laysander.’
As she flung herself into his arms, Lysander noticed that she had, like Ferdie, put on a lot of weight. But as they had been held up in traffic there was no time to do more than bath and change before setting off to Georgie’s. Maggie the puppy, who was still dopey, having devoured a bowl of bread and milk and been inspected by Jack and Patch, had now fallen asleep on the sofa.
‘Poor little thing came from the National Canine Defence Kennels in Evesham,’ lied Ferdie, as Lysander, still a bit pale and black under the eyes, came downstairs rolling up the sleeves of a dark blue shirt.
‘God, Gregor knows how to iron.’
‘You look gorgeous,’ sighed Marigold. ‘Lucky Georgie.’
She wanted to come along to effect the introductions. It had been her idea. But Ferdie didn’t want any feminine compassion softening the hard bargain he intended to drive.
‘Well, at least nag Georgie about the village fête,’ said Marigold. ‘We desperately need any clothes she doesn’t wear any more for the Nearly New Stall.’
Georgie watched a dying wych-elm showering yellow leaves on the burnt lawn. It hadn’t rained since the storm that had delayed Flora the first day she’d had singing coaching with Rannaldini. Honeysuckle buds like bloody red hands clawed at the terrace walls. The hay had been cut for a second time in Rannaldini’s field below, the bales like yellow coffins symbolizing the death of the summer. Georgie had had a terrible day — not a note of music or a word written. Having made a dropped telephone call earlier she had found out that Julia was back in the cottage at Eldercombe. So Guy’s compulsive mowing, even though there was no grass, would go on.
She didn’t know what had made her agree to see Lysander and Ferdie. The whole enterprise would distract her from work and cost a fortune and her confidence had taken such a battering she’d never pull it off. There’s no way Guy was going to stop seeing Julia.
They were shooting clays across the valley in preparation for 12 August. Bang, bang, bang, like a relentlessly approaching army. She turned on the prom. It was the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, which Guy was always playing, probably because it was one of his and Julia’s ‘tunes’. Georgie started to cry.
‘Marigold looks well, doesn’t she?’ said Lysander as they stormed up a drive lit by hogweed and dog-daisies. ‘When you think what she looked like last February. I can’t wait to see Georgie.’
In nervous excitement Lysander smoothed his windswept hair in Ferdie’s wing mirror.
Georgie, however, was in a far worse state than Marigold had ever been. Even done up on their last notches, her belt and her watch hung loose. The stones of her engagement ring, fallen inwards, scratched against her wine glass. Like purple worms the veins rose on her thin hands. Her hair had lost its lovely Titian glow and had no life, like a dull village. She hadn’t shaved the back of one of her emaciated legs and her ankles were scratched with brambles from wandering aimlessly through the woods. It also looked as though someone had grated coconut on the shoulders of her black T-shirt.
Getting drinks took ages.
‘I’m sorry this tonic’s flat,’ she said when they’d finally sat down on the terrace. ‘There’s a bottle in the fridge,’ she added as Ferdie leapt up. ‘I’m sorry the place is a mess. Mother Courage, my cleaner, has gone to the Costa Brava for a week.’
‘Lovely dog,’ said Lysander, as Dinsdale wriggled along the bench until his head and shoulders were resting on Georgie’s lap. She winced as the dog’s elbows dug into her fleshless thighs.
‘I spend my time taking grass seed out of his eyes.’
Which are only marginally more red-rimmed than your own, thought Lysander. ‘We had a basset,’ he told her. ‘They’re terrible at getting up in the morning.’
‘You two should get along,’ said Ferdie, returning with the tonic.
In the fridge he had also found blackening avocadoes, tomatoes spotted with grey, whiskery sweetcorn and mouldy cheese. All the plants in the kitchen were dying. Phlox and night-scented stock drooped round the terrace unwatered. This was definitely a house out of control.
Lysander loathed the moment when Ferdie told the wives where they were going wrong. Rannaldini’s haybales reminded him not of coffins but of school trunks and sobbing into his pillow every night at prep school, until every boy in the dormitory had hurled their regulation black lace-up school shoes at him. No wonder he was brain damaged.
He was still smarting over Ferdie’s amusement. How was he to know George Eliot was a woman? Down below he could see Rannaldini’s horses seeking shade beneath a huge oak tree. He must get Arthur sound. Box rest had done no good. He’d turn him out when he’d got him back to Paradise.
‘I can’t afford that,’ an aghast Georgie was saying as she rotated her leather bracelet. ‘Marigold never said it’d be that much.’
‘Inflation’s gone up three per cent since we sorted her out,’ said Ferdie, ‘and Lysander must have a soft-top Ferrari.’
‘I am due a big royalty cheque,’ said Georgie. ‘If it arrives when Guy’s not here I suppose I could stash it away and pay you with that.’
‘No sweat. The important thing is to get Guy back. He’s away Monday to Friday, I presume.’
Georgie nodded. ‘But the coast isn’t always clear. Guy keeps telling his lady friends that I’m lonely. Last night bloody Hermione dropped in, had three whiskies and scrambled eggs, and I had to miss EastEnders, The Bill, After Henry and Capital City.’
Lysander turned even paler. ‘How dreadful. Couldn’t you have taped them?’
‘I was buggered if I’d show her I’m hooked on soaps. She thinks I’m an utter philistine as it is. Then she had the cheek to tell me I wasn’t unhappy, just suffering from rejection and hurt pride, the smug cow.’
‘Well, if the lady friends roll up it doesn’t matter.’ Ferdie was anxious to get down to basics. ‘It’ll be no bad thing if they tell Guy Lysander was here.’
‘But Guy’s always been turned on by my having other men,’ said Georgie, bursting into tears. ‘When we were first married and I went on tour and had the occasional one-night stand he used to love hearing about it when I came home — although he made me promise never to see them again. I often made things up to excite him, so he thinks I’m far more promiscuous than I was.’
‘But he’s never faced serious competition on his own doorstep,’ interrupted Ferdie. ‘The first thing to do is to start eating, cut out the booze and get some sleeping pills.’
‘I won’t be able to work. They make me so uncoordinated in the morning,’ said Georgie in panic.
‘You’re not working anyway. When he starts next week, Lysander will take you shopping. Don’t buy anything strapless or sleeveless. You’re too thin at the moment. And no minis, either, it looks too feverish. And,’ Ferdie added sternly, ‘you must do something about that scurf.’
‘It isn’t scurf.’ Georgie frantically brushed her shoulders. ‘It’s sand from burying my head like an ostrich for so many years.’
Back at Marigold’s house, Lysander sank into the blackest gloom. Even Marigold taping EastEnders and The Bill didn’t raise his spirits. He’d last seen Marigold six months ago, when she’d been down to eight stone, looking terrific and was giving off sexual vibes like a mare in season. She had also provided him with comfort and a home when he desperately needed it. He had therefore carried an idealized picture of her in his head, which had sometimes merged with that of his mother. The reality was a let-down. Marigold was more matronly, bossier — all that fuss because they’d forgotten to ask Georgie about the Nearly New Stall — and much commoner than he’d remembered her.
She was now having a double chinwag with Ferdie as she painted bluebells on a pink chair.
‘Gay, Ay’m afraid, has been rather a swayne to Georgie,’ she was saying.
Part of Lysander’s buzz at taking on Georgie had been that it would give him the chance to bonk Marigold again. Now he wasn’t sure he wanted to. And Georgie had been harrowing. He was fed up with self-obsessed, desperately unhappy, married women. He wanted some fun. Clutching Jack, as he always did in moments of stress, he announced: ‘I can’t take Georgie on. She’s too old and too far gone. She ought to be in the funny farm.’
‘Oh, please,’ said Marigold, who was secretly relieved Lysander didn’t fancy Georgie. ‘She’s so low and you were so wonderful at bringing Larry back.’
Ferdie noticed the Picasso and the Stubbs had vanished from the drawing-room wall. He’d always suspected Larry was over-leveraged. It must have cost a bomb getting rid of Nikki, or keeping her quiet if he’d perhaps weakened and seen her again. Marigold might well need Lysander’s services.
The puppy, who was stretched out beside Lysander on the sofa, gave a whimper and flexed her toes in her sleep. Her skin drooped between each rib. Ferdie knew how to touch Lysander’s heart.
‘Georgie’s like that little dog,’ he said gently. ‘She may not have cigarette burns on her back, but she’s in just as bad a way. Give it a try for a week.’
There was a long pause. Safe from the banging clays, pigeons cooed contentedly in Marigold’s wood.
‘Oh, OK,’ said Lysander crossly.
‘Come and have a look at the cottage I’ve found for you,’ said Marigold, ‘and then we’ll have some dinner.’
Magpie Cottage stood in the far side of dense woods on the edge of Larry’s land. Approached from the road by a rough cart-track, its front garden consisted of neat squares of lawn bordered by iceberg roses. Pink rambler roses and purple clematis swarmed over the door. Inside there was a kitchen, a dining room and drawing room knocked through and two bedrooms upstairs. Out at the back was another little lawn, a scented flower-bed filled with white stocks, pinks and tobacco plants, a pond and a white bench under a walnut tree. A four-acre field filled with dog daisies and red sorrel curved round the house and garden like a magnet.
‘It’s seriously nice. Arthur’ll love it,’ said Lysander, who had cheered up. ‘He’s so nosy he’ll be able to put his head in through all the downstairs windows.’
‘It’ll need a few pennies spending on it,’ admitted Marigold.
‘Judging by the smell a few pennies have been spent in it already,’ said Ferdie.
‘A keeper had it,’ explained Marigold, ‘hence the pong of ferret. Ay’ll get it painted and cleaned up and you’ll need a cooker. Would you prefer gas or electricity?’
‘Basically I don’t cook,’ said Lysander, ‘but gas is better for lighting cigarettes.’
‘You will keep the garden taydy, won’t you, Lysander? Paradayse has won the Best-Kept Village award ten years runnin’.’
Marigold worked fast furnishing the cottage with, among other things, a large brass four-poster, blue-ticking sofas and chairs and a big wooden bishop’s chair she’d found in a jumble sale. Eight days later, Lysander, Arthur, Jack, Tiny and little Maggie moved in. Loot from grateful wives now included six polo ponies which Lysander was keeping over at Ricky France-Lynch’s yard at Eldercombe and Mrs Gunn’s promised yacht which Ferdie had already swapped for a new soft-top dark blue Ferrari. He felt it was important for people to be able to see Lysander driving round Paradise and, besides, he wanted to appropriate the red Ferrari himself.
After moving in, he and Lysander went out to The Heavenly Host where they dined outside under the stars in the buddleia-scented dusk. Taking off his jacket Ferdie noticed Lysander’s post which he’d left in his inside pocket.
‘I forgot to give you these. Fan mail still coming in for Arthur and three letters from your father.’
‘I don’t want to see Dad. He was so horrible last time.’
‘Well, at least open the one from your bank.’ Ferdie chucked a thick white envelope across the red-check tablecloth.
‘Are you determined to ruin my dinner? Gregor and I lost a hell of a lot of money in the casino at Palma. If only you’d let me come home straight away.’
‘Open it,’ said Ferdie, ‘I promise you’ll be pleasantly surprised.’
With shaking hands Lysander tore open the envelope and holding up a candle scanned the contents for a long time, his lips moving as he read, growing paler and paler.
‘My God,’ he whispered, ‘I’m £102,000 overdrawn and I’ve got to pay £750 interest. What am I going to do? The Ferrari’ll have to go and the ponies and what about Arthur’s vet bill? Oh Christ.’
‘It’s in credit, you jerk,’ said Ferdie. ‘And you made £750 in interest just last month. So you can bloody well buy me dinner.’
It took him several minutes to convince Lysander, who promptly suggested they went out la