Authors: Mavis Cheek
'Have you been to see the Giacometti at the Tate yet?' she asked.
'Er . . . no,' I said, feeling unfairly ashamed. Truth to tell, I had forgotten it was on.
'But you will?' she said anxiously. 'Of course I will.'
'Then can you get me the catalogue and send it over? And while you're at it, there's the Beuys show at the Whitechapel. But I expect you've been already ...'
'I can go again,' I said brightly, crossing my fingers.
'How nice for you to have all that spare time to indulge yourself at last,' she said.
Hmm, I thought, my niece seems to have inherited her aunt's capacity for pomposity rather well.
'I'm going to a party,' I said.
'What's the show?' she asked, interested.
Sassy, not a private view ...'
'Oh,' she said, and immediately lost interest.
'Julius and Linda.'
She laughed. 'Make sure they don't try to snatch the Picasso back.'
Saskia, quite clearly, had no idea that beneath my old sweatshirts and leggings lurked a woman of passion and desire. And knees. I smirked at the thought, which cracked the face mask.
But all the same, if one were seeking a lover, one could do a great deal worse than look in the sympatico world of art. The visually creative male is not the stuff of which husbands and reliable significant others are made - he is, however, inclined to be more red-blooded than most, and not at all bashful at the prospect of a protracted fling. Indeed, flings suit the artistic temperament very well, whereas a mortgage and cosy fireside do not.
Post office, corner shop, library - all were nonsenses when it came to the pursuit of the Male Singular. He would undoubtedly surface, sprouting signs, somewhere that was utterly predictable. Maybe Julius and Linda's party. How apposite, given that the reason for their party was to remember the woman who had caused all this knees-out, antennae-up in the first place. And if not there, then maybe at a private view. It was certainly not going to be on a windswept platform with a bit of grit in my eye.
Jill sent me a postcard of a pair of swans necking. 'They mate for life,' she had written, 'which I used to think was very romantic
Looking forward to seeing you. Thanks for the pansies. Very pretty.' What this woman needs, I thought, is a bit of romance in her life. And I smiled. If I ever achieved the quest for a lover, I would take him up to meet her, stay for the weekend, maybe even arouse some tickle of remembrance in David's breast. Yes, but first - first obtain the wherewithal.
About a week before the party Julius rang me. It was during the day and I had just begun clearing out cupboards. I wouldn't have actually owned up to this activity to anyone else - being mindful of my bright burblings about having a year to pamper, indulge, expand, enjoy myself. But as a matter of fact clearing out cupboards was a delightful bit of pottering. So, happy as a babe in a sandpit, strewing about me ancient magazines, strangely shaped tupperware (reconstructed in the dishwasher but never quite thrown away), assorted
boots, very odd crockery and carrier bags that would, after all, never come in useful, I answered the phone on my knees and with good cheer in my heart.
Julius said that I sounded very bright and I said that
was. He told me that he was glad I was coming to the memorial party and I said I was glad to be coming too. He asked me if he had interrupted anything special and I said that no, of course he had not. Then there was silence. So I asked him, as one does, how he was dealing with the loss of such a lovely parent and would he like to talk about it, meaning here, now, on the telephone, but he said, yes he would, very much, and could we perhaps have lunch. I said yes, when, and he said, why not today. I looked at my seductive clutter, sighed and agreed. The where was not quite so easy - he coming from Whitehall and me being in Holland Park, so I suggested the Kensington Place again. He had never heard of it. 'Let me educate you in matters of the palate,' I said grandly, to which he said, 'I should like that very much.' I nearly added, 'Cheer up, Cinders, you shall go to the ball' because he sounded so woebegone. That is the problem about flying as high as a Tiepolo angel: you want to take everybody else with you - which is obviously a very attractive trait - but when you come down those you have done your Tiepolo act on generally feel betrayed.
say this only with hindsight, sadly.
I walked to the restaurant since the day was blue-skied and sunny, and the gusty wind sharpened me up. I did not go in executive gear this time but in a black velvet suit of Saskia's which seemed appropriate. I was getting used to giving my legs an airing and to using mascara. I cannot say that I was entirely successful in the use of make-up. After a disastrous session at a beauty counter, where I sat meekly before a Barbie goddess who applied a series of things to my face and clucked a good deal, and from whence I emerged with brick-red countenance and a vermilion lipstick line that nature had not intended, I decided less was safest. And no amount of Mrs Mortimer's shoulder whisperings that I should slap it on persuaded me.
Julius was waiting at the bar when I arrived. He looked uneasy as he perched on a stool in his dull, dark suit and stared into his glass. I gave him a peck on the cheek and sat on the stool beside him. We were knee to knee, mine very much in evidence due to the overstretched velvet. Sassy and
I were about the same size standing up, but sitting down I seemed to have more of a
'How charming you look,' he said, brightening.
'Thank you,' I replied, with a regrettable
simper. Oh, how the ritual of the female role has penetrated our lighter bones. To counter this I nodded in the direction of the barman before Julius could do anything like raise a gentlemanly finger.
'I think I should like a glass of champagne,' I said. 'What about you? Will you stick to the same or join me?'
'I'd better have the same,' he said, mournfully again, 'as I have to work this afternoon. Mineral water, please.'
'Nonsense,' I said. 'One glass of champagne won't gum up the telephone lines.' And I ordered it.
One is hoist by whatever the female equivalent of a petard may be - a labour-saving gadget, perhaps? For after the champagne, and once we were seated, Julius seemed to abandon all notion of restraint and drank considerably more than I did. We ate and talked fairly easily at first - about his mother and her life, a little about the art collection, the boys, what was happening to the empty house. Then, over the two slices of mango and an apricot coulis, the tone began to change.
On the subject of the house Julius became mournful again. 'I want,' he said, moving his glass around on the tablecloth, 'to move back into town. Linda wants to stay in Cobham.'
'Why?' was all I could think to say.
'Precisely,' said Julius.
'The boys are at Minderhurst in Kent. London would be considerably nearer for their trips home.'
'The countryside? Walks? London is a bit congested. Also threatening.'
'Linda's view of the countryside is that it should be kept at a safe distance and surrounded by houses similar to our own. She takes the Range Rover everywhere - everywhere being Guildford for shopping, the tennis club for exercise and
socializing, drinks with neighbours, and neighbours' swimming-pools in summer.' He sipped his drink and said with emphasis,
do not have a swimming-pool. Yet.'
'It sounds a wonderful life,' I said. 'Hard to give up. Safe, secure
He laughed without mirth. 'As to London being threatening - in Cobham we have been burgled more times than I can remember, cars are vandalized as they park in local byways and Simon had his bicycle stolen at knife point last summer.'
'What are you going to do?' I was beginning to feel more than a mite the conspirator, not a role I liked.
'She wants me to sell my mother's house and use a chunk of the money to build a pool. I want to keep the house on and begin to use it during the week. The boys are getting old enough to need somewhere in London as well. I think the whole thing makes great sense.' He took my hand, which was a shock, and said, 'I should value your opinion.'
I winkled my hand free, ostensibly to refill his glass, and then patted his now empty fingers in what I trusted was an aunt-like gesture. I was jolly sorry about the mascara by this time, spare though it was, and the knees.
'I've no idea how much a swimming-pool costs, but I should think selling a few of the pictures you've inherited would cover it. So she can have her pool and you can keep the house.'
'I've thought about that. But I realized, suddenly, after the way you talked at the funeral about the collection and what it meant to my mother over the years, that I should like to keep it intact for the boys. There is something of a need in this decaying world for passing on such a cultivated inheritance.'
'Oh, Julius,' I said, really very moved at the notion, 'I think that's a really wonderful thing to do . . .'
His eyes shone, he clasped my hand again. 'Do you?' he said searchingly.
'Oh yes.' And then I looked into his eyes and read quite the wrong message. And far too late to do anything about it. Courage and fluency left me and went over to his side.
'Margaret,' he said, 'I am talking about an open marriage. One in which Linda will pursue what she wants, and I will be left free to pursue what I want. Here.'
His fingers tightened around mine. Oh God, I thought, make the waiter come. But just when some waiterly invasiveness was required, none was offered. So we continued to sit, eyeball to eyeball, my hand held in his and me trying hard to recapture the quality of auntness.
'I thought Cobham was the kind of life I wanted . ..' he continued.
A desire to giggle rose and I longed - a little hysterically,
suppose - to add '. . . until I bathed in Badedas'. I forbore.
'Now I realize it is not. I feel redundant there. I want to get back to London, have some life, some love perhaps, some fun
There was that word again.
'Margaret? Would you come out with me sometimes? Would you let us get to know each other? I have always been very fond of you, and now perhaps it could be more ...?'
I looked at Julius. He had nice brown eyes, very appealing in their intensity at the moment, and, if a little stuffy, he recognized this and was prepared to act. Here then, sitting opposite me, was the very thing I sought. Frankly I almost succumbed. 'Yes' was not very far from my lips, but something got there ahead of it.
'Julius,' I said severely, 'what would you tell Linda?'
His eyes darkened. 'Nothing. She need never know. I would be in London during the week and go home for weekends. What do you say?'
'I say let's order coffee and forget it.'
'But why?' He leaned back, letting my hand drop, looking slightly drunk and boyishly crestfallen. 'You don't find me attractive, do you?'
'More to the point,' I said crisply, 'I don't find the idea of Friday night to Sunday night alone very appealing.'
'I might be able to stay up for some of the Fridays.'
'Julius, have an espresso and calm down.'
'Well, I'm very disappointed,' he said. 'Very.'
'And I am very flattered to be asked,' I said. 'But what you really need is a mistress, not a lover.' I beckoned to the waiter. 'What fun, Julius!' And I laughed.
Nicely, I thought.
But I also thought what a very silly view of our liberation we women have. Could I imagine myself making just such a proposition to a man and expecting him to oblige? Yet Julius quite obviously thought there was nothing at all odd in having clear demarcation lines and sticking to them. Had he done an Edward Fairfax Rochester and thrown himself at my feet, saying, 'In that case, if you won't agree to a weekday liaison, then I must and will have you for ever, I shall divorce Linda immediately,' I might have listened, or at least perked up a bit, for pride would have been restored, and there would have been the required peck of romance. But clearly real men — I counted Julius a real man -
not so impractical. This is probably why we do so badly. It may well be that Byron is right when he says that 'Man's love is of itself a thing apart, 'tis woman's whole existence . ..' In which case, Margaret old thing, I said to myself, it is certainly time to reconsider your position and break the mould . . .