Rancid Pansies, страница 1
In memory of Charles Swann
About the Author
By the Same Author
Melancholy as it is to stand at dawn and watch one’s house vanish over a cliff, I can’t deny that amid the attendant dust cloud of black thoughts is a whirling spark of exhilaration, as after the death of a partner or parent. Part of this is natural relief that one wasn’t in the place at the time. But there’s more to it. A perverse pleasure, even? Yet how could any normal person be pleased to see the precious home they had created with such expenditure of taste and ingenuity (to say nothing of time, money and labour) reduced to rubble in a matter of seconds? No doubt a normal person couldn’t, especially not in full victim mode as the frantic householder left holding not so much as a doorknob. Clothes, books, files, letters, CDs, a farting teddy bear named Gazzbear™, a life – torn from his grasp and hurled into the abyss as detritus to be exposed to the scrutiny of wild boar and buzzards, not to mention Italian hunters.
Well. The seismic hazards of living in Tuscany. Hollow-eyed, unslept and unshaven, I was by no means my usual neatly groomed self when the following day Virgilio, my friend in the carabinieri, arranged for a helicopter to fly me over the scene. It looked just like one of those TV news pictures of millionaires’ homes in Californian canyons after freak rains have provoked a mudslide. A pale scar down a steep and forested hillside; a section of roof lying askew on the slope like a badly pitched terracotta tent; unidentifiable torn material draped over rocks. (Ha! Even millionaires are not immune, the bastards!) We flew another slow circuit even lower and I spotted the puckered grey rump of my Toyota Avensis – or Ass Vein, if you share my weakness for anagrams – sticking up out of the churned earth like a mouldy boulder.
‘Madonna cara!’ said the pilot over the intercom. ‘How did you all get out in time? It’s a miracle no one was killed.’
Seeing it from above in broad daylight, I had to agree it was fairly unlikely we should all have survived uninjured. An entire slice of mountainside had collapsed. The level acre of grass and trees that constituted a cordon sanitaire between my house and Marta’s now ended in a ragged lip above a raw precipice. Because it was winter and only the scrub oaks retained some brown, withered leaves I could glimpse between the trees the stout fence I had put up to demarcate my property. It now stood within a mere twenty metres of the edge.
‘The Blessed Madonna was surely watching over you,’ said the co-pilot into his microphone. ‘You see? She even protects foreigners.’
‘Evidently.’ My sceptical voice sounds disembodied in my own headset. ‘Although of course in England we have la Diana. You know – the Princess of Wales. She has become our national Madonna. It was probably she who saved us.’
‘She had terrific legs,’ said the pilot wistfully. ‘A tragedy.’
I was about to elaborate on my light-headed piece of facetiousness when our pilot needed to take swift evasive action to avoid a second chopper, apparently from a local news station, that had arrived to gloat over the debris with long lenses. There was talk among the police in my helicopter of setting a guard over the site to deter looters. It didn’t seem to concern me. Some unfortunate’s worldly possessions, but no longer mine.
For suddenly I didn’t care. By the time we landed I had discovered to my surprise that I no longer wished to put that particular life painfully back together again. I had no urge to send in the bulldozers, not even to unearth the battered but tough filing cabinet that doubtless still contained all my insurance papers, my passport, my permesso di soggiorno and a bottle of poppers called Kix that Adrian had brought me and which I had forgotten to stash in the freezer. Suddenly I was stateless, shorn of identity, with nothing to insure since nothing of value remained from my former existence. I didn’t care if souvenir-hunters found the platinum disc of Alien Pie which the bald boy-band leader Nanty Riah had given me scant hours before the fall of the house of Gerry, in exchange for my having given him this name for his band. And anyone who could be bothered to dig for them was welcome to my dullish but signed Picasso lithograph and my autograph letter from Oscar Wilde (three querulous lines about a cigarette case to Messrs. Thorn-hill, Walter & Co. of 144, New Bond Street). I wanted none of it. It even crossed my mind to tear off the clothes I stood up in and walk away stark naked into the world, a born-again atheist aged fifty and a day. I was restrained by natural modesty and anxiety that my underwear might bear signs of the previous night’s trauma. Also, it seemed unlikely that the carabinieri still standing around the military helipad at Pisa would appreciate the gesture’s metaphorical intention. Not for them the poetry of departures; more a pretext to commit me to a locked ward for observation. (Poor maestro! One understands: the terrible shock and lo stress.)
I now wonder if I shall ever revisit the site of my former home – say in a year’s time – like Thomas Hardy in his poem ‘Where the Picnic Was’. I may say that until it was brusquely curtailed by geophysics, my fiftieth birthday party was considerably better than any picnic. Hardy doesn’t mention what his little group cooked over their wood fire: some grim Wessex fry-up, possibly, or merely a kettle boiled for that horrid British beverage involving stewed leaves. But whatever it was it couldn’t have compared to the superb badger Wellington farci with gun-dog pâté and the odd psychoactive mushroom that I served my own friends, inducing in us all such a memorable sense of relaxed camaraderie. But a year on, shall I still be able to identify the precise spot, as Hardy did his by fragments of charred wood? Or will the tough Tuscan cespuglio of broom and juniper and brambles have long grown over the scarred hillside to obliterate everything? And shall I, like the poet, reflect gloomily on the subsequent scattering of the band of friends who had sat around my hearth that fateful evening?
So far, not much scattering has taken place and as yet none of us has mawkishly ‘shut his eyes for evermore’. Within a matter of days I was forcibly abducted to Suffolk, for all the world like an African foundling swept up in the photo-op embrace of a Hollywood nobody, escorted by the world-famous conductor Max Christ and his scientist brother-in-law, my partner Adrian Jestico. I was installed in Christ’s newly renovated house, Crendlesham Hall, in a well-appointed attic suite with a four-poster bed the size of a squash court, and bidden to recover my wits. This I have almost done. In the interim, Adrian has continued to work towards eminence at the British Oceanography Institute in Southampton (BOIS) and these days is a frequent visitor to the Hall, where he is company for his sister Jennifer when Max is away on tour, and an uncle for Josh, her six-year-old son. He also comes as something more than a mere helpmeet for me. Some nights beneath the squash court’s duvet Adrian punishes my age with his superior stamina and wristy action. It’s all too hideously domestic for words and I’ve got to get out. Nature did not intend Gerald Samper to lounge around on other people’s beds like an odalisque.
Of the other guests at that interrupted dinner party it is my neighbour Marta who most occupies my thoughts, and in her usual infuriating manner. Since her surprise return from America on the night of that memorable dinner, the Voynovian baggage has bravely taken up residence again in her gloomy hovel on the edge of the chestnut forests
Meanwhile the slow, healing regime of grappa laudanum and bitter reflection has all but restored my normal spirits. Sometimes when I wander Crendlesham Hall’s warm domestic spaces while everyone is out I can definitely feel the earliest twinges of boredom. There is something about the empty daytime shell of a normally active family house that can – when a shaft of aqueous February sunlight catches the remaining tatters of Christmas decorations – induce a melancholy fretfulness. In the kitchen the kettle sighs on the Aga, Luna the cat lies like a fur puddle deep in the only comfortable chair that she shares with several of Josh’s rubber dinosaurs and a Transformer toy. I stand at the window and watch wintry lapwings rowing their aimless way about the grey Suffolk sky. On the wall is one of those office whiteboards covered with felt-tip scrawls and scraps of paper held on by fridge magnets, the memos of other people’s lives: ‘Josh dentist Tues 11.30’, ‘Electrician Friday’, ‘Max Berlin 5th–8th’, ‘Sarah’s b’day 15th’. It induces a familiar wistfulness adrift between envy and repulsion.
Moreover, after a couple of months in England I cannot ignore the degree to which I have found myself so radically at odds with my native culture. It is only by dint of natural good manners that I hold myself in check when experiencing at close quarters the very horrors that first made me flee the country of my birth so many years ago. Jennifer has often urged me to join her on short daytime excursions, no doubt hoping to ‘take me out of myself’. These outings are kindly meant; but it is in the nature of efforts to cheer people up that they simply spread moroseness and spleen on every side. Josh’s kindergarten teacher, who should probably be prosecuted, has evidently brainwashed him into thinking that every home should have a bird table. Why a bird table? Well, apparently bird tables are just what the planet needs to offset something or other – maybe the wretched child’s carbon footprint (Barf tonic, pronto! Brr! Non-fat octopi! Or come to that, the great headline Top Fart Icon Born! which, unlike news of carbon footprints, does at least grab the attention). So one morning we set off to buy a bird table at a garden centre a few miles away at Peasewold St Phocas, a name not even P. G. Wodehouse could have bettered. A rustic notice at the entrance informed us that St Phocas is the patron saint of gardeners, so we were effectively on sacred ground. We would have known this in any case since garden centres have become the new cathedrals of the secular age, combining as they do the worship of shopping with eco-rectitude. The great thing about Le Roccie (and how the tears spring to my eyes as I think of my lost paradise!) was that there was no garden. It was an eyrie on a mountainside. Who needed a garden? Nasty bourgeois things. Postindustrial attempts to buy into some long-dead version of English pastoral.
Between them, Jennifer and Josh chose an object on a pole that was the avian real-estate version of a roadhouse, more a bird motel than a table. It had walls and a pitched roof and was stuck all over with plywood cut-outs shaped like robins and thrushes, just in case these ideogram-literate birds were too dumb to recognise the food as intended for them. Josh remarked that if it was a proper house there ought to be a bird bathroom inside with a bird bath and also a bird loo where birds could poo. He and I lagged behind and had a short speculative conversation about whether birds ought to remove their feathers before having a bath, but the loud anatomical detail he went into attracted attention from other shoppers that he alone welcomed and I hurried to catch his mother as she wheeled her trolley back into the indoor acres devoted to Green spin-offs where the garden centre’s real biz seemed to be done. The place was jammed with products which only a giant leap of the imagination would remotely connect with gardens. As in an Italian cathedral there were candles for sale, but the candles of Peasewold St Phocas came with scents and names, both calculated to give maximum offence to a person of sensibility: ‘Aromatherapy’, ‘Harmony’, ‘Seascape’, ‘Warm Embrace’ and – the gastric juices leaping up to splash one’s uvula – ‘Beingness’. There were also joss-sticks with similar names but even worse smells and, tangling from time to time in one’s hair, the clappers of bingling-bongling, dingling-dangling wind chimes.
That day the Samper misanthropy was in full spate and bursting its banks. How detestable to be in a majority! The ideal I aim for is to cultivate an attitude of impassioned detachment. I was certainly feeling impassioned, so to achieve detachment I went to sit morosely in Jennifer’s car rather than accompany her and Josh to the garden centre’s tea room where Josh had been promised a reward for good behaviour. Some reward he was in for, I thought to myself. It was too easy to imagine the fifty varieties of herbal teas, all of them tasting of stewed twigs and fruit but just about the only things on the menu not containing rolled oats or molasses. I could already see the Bizarre Bakery Selection featuring rolls containing oats and lupin seeds, inferior species of wheat that sound Biblical and hence spiritually wholesome – spelt, emmer, wild einkorn, Khorasan – or else flapjacks made of oak galls and molasses (‘Traditional Love-Offerings on pre-Christian Lesbos!’). I could foresee the horrid middle-classness of it all, the self-pleased obsession with physical health and spiritual harmony.
I admit I can’t easily explain why a mere visit to a garden centre should have had such a curdling effect. It was just that the place seemed to combine a whole series of pet hates I never realised I had been nurturing until there they all were, one after another, somehow a part of my former self as a Briton back in the years before I took the cheerful, lightening step of becoming a renegade and a foreigner. In a mysterious manner Jennifer’s memo board in Crendlesham Hall’s kitchen seems like a palimpsest which, if I rub hard enough through the layers of her half-erased scribble, might reveal my own mother’s identical scrawls to herself that were equally a part of my own childhood. ‘Floor pol.’ ‘Tea.’ ‘Order Cash’s name tapes.’ ‘Pay Sanders Friday.’ So I stand alone in this kitchen, staring through the window, trying to resist being dragged back and suddenly dismal with a sense that it is all up with Samper, that the act of living has slipped out o
And then one morning a phone call from my agent Frankie reminds me that I could have a pretty good life of my own somewhere out there well beyond the plovers. In these withdrawn periods of recuperation we artists forget how much we need these voices from over the horizon. (Had her moated grange been on the phone, Mariana need never have become so run down. At the very least she could have sent out for a pizza.)
Frankie brings me the news that although I may be minus a house, my latest book Millie! is selling prodigiously, and worldwide at that. It was always likely to sell well in the UK in the run-up to Christmas since its subject, the appalling one-armed yachtswoman Millie Cleat, was a heroine who had ‘sailed her way into the nation’s hearts’ (Sun, Mirror, Daily Express, Daily Mail, et al.). In the normal course of events sales would have dropped off quite a bit in the dead season following New Year. But her spectacular televised death in Sydney on Christmas Day had done both my spirits and my book an immense favour. I am now, Frankie assures me, on my way to becoming modestly well off, especially if the film deal currently being negotiated in Hollywood comes through.
Thus it is that one day I awake and know that Samper is back to his old self. I open my eyes and an inner zippiness easily neutralises the grey Suffolk light seeping in from outside. Remember those derring-do novels that always compelled the reader to picture the reality of their flabby old authors? Their heroes, refreshed by ninety minutes’ sleep after spending the night hanging by their fingertips from a windowsill to avoid SMERSH agents with poison-dart guns, bounce out of bed in their Mayfair bachelor apartments. To demonstrate their rugged hardihood, ease their bruises and melt the tension out of cramped muscles, they first shower with water as hot as they can stand and follow that with an ice-cold drench, ‘laughing at the stinging brunt of it’. After which, luxuriating in a buzz of superb animal fitness, they do a hundred quick press-ups on their fingertips, tuck a towel around their brown whipcord torsos and go into the kitchen to make themselves a breakfast of six eggs, a pound of toast and several pints of Blue Mountain coffee. Well, it was never thus in the Samper household, I can tell you, and nor is it at Crendlesham Hall. Nobody laughs in the shower here except nervously, taken by surprise by one of young Josh’s inventive montages involving a baby ichthyosaur peering quizzically out of a loofah. But on this particular morning I do leave the squash-court bed singing a sprightly aria from the opera the English pronounce as Donkey Hoaty.