Missing The Subtitles
The gardens of the Tuileries were full of snow and of Japanese tourists taking photographs of each other looking at the shadows the trees cast on it. There was aestheticism going on, but there was something worryingly systematic about it.
Juliet would have liked to sit and be gloomy and cold, but to sit down would have got her trousers wet, and there are sorts of gloomy and cold that are less what one feels like than others. There is the pathetic fallacy thing about the weather being gloomy and cold and it and your mood being synchronous, and there is having a cold bottom and making your cold worse again. Even when you are being Byronic, you wear your wool-lined gloves and a sweater.
It would have been nice to go into the Jeu de Paume to look at more bare trees and at water-lilies and cathedrals, but there were an awful lot of children pullulating about the entrance. Juliet never found children in the mass a particularly appealing prospect, and somehow it was worse if you could not understand what they were saying. And half-understanding French children being sardonic at the expense of your multicoloured but very warm long woollen scarf and sensible military greatcoat is, well, de trop.
She tried to kick a pigeon, she had never liked them much either, but she missed. It looked at her. She kept her balance; that at least was something to be thankful for. It would have been horrid to be a small skinny Englishwoman on her back in the snow in Paris.
Around the Arc de Triomphe, a lot of tanned men were limbering up for a bicycle race. Why they were all so tanned in the middle of winter, Juliet found vaguely intriguing; obviously they were all very fit, and one or two of them were sort of cute, and was it just a matter of getting a free half-hour on a sun-bed while they were down at the gym, or were they just all very vain. She supposed that the sort of person who goes in for very long cycle races probably was; only a vain man, she thought, could do anything so ridiculous. Oh, she knew, that anything done well and strenuously was a demonstration of a desire to work hard and do things at a level of accomplishment, and she supposed that that applied to riding bicycles down to the Camargue and back, with bits of marsh sticking to the tyres, but, if it applied to them, it also applied to bloody Theo and all his bits of broken pottery and tape loops, and she was damned if she felt like dealing in an ethic or an aesthetic that made him look even a bit good even for a moment and even on a minimal basis.
Wandering the broad grey streets of foreign capital cities in no particular direction is the sort of thing of which really dangerous suddenly finding yourself banging the walls depressions are made. And there is a point at which walking around wrapped up in he cold making cheap cracks to yourself about your fellow human beings stops being campily Byronic and becomes the brink of getting yourself upset and not feeling like lunch. And a last good lunch was about all this bloody city was likely to offer her before her flight, so she had better shape up and find something to enjoy doing for the next couple of hours, or she might as well go for Hare Krishna gruel for all the good it would do her.
There were no children outside the Petit Palais when she got there, and she thought about the Vuillards, all those nice purple and green rooms full of vague people doing embroidery. That would cheer her up, she supposed, and at least it would be warm. She spent several minutes collating the notices about which rooms were closed with the floor plan, and realised that the bloody people of this bloody city had arranged things so that she could not look at the one thing she really felt might make things a bit less bloody awful. What a bloody awful city this is, she thought, and why do people set everything up so as to cause me the maximum disappointment ? If things never seemed about to go right, and majorly so, and just went on grey and a bit cold, it would probably be better than having to work out how to ask the custodiens in halting French whether that which seemed to be the case was the case and it was the room with the Vuillards in that was one of the ones that was closed.
After all, she had to ask, just to be sure, because the malignity of fate was always capable of extending to her misunderstanding a notice and having it wrong about the pictures not being viewable; because, when fate is in that mood, you can pretty well guarantee that you are going to find out that you got it wrong, and find out at just the moment when finding out you got it wrong months earlier is going to make you even more upset about whatever it is you will be being upset about that you will have been anyway.
And, of course, she got that particular type of Frenchman who claims not to be able to understand your French, and makes you feel, when he understands a fragment for a section, and winces visibly at your accent, that he is about to make you repeat the vowel and consonant sounds over and over again until he is satisfied that you have got it right. They probably have the right to make you get the graves and circumflexes right under the Code Napoleon. But after a bit she stopped trying to speak grammatically and was reduced to 'Puis-je voir aujourd'hui les peintures de Vuillard ici ?'
'Mais non,' he said, with what looked like an Anglophobe sneer, but for all she knew he thought she was Danish or something, and looked straight through her at the next person in the queue. Is it training, or do they recruit after a nation-wide search for natural talent ?
There came a tap at her shoulder.
'Darling,' said Zenobia,' what are you doing in Paris at Christmas ?'
Given that Zenobia lived in New York, this was the sort of question that you are tempted to echo, but don't because it would be uncool, and Zenobia was the sort of person whom one was never surprised to see anywhere anyway. If you even asked, the answer would involve three or more continents, two particularly sordid bits of financial double-dealing, the works of at least one major philosopher and at least one digression about whom she had seen in which restaurant after which execrable performance of La Boheme, probably the Leoncavallo one. And the explanation would take a long time, during most of which you would feel an idiot.
'Nothing much,' said Juliet.'Maggie asked me to stay. You remember my erstwhile best friend Maggie.'
'Long black hair,'said Zenobia,'Kept telling people to read The Bell Jar and What is to be done ? and wore Laura Ashley far too often, especially in punts. Screwed Trotskyites and had post-coitals with them about Althusser.Oh, and when she used to share a flat with you, didn't she....?'
'Yes' said Juliet. Zenobia had never been especially nice about Maggie, or tactful about Richard,but what did she care ? Zenobia was five foot tall and one of the few people in the world on whom Juliet could look down, not that she'd dare; Zenobia described herself as Persian or Hungarian according to mood and whether she was dressed as a harem maiden with sensible footwear or someone hunting wolves, or possibly mammoths, on the steppe. She had dark brown eyes that seemed perpetually on the verge of turning black and making awful things happen, cattle murrain and the wiping of computer discs, and you minded your manners without even thinking about the consequences of not doing so. You just didn't, that was all,you just didn't even think nasty things about Zenobia, and no one ever gave her cause for wandering gloomy streets.
'Juliet,'said Zenobia.'You do not look at all happy. What has that structuralist twit been doing ? Don't even tell me. I would probably want to retaliate with fire and the sword, and I'm only in Paris for lunch. Come and look at some Syrian antiquities; that usually cheers people up, I find.'
'I don't like antiquities. They make me think of the tyrannies, and the sand, and poor bloody peasants being made to dig shallow trenches very slowly by red-faced men in shorts and solar helmets.'
'And after the antiquities,' said Zenobia, as if nothing whatever had been said,' I will buy you lunch. That usually cheers people up as well.'
In the event, Juliet found herself having to admit she was wrong. There were all sorts of the things she hated; plaques of subject satraps abasing themselves beneath the feet of god-kings with knobbly tiaras. But it was all small stuff; no winged bulls about to step on you. Zenobia wandered around the exhibits in the proprietary and efficient manner of one who has seen this exhibit in more than one city, and clearly considered it obligatory that Juliet coo over the same bronze falcon paperweights and water vessels shaped like hedgehogs and tiny white houses. And faces looked at you from carved pillars with sorrowful dreamy eyes, and Juliet felt slightly soppy about the odd tear that drifted from the corner of an eye, and unsure whether it was that Palmyra was dead, or that it had been gorgeous, or that she had lost one friend and found another not only true but there.
And after a bit, Zenobia seemed to think that they had had their ration of it all and was quite sharp when Juliet wanted to go back and look at a noble girl with swept up hair and shell earrings for the fourth time.
'She waited two millennia for you to get upset about her' Zenobia said.'She'll wait for next time you need to sentimentalise something. And I am in serious need of charcuterie and you obviously need to bare your soul about the awfulness of life. It will take us twenty minutes to get to the restaurant, if we have a nice brisk appetite enhancing walk, and I'd rather get Maggie and Christmas out of the way before we eat. That girl was never good for my digestion.'
Back in late November, Juliet had been dozing gently through This Week's Composer on the sofa while trying to have creative thoughts about new ways to criticise the running down of the Health Service. The nice thing about not being compelled to go into an office every day is that you can get on with work according to your own natural rhythms, and if they closely resemble what most people would term bone idleness, that's their problem and by my fruits you shall know me. And she could not get hold of the RCN Press Office until after 10 anyway, because they always have a meeting on Thursday morning. And her best ideas often came when dozing, sort of like Kekule and the snakes and whatever it was they told him about whatever chemical it was; and, in a sharp suit and with her hair newly permed and with a cigarette holder, she was about to dictate a new Consultant contract to the heads of the BMA and had one foot on the leather seat of the chair at the head of the table, as young socialist doctors in attractively shabby tweeds tried to make assignations competitively when the phone rang.
'Juliet Smith here,' she said, more or less on automatic and hoping it would be someone's secretary, because then she would have a few more seconds to get into being gritty and remembering about whatever it was they wanted to consult her about.
'Hi, hon' said a voice at the other end of a rather distant line. 'It's been a while.'
'Maggie ? Is that you ? Where are you ? Are you still in Paris ? '
'Of course, I am,' said Maggie. 'I live here. You know that perfectly well. Or don't you keep files on everyone all the time any more? '
'I don't keep files. I just tend to know quite a lot about what my friends are doing; people seem to tell me things about themselves and about other people. And I did hear you were still there, but that was months ago. You could have changed continents three times since then.'
'Not really, you know that. I'm not whatsername, Zenobia, and I don't have that kind of money; I stay put. It's called being broke: it's also called being reliable, Juliet; you remember being reliable.'
'Well, I paid you back almost at once, and the cheque cleared as well, straight away, and, if you remember, the real row wasn't about the phone bill anyway.'
'The real row was about whether Marx was critically supportive of Fenian outrage or not.'
'We'd better not get into it again.'
'Fair enough, but I still have the page references if you want to check...'
'Drop it, OK, and I was glad you settled the phone bill. And what I was ringing to say is that it's been too long. You know how it is. You can get so stubborn.'
Juliet shut her eyes and counted to ten. And it was true. She was stubborn too: that was fair. And it was probably best not discussed; that would mean talking about Richard - he had always been the real problem - and Maggie had meant well.At least at first.
'Yes,' she said,'I will admit that that is one of my major faults. When are you going to be coming to London so that I can see you ?'
'Well, I'm not coming to London for a while. I did everything I could in the BL years ago. But Theo and I were wondering what you were doing for Christmas.'
'Theo, who's Theo ? Last time I remember, it was some guy called Spike, who kept Dobermans. They howled whenever he played John Coltrane tapes, which was, I recall, often.'
'Oh, I discovered that Spike had this really sinister Situationist past. His line was quite unsound. The blissful thing about Theo is that he doesn't have a line: he's politically illiterate. I never thought I could like that, but it makes such a change.It's restful, really.'
Juliet was a little shocked; the Commissar of St. Hugh's actually sleeping with a man who did not care? People had been turfed out of bed in, as it were, mid-sentence for not having finished the Anti-Duhrung, or for getting the Line wrong on the NEP. Juliet had just finished not being spoken to for a year and a half officially over a failure to buy a pro-Provisional paper on a march and the suspicion that it was not just because she did not read Gaelic. And Maggie was doing it with someone who had no politics at all. Still, if he didn't have them, suppose that meant he couldn't get them wrong either.Swings and roundabouts really.
'He's really nice,' said Maggie. 'He's made me get my perspectives broadened a bit. I never liked performance art before.'
Bloody hell, thought Juliet, it must be love.
'Anyway,' said Maggie,' he and a couple of friends have the use of this house, you see. In the country. Well, actually, they own it. And we thought it would be nice to have a really big Christmas out there. Log fires and lots of food and drink, and no need to think about families or anything. And it seemed like an appropriate moment to get in touch with you, because you are stubborn, but you do like a good time. You always have.'
'Well,' said Juliet,'Of course it's a lovely idea. And I am really glad to be in touch with you, again. But there is a problem, there really is. You see, now that I'm doing consultancies, it's always a bit of a problem about actually getting paid on time. You know how good causes are. And my bank manager - well, you know what my bank managers are always like, I seem to bring out the worst in them.'
'It's because you spend too much money,' said Maggie,'And don't earn enough. It's very simple, really. Of course I wasn't expecting you to pay for anything in particular. I am your oldest friend and I am also a realist. It comes with being your oldest friend, not to mention with being a Marxist. Get yourself to Paris somehow; I think you can probably manage that, however low your funds are.And it's our treat; I told Theo about you, and of course he agreed. We'll fill you to bursting, for days. After all, you are my oldest friend, and we'll want you to be one of the witnesses.'
'Well, we're getting married five days after Christmas. That's the whole point.'
'Married ? You mean, marriage, as in sacrament of, bourgeois institution of. Maggie, you aren't serious.'
'Well, I know it is a bourgeois institution and I stand by most of what I've said in the past. But it costs so much to live in Paris, and if we get married, Theo can get more out of his trust fund.'
'Trust fund ?'
'Well, I know, but he is very sweet, and I do need to stay here a bit longer, and it's not as if it was recent money. I mean, it's just there, and no one does anything for it any more. His great great or somebody invented the spinning jenny or something; the workers whose faces he ground are long dust, my dear.'
'Gosh, Maggie. I never knew your principles were so flexible.'
'Well, they're not, not really. But he gets the interest on the interest on the interest, and it all gets a bit divorced from surplus labour value at that point. If he's not spending it on me, it just accumulates anyway. And anything that happens, happens from that. And he doesn't have any politics, but he meets me with hot home-made soup when I'm selling the newspaper. And he is sweet, and I am going to marry him, and you know how it is. And he is American, which means that there is not the whole class trip, not really.'
Juliet thought. On the one hand, it would be nice to go to Paris, and on the other, this was all a little unexpected. Did she really want to see her oldest friend marry some apolitical chinless Yankee pseud with good manners and a private income in some drafty town hall in provincial France ? It was all a bit sudden, and improbable, and what had happened to the woman's political morals?
'Anyone else attending the, um, ceremony ?'
'Well. No.'said Maggie.' You know how it is. And I'd really appreciate it if you could keep your mouth shut until afterwards. I mean, Dave, remember Dave ? With the donkey jacket and the collection of Newcastle Brown labels .Well, he wouldn't understand, would he ? He always told me that I was an intellectual and that the Party should not trust intellectuals ;he'd even say it in bed; and he'd be deliberately coarse around Theo, and Theo would not understand.He's never met anyone like Dave. And Jamie; Jamie has manners and some sophistication, but he'd look up Theo's great great, and ask awkward questions just for fun. And neither of us would want to see Richard again, would we ? And you make remarks about me being flexible, and honestly, Hon, you really are not entitled to throw stones, are you ? I mean, doing PR ?'
'I only do PR for good causes,' said Juliet. ' It means that they have the option of using someone who at least understands the politics of their situation without having to have it explained very slowly several times. And I don't cost very much.'
'And before that ? When you actually had a job ?'
'Well, I was training, wasn't I? It was important to learn relevant skills. And Lucinda was jolly nice about not making me work on accounts I might have had a problem about.'
' But that girl was plugging mange-tout picked under the guns of the Chilean army.'
'Well, yes, but she always served Colombian coffee. In mugs.'
'Anyway, are you coming ? Please ? Pretty please ? You sound like you need a rest. And I'm sure you'll like Theo. He's very nice. That's why I'm marrying him ; it's not just to help him with the money.'
'All right,' said Juliet. ' Like you say, I need a break. And no one wants me to work around Christmas. It's a dead period.'
Most religious festivals were dead periods for Juliet, and there are a lot of religious festivals in a multicultural society.
It was nice to have hot coffee and brandy inside her, even if it had come in one of those bowl things that you never really are quite sure how to hold, and which make it go cold awfully fast while being hot enough at first not to be wholly comfortable. Her coat was hanging behind the rather fifties pastel geometric shower curtain in the tiny bathroom, and her luggage was dripping little puddles on the red-tiled floor of the passage connecting the flat and the studio. The heat from the old cast iron stove was comforting too, and the sight of Maggie. Just the same as usual, with that nose-pointing air of earnest enquiry and the eyes smiling with surprised white rings around the pupils to show that everything was OK and forgiven; she seemed to be spending more money on her clothes these days - it was probably the first time since the age of eleven that Juliet could remember seeing her in jeans that had no rips or patches at all.
And the top looked like it was silk; Maggie had always had a nose for bargains, of course. She always ended up making sure she got a good deal.
'It's a shame you picked such a rainy day for the trip,' said Maggie. 'Mostly it's been a really calm and pleasant autumn. And I did not think of Winter or unpleasantness until today. In spite of its being Christmas you're here for. Among other things.'
'I didn't pick a rainy day,' said Juliet. 'It rained on the day I picked.'
'That's not really taking responsibility for your decisions,' said Theo, who was squatting on a Persian rug in front of the fire doing something complicated in the way of yoga exercises, or possibly just finding an excuse to bite his toenails.
'I have been accused,' said Juliet,' of presumption. I know I take hugely too much on myself and that from time to time, when I slip up, I try to get off various hooks by all sorts of shabby shifts and devices. But I refuse to take responsibility for the weather in general or the random collision of warm and cold fronts, or cumulus clouds, in particular.And, yes, I could have looked at the long range weather forecast, and in fact I did. And it said it might rain. Just might. So you could accuse me of gambling with getting wet. At the outside.'
'Darling, don't give Juliet a hard time,' said Maggie, taking him a small plate of biscuits with chocolate on one side and some sort of heraldic figure on the other.'She's had a hard day, and she did book weeks ago.'
Theo sort of unsprung suddenly into something resembling human shape, and started to munch biscuits improbably voraciously. Well, at least there is something fearfully athletic and physically intense about him.I suppose, thought Juliet, that that must account for some of Maggie's infatuation. I've never seen her get up and take a man food ever before in her life; when we shared a flat, she used to make them bring her breakfast,in the bath, even when she was in love. It was very irritating because it meant you always had to put your contacts in first thing so that you could remember what this particular one was called. And I suppose that the deep dark eyes and flowing black hair and perpetual pout might appeal, if you had very vulgar tastes. He is sort of neat, and he is the only person I can imagine getting away with that paratroop suit. How does he keep it so creamy clean if he spends time on the floor ? I suppose he must have to wash it a lot.
'Maggie says you have known each other since you were ten,' said Theo. 'Haven't you got bored with each other yet ? I change most of my friends every five years; it's hygiene, like throwing out the sheets out to be washed. There's a limit to how much they can teach you stuff, and then you're left with the fact that they sniff, or reread Raymond Chandler novels in front of you, or eat catsup sandwiches. I can't bear it.'
Juliet could not quite believe in someone who would lecture his pending bride on the mutability, and potential for planned obsolescence, of human affection. She must be missing something, some sort of private joke. You never understand everything in other people's relationships.
'Oh,' said Juliet, ' there's a point at which you've simply got used to each other. We passed that before we even left school; it's like hanging on to your favourite dressing gown, even if you tend to hang it up when you know you've got a hot date. Or teddybears.'
'Um,' said Maggie,'Theo set fire to the dressing gown; well, he dropped ash on it one night, and then persuaded me that I might as well let him finish the job.'
'And I compromised and made her send Snuggles or whatever the ghastly relic was called back to her mother, to store. I don't see why she should be allowed to have an artificial child substitute when she has me to keep her warm.'
Only one child to a customer, Juliet bit back.
'And when we were little, we did so much together,' said Maggie,' and we had so much fun. And got away with it.'
'Tell me about it,' said Theo,languidly.
'Well,' said Juliet, deciding she might as well take him at his word,' mostly it was stuff like discovering books together and shouting Heathcliff and Cathy at each other on nature walks, and stuff you couldn't possibly understand if you weren't there. It wouldn't be fun, except to us.'
'And it was having common enemies,' said Maggie, pouring herself some more brandy.' We were the only kids at the school who didn't have standard accents; and there was this ghastly girl called Violet or something who used to get us in the cloakroom and get her friends to give us Chinese burns while she made us recite Ozymandias and slap us every time we got a vowel wrong.'
'But we fixed her,' said Juliet.
'It was just luck, really,' said Maggie.'It just happened there was this spider in an apple crate.' She shoved the brandy bottle across the table to Juliet, who managed to field it as it skidded unexpectedly fast and straight across something that looked suspiciously like hours of polishing.
'Probably came in on some bananas. And we did check first down at the Zoology Department, that it was harmless. Just big.'
'And the Reader was jolly helpful, and kept schtumm for us. Because we explained, and he said he knew just what it was like being bullied, and wished us luck.'
'The nice thing about being quiet and bookish is that no one ever expects you to really do anything awful. So you get away with it. Because to suspect you, people would have to adjust radically who they think you are. And mostly that's too much like hard work,for them.It's one of the privileges of being young,' said Juliet.'Even horrid people get a bit smart when they get older.'
Theo was inspecting the soles of his feet again. Juliet took this to indicate he hadn't really wanted to know very much about their girlish exploits.
'Maggie, dear,' he said,'I've decided to pull that bit about shrimp fishing in the Sound. It's too lyrical for the context.'
'But it's one of the best bits of yours that I've read. Ivor wanted to publish it, when I showed it to him.'
'Well, I guess I did tell you that you were not to meddle with my work. And we did sort that one out, didn't we. And you said you were sorry, afterwards.'
'Yes, Theo,' said Maggie.
'And I have explained to you, haven't I, that what I do has fucking nothing to do with straight art shit. If Ivor likes it, that means it's straight art shit. It was sentimental; it was nostalgic. If you were a proper Marxist, you'd want art that looked to the future.'
'Oh, come on,' said Juliet,' you must know perfectly well that they went through all that in the 20s and the fact that Stalin....'
'Yes, Theo,' said Maggie, and all the steeliness in her voice was directed in Juliet's direction.
'The past is a dying concept,' said Theo. 'It's all bourgeois shit. Proper people don't have the past; they just have myth and the dreamtime. That's what performance is about; when it's over, it's over. Things have to be. You can't describe the shape of flame.'
He got up and left the room. He may be a Futurist creep, thought Maggie, but he knows his exit lines. Horrid people get smart.
'You must be very tired,' said Maggie,'And we've all probably had too much to drink. I'll show you where you're sleeping, now; and then I really must get to bed myself.' None of this had in it even the slightest possibility of any of these statements shifting into the interrogative.
The flat was not very large. And the walls were not especially thick. But years of sharing flats had made the noise of Maggie enjoying sex one of those things that makes a place like home. He is so physically intense, thought Juliet; it must be like being with a set of springs. And he is rich. And she got Dave disciplined by the cell when he hit her, and she made Spike's Dobermans stop sleeping on the bed. And I never even began to know what to do about Richard, even when she told me, from experience. Juliet slept fitfully, and woke up and read Rilke until dawn.
'We're going down in the van' said Theo.'And with the food and the wine and the bedding and the cooking stuff, and I really haven't time to remove the rubber cloud and the frog cage,well, there really wouldn't be room for you to travel with me and Maggie.'
'So we asked Sebastian and Tracey,' said Maggie. 'And they are going down more or less at the same time as us, so they'll pick you up, just about the time we leave. Sebastian is very sweet, and he says we'll all like Tracey.'
'They know the bar on the corner,' said Theo. 'If they get held up, you can always sit in there. From what Maggie tells me, you like the odd drink. And I may like Tracey, or I may not; I reserve judgement on my friends' entanglements until I have a chance to see for myself. It is my experience that even the people I like most have taste in friends and lovers inferior to mine.' He looked at his unostentatious watch.
'Theo has to lock the place up himself,' said Maggie. 'It's one of the trust's conditions for his having the Braque here. And he has to set the sensor.'
Somehow it seemed the sort of thing you would expect that Theo would have installed incredibly sophisticated security thingies in some scummy apartment in part of a derelict warehouse in the Twentieth, and that that unappealing brown thing on the wall should be an important moment in the history of modernism. Juliet was aware that a greyness was creeping into her enjoyment of this blessed festival, a greyness that did not altogether have to do with the poppings in her ears and sinuses and the prickly clottedness at the back of her throat.
'Are you all right, love ?,' said Maggie. 'You look awful this morning.'
'I have a serious suspicion,' said Juliet,' that somewhere between the airport and here, thanks to my illicit and irresponsible gamble with the weather, and thanks perhaps too to the inadequacy of the street map you sent me, I got wet enough to pick up someone's cold.'
'Poor thing,' said Maggie.'You'd better stop off at a chemist at some point. Look, get your stuff together. Because we really have got to get on the road.'
'And for god's sake,' said Theo,'don't kiss each other goodbye. You'll be seeing each other again in a few hours. And I don't want her germs being transferred to me by you. Keep some sort of track on hygiene for a change. I can't afford to have next Tuesday messed up because your friend does not take the right vitamins.'
He went off to fiddle with things around the Braque. Maggie looked after him, and, when he was through the door, very quickly pecked Juliet on the cheek.
'I'm sure you two will get on soon,' said Maggie. 'It's just that he's under a lot of pressure at present.'
'Ah,' said Juliet. 'That explains everything.'
'He thought it would be neat to do a new performance the night before the wedding, and sort of make it the real ceremony. I'll tell you more about that later.'
Juliet allowed herself the fit of sneezing and coughing that had been building up for some time; it seemed better than saying anything, and she made a point of turning her face away from Maggie so that Theo would not be able to accuse her of bacteriological sabotage of his art. One must strive always to be a sensitive guest.
Except for an old Frenchman with a nicotine-stained Van Dyke and a mackintosh that had probably once been white, who was sitting in a haze of Gauloise smoke and did not look especially alive, the bar was full of mysterious dark men drinking obscure cloudy white drinks. They seemed not to especially relish the presence in their space of a stranger, and especially a female stranger, and especially a female stranger whose cases got under the feet of everybody who passed by her table, which was on most people's way to the seriously unsavoury lavatory. She sat nursing a whisky and hot water, and a cup of fairly horrid sludgy coffee. A couple of times, people stopped looking at her as if she were a police informer, and smiled, or at least showed a lot of teeth, some of them gold, and made as if to sit down and include her in some sort of conversation. But she was not especially interested in being converted to whichever branch of Islam it was, or in being told about how none of their wives understood them, and so she sneezed a lot, as soon as they came near, and then they went away again, and she got on with reading. Normally she would have tried to be affable, but her head hurt too much to even try.
After a while, a tall man with hexagonally gold-rimmed spectacles and a green tweed jacket with hard-worn leather on the elbows walked in, and ordered himself one of the glasses of white cloudiness before walking over to Juliet's table, and sitting down. She deferred sneezing for a moment.
'I suppose you are Juliet,' he said,' more from the cases and the runny nose than anything else.'
'That I am,' Juliet said.
'Theo was being sort of metaphorical in his physical description, and I did not bother to take note; he is rarely capable of providing much information that is useful when he is in that sort of mood.'
'You know, Sebastian' said Juliet.' I probably shouldn't mention it to someone who for all I know is one of his closest friends. But I get a vague suspicion of an impression that Theo is not my greatest fan.'
'No,' said Sebastian.'He's not. But there was no point in my looking for someone who was surrounded by fawn shot with green and puce. He does believe that people's politics are visible to the instructed eye; like Kirlian auras, not that he doesn't claim to see those as well. God knows what all that was supposed to mean, anyway. I suppose you've gathered I'm Sebastian, by the way; I gather from the phone call that I and Tracey are supposed to be your lift down. Not your fault, but I do wish the boy would learn to ask instead of issuing decrees.'
He downed the rest of the glass and made as if picking up and carrying Juliet's cases were an idea he was afraid was about to cross his mind. She relented, finished her whisky and water, left the coffee where it stagnated, and picked up two of the bags herself. She was, after all, ill, and refusing to accept chivalry can be carried too far. It was not as if she had even left him one of the heavy cases.
Outside was another rather ramshackle van with mud caked around the hubcaps and arabic slogans finger-etched in the dust; this seemed to be the approved method of transport round here. Tracey was small and svelte and sun-tanned and squealed introductions and hellos with the sort of Australian accent that you don't quite believe is meant seriously; then you realise that that really is how they speak and feel vaguely guilty about the whole thing. Once Juliet had realised that Tracey was Australian, something subliminal about Sebastian fell into consciousness; his accent was not quite as Received Standard as, and rather more Antipodean than, it had seemed at first hearing . Not that Juliet could talk; the Yorkshire vowels that swam in the soup of her Oxford and elocution classes drawl were a perpetual rebuke to the side of her that wanted to pass as middle class, and having the right to be exotic and have fun instead of being hardworking and clawing everything from life with sharpened fingernails.
'That reeelly is a dreadful cold you've got there, darling,' said Tracey. 'Maybe we should find you a doctor .'
'Will there be one ?' said Juliet. 'It is Christmas Eve, after all. And don't the French just disappear this morning and not be found except fighting to the death in food shops for the next week ? '
'Ah' said Sebastian and charged back into the bar, emerging moments later with the old man with the Van Dyke, who shook himself on emerging into the open air like a dog who has been swimming, and whose eyes hooded in even the grey light of a Parisian Tuesday as if he had been in a hole for a long time. He walked over to Juliet, and poked her smartly in the diaphragm, observing her subsequent fit of coughing with what she realised when she stopped and was thinking of losing her temper had been authentically clinical interest. He reached into his mackintosh and pulled out a grimy notepad; he felt in the other pocket, scrabbling slightly, and then held out his hand, into which Tracey put the pen she had retrieved from the front of the van. He scribbled for a second, and then asked for fifty francs. Juliet paid him; there did not seem to be all that much in the way of a reasonable alternative, and stuck the scrap of paper he gave her in return into her pocket. He plunged back into the bar without a further word.
'He's an old drunk, Duplessis,' said Sebastian. 'But they never got round to unfrocking him or whatever it is they do to doctors, and he is always in there, and never too drunk to make some sort of reasonably competent decision. He's a bit old-fashioned, is all, but we all find him terribly convenient sometimes.'
Just how old-fashioned he was emerged when they handed in the prescription at a chemist a few blocks away, and the assistant giggled hopelessly, before indicating that they did not have it in stock. The second place at which they stopped was able to fill the prescription, but when Sebastian came back to the van with it, he looked faintly embarrassed.
'Well,' he said,' apparently this does work. But it really is very strong stuff, and you had better be very easy on the drink for the next couple of days. Because you're going to be pretty much out of it anyway.'
'Oh well' said Juliet,'I'm sure I'll cope. Sling them over here and I'll gulp a couple down. I've some brandy in my bag to wash them down with.'
'You see,'said Sebastian,'I didn't really think about Duplessis's being so old-fashioned. He's very good for chisel cuts and the clap, and I suppose you can't go too far wrong on those. But I don't think you know about that generation of the French and pharmaceuticals. You don't swill these down with a drink; you don't swill them down at all.'He was going faintly red.
'What Sebastian is not quite getting round to saying,' said Tracey,'is that you stick them up your bum.'
Juliet looked at them both with a growing sense that she was being conspired against, but they looked innocent of malice, and there really wasn't anything for it. She disappeared into the bar around the corner, swigged another whisky and hot water,a nd disappeared into the toilet. She emerged a few minutes later feeling slightly uncomfortable; the suppositories were not especially small or especially conveniently shaped.
The drive was uneventful; Sebastian and Tracey were both sculptors, she in glass and he in glass fibre, and they were neither of them especially modest about their work, or especially good at communicating what was good about it. The trouble with artists is that if they don't work with words, and don't go around with a wallet full of snaps of their favorite children, you have no way of telling whether they are Michelangelo or completely imbecile charlatans. And Sebastian and Tracey were more interested in bitching at each other about the potential of their respective materials than in telling Juliet anything very much any way. And after a while she was not sure she was awake. Things were going on. And terms like plastic values kept drifting past, and the car was moving through reasonably attractive countryside - fields with that brown-green grass of winter and small towns with war memorials. And Sebastian and Tracey would get out and get in again with bundles of herbs and sheaves of baguettes. And none of it mattered very much and there was a sort of glass wall around it all. A bit later, it was quite dark, and they had pulled up in a courtyard. And she wasn't sneezing any more.
'Good god,' said Maggie, shining a torch in her face.'Have you been drinking,Juliet ?'
'No, she hasn't, not reeelly' said Tracey. 'It's just that she looked so ill when we found her, and Sebby had the not especially bright idea of using that senile ratbag Duplessis. And the poor darling has been stoned out of her tiny ever since she took the first one. And she just lay there most of the trip making little bubbly noises; but at least she isn't coughing any more. But I think you should put her to bed, because she isn't going to say very much tonight by the look of her.'
Juliet tried to deny this; she was felling a little weak, but this didn't mean she couldn't sit at the dinner table with the grownups, and she got out of her seat and got out of the car and was really rather proud of the dexterity with which she had managed both in the circumstances. Then a black blanket came down over her head, and the next thing she knew she was on the cobbles of the courtyard and everyone was trying to get a purchase on her shoulders, and getting in each other's way in their competition to show concern. Except for Theo, who was standing some feet away and had an expression on his face that seemed to Juliet to convey something along the lines of Nietzchean contempt for the physically unfit and psychically self-indulgent. That boy really went to a good mime tutor, she thought, as they carried her and her cases to a room on the second floor.
After a bit, she realised that she was more or less awake and sane, and decided to experiment with compromise and only stick part of the next one up for her second dose. There were logs and sticks in a bucket by the fireplace, so she pulled the previous days' Guardian out of her bag, and got busy. If she was in disgrace, she might as well be warm, and they wouldn't have put the wood there if the chimney was going to catch fire, she hoped.
'I've brought you some chicken soup,' said Maggie, who had never learned to knock. 'But you do seem to be a bit more together now. How are you feeling ?'
'Well,' said Juliet,' I seem to be on the same planet as everyone else again, and the stuff does seem to work, because I'm not feeling nearly as ill. But even on a half-dose, I still seem to be having hallucinations.'
'Gosh,' said Maggie.'Anything interesting? You must tell Theo; he gets a favourable impression of people if they have interesting hallucinations.'
'I keep hearing things,' said Juliet. 'I've heard Callas sing 'Sur les remparts de Seville' and 'Amour est un oiseau rebel' about thirty times each. And there is something very odd about a drug that makes it so clear that it's a particular singer, isn't there ? I mean, it's not just selections from Carmen; it's highlights from her Carmen.'
'I'm afraid that isn't a hallucination,' said Maggie. 'That's Auguste, who owns the house with Theo. He wasn't supposed to be going to be here, or his friends. Especially not his friends. But I'll tell you all about that later, when we get a chance to talk properly.'
'Tell me now,' said Juliet, avid for information that might put other people at as much of a disadvantage as she seemed to be.
'Well, I'm a bit off my feet at present. I've brought you this soup, but since you are a lot better, do you want to come down ? People are sort of sitting around with plates of charcuterie and fresh bread, and I suppose you really ought to try and meet people and get over the first impression. I mean, it's not your fault, but it is a bit unfortunate. I really shouldn't have told Theo about you and Richard in the wine bar and the bet with the magnums. He has worked it up a bit, with voices and gestures. He was not best pleased at how much brandy I got through last night and I think he thinks you're a corrupting influence, or something. But it's all right, I think; I mean, he's prepared to be amusing about it all.'
'How nice to know that I have been added to his repertoire. Part of the stock material of high culture at last.'
' And if you do come down, you can tell me what to do about the main fireplace;you've got it going beautifully in here. And I promise not to even mention that you learned in the Brownies.'
'Gosh' said Juliet.'Your discretion knows no bounds, Maggie. And I will come down, and I will fix the fire. But I'm going to eat your soup while it's hot. And you are going to tell me about Auguste.'
But it was at that moment that the lights went out. Maggie dashed from the room looking vaguely distracted as far as Juliet could tell in just the fire light; Juliet was not at all sure where the stairs were or even how many bends there were in the corridor and so she sat very still and ate her soup, which was as nice as Maggie's soups always were, and noticed that the house was very quiet without electricity, which meant that Maggie was telling the truth about Carmen because hallucinations do not stop when the fuses blow. There were running noises from various floors above and below, and the noises of collisions and curses, and after a bit the lights went back on again and Juliet felt confident to explore. Even if Theo would much rather she stayed in her room, she had the excuse of wanting to wash a dirty plate as quickly as possible; this was not an excuse likely especially to convince anyone who knew her well. But in this, as in so much else, she was going to have to trust that Maggie had not told too many fucking funny tales out of, and about, school.
Juliet turned a corner in the passage and found herself at the top of the sort of flight of stairs that people fall down in ballgowns in movies; she decided to be especially careful, because she did not think she was the heroine of this particular story and she did not want to be the friend who gets written out at the end of the first reel. She held the tray out stiffly with her left hand and with her right gripped the bannister firmly, giving it a reasonably solid shove to be sure it was something on which a person could rely in a pinch. It felt sort of crumbly and creaked a little, so she changed hands and started to descend by the side of the stairs that had a wall near it; if the worst came to the worst, maybe she could get a fingerhold and only lose a couple of nails. From above her, the chorus were being scratchily Gallic about La Carmencita; clearly Auguste was not about to give this one up in any sort of hurry, and power cuts only whetted his appetite for more.
Juliet had gingerly descended to the first landing, which seemed to hover in space without being particularly connected to anything, when the lights went out again. She felt her way to one of the posts that seemed to be supporting things and put her spare arm around it; anything is better than nothing. Below her, in the half light she could see a number of people hurtling into the hallway of the house from various directions and banging into each other in a sort of random pinball machine effect. Eventually one of them made it out of the resulting scrum to the end of the hall, flung open some sort of cupboard door and were revealed in the sudden light as having thrown the sort of switch one associates with laboratories in films from Universal Studios.
It was Tracey. 'Let there be light,' she said, and did a fetching curtsey.
Theo had managed to avoid the scrum in the first place and was looking notionally involved but ultimately purely ornamental in one of the doorframes.
'Sebastian,' he said,' Could you instruct your young friend in the advisability of avoiding jokes that have already been made ? I would speak to her myself about it, but I really don't think it one of the duties of a host to cavil at their guests' inamoratas'idea of wit.'
'So you're my host,' said Tracey.'Well, geewhillikers, thanks a lot for having me here.' These were her words, but it was clear that Theo was wrong in believing himself to have any seigneurial rights over irony.
Juliet coughed, gently; it seemed the tactful thing to do.
'Crumbs,' she said,'I never heard anyone actually say geewhillikers before. Except in Mickey Rooney movies.'
'I do no shows in barns,' said Theo.
'How nice to know we share a common culture,' said Juliet.
She descended the stairs as rapidly as was consistent with keeping the tray straight and her footing. She had not put any shoes on and was aware the moment her left foot touched the icy floor of the hall that this was possibly a mistake. When she looked round and saw how many people were picking themselves up, and how slippy wet the tiles were, she decided that on balance she was probably better off barefoot. If she was to maintain any credibility at all round here, she could not afford to fall over again for several hours.
'Sleeping Beauty awake, I see,' said one of the recumbent forms, one whose moustache had those silly points on the end.
'Why, alas, no' said Juliet,'for Sleeping Beauty was awakened with a kiss, and I with a combination of Bizet and bouillon.'
Theo was pulling anguished faces; whimsy was clearly as verboten as movie jokes.
'You all right now, lover,' said Tracey, and put her hand on Juliet's forehead. 'You're still awfully warm up there, you know.'
'Well, I'm feeling sort of all right. Except that everything feels a bit fragile; like I can't rely on anything being absolutely where I think I put it. Those drugs of Duplessis do a lot for catarrh, but I can't say that nameless dread is much of an improvement.'
At this point, a tall figure in leathers and a balaclava helmet came through the front door, carrying a chainsaw. From upstairs, Callas started her habitual habanera, and from the door behind Theo, a voice became audible.
It repeated several times 'Get the guests.' Then Theo strode through the doorway and a second or so later it stopped. Maggie took the plate and tray from Juliet, who had not dropped them, but in whose grip they were rattling like teeth in fever. The man with the chainsaw did not seem to be about to do anything socially maladjusted with it, and so Juliet tried to relax a little, while backing up a couple of stairs just to feel secure. It was Tracey, who had her back to the door, who turned around and screamed; she had a good scream, just right for this sort of movie.
'Oh,' said Maggie.'You haven't met Douglas. Douglas, this is Tracey, who came with Sebastian, and the one on the stairs is my friend Juliet who lives in London and is sufficiently stoned on cold cure that she might do anything, but don't worry about it. Juliet and Tracey, this is Douglas, who is one of your fellow guests, and the one who has been chopping up the wood that you, Juliet, will hopefully soon start turning efficiently into a fire in the living room.'
Juliet reflected that if her time in the Brownies was not going to be mentioned, she had better shut up about how much Maggie had enjoyed being a prefect.
Douglas took off the balaclava helmet and revealed a face that was amiable and could even be considered good-looking if you chose to ignore the large teeth and the Zapata moustache. But if he was a friend of Theo's, chances were the moustache was some sort of post-modernist or Zen joke. He put the chain saw down, leaning its blade carefully against the wall.
'People are going to have,' he said,' to restrict their use of audio equipment when I am outside cutting up trees. I fail to see why I should lose fingers just because people can't wait half an hour for their next fix of that bloody woman squawking.'
The man with the moustache guffawed from his semi-recumbent posture.
'Not the only kind they can't wait for,' he said.
'Shh,' said Maggie.'Theo does not want us to jump to conclusions about Auguste's new friends. We don't know for certain...'
'Oh, come on,' said Jonathan.'Everyone has known for weeks that the reason Auguste left the paper was....'
'Everyone has known what, precisely ?' asked Theo, entering silently and steering expertly between the slipperier tiles to a central and commanding position.
'Oh, nothing,' said Jonathan.
'Maggie was going to tell me who Auguste is,' said Juliet,' before the lights started going out. All I know so far is that he is fond of the opera and the object of vile slander.'
'He used to write about art,' said Tracey.'He thinks Theo is a genius. He is not entirely alone in this opinion.'
Theo looked gratified at this, though Juliet surmised that there might, just might, be an ambiguity to Tracey's remarks, might be more than one. The thing about that accent is that you can get away with quite a lot in it, especially if you wear a lot of mascara.
'Well,' said Maggie,'no point in standing around out here in the cold gossiping, when Juliet will soon have a nice warm fire going in the salon.'
Juliet bustled meekly behind her, into the salon, a large room with a lot of alcoves and corners and chaise lounges and no particularly obvious clues as to its period whatever and was soon crumpling International Herald Tribunes, making little tripods of kindling and doing intelligent-looking things with matches. The fun bit is when you move up from broken stakes and can throw on things you actually notice having lifted, and they go black and red and flames, smoke and things leap up like the end of Gotterdammerung. If you can do it, it's one of those things like macaroni cheese that you can manage perfectly safely when half-cut or medicated. Perhaps being an artist was like this, except that the warm glow was actual and not a metaphor, or maybe building fires was art.
Everyone looked at her with a sort of grateful admiration; even Theo.
'Why don't we have some of my brandy ?' said Sebastian.
'You certainly know how to show appreciation of our charming resident pyromaniac,' said Theo.
'Not for me,thanks,' said Juliet.'I'm not supposed to mix, and if I'm going to, I'll leave it till I really want to.'
She sat primly on one of the stools that were built into the heavy duty marble fireguard, and avoided looking at Theo. She would go back to bed soon, because this was all quite exhausting; bloody hell,she had come here for Christmas, not for some conversational equivalent of Dien Bien Phu. The trouble with this being a house that was not regularly inhabited was that there were no cats to play with; cats are pleasing in themselves and a wonderful way of ignoring people, both individually and generically. Sitting on another of the stools was a small and serious looking little girl who managed to look like Pollyanna or something in spite of being dressed in denim overalls with elephants on all the pockets. In the absence of cats, this would have to do and Juliet smiled conciliatorily at her.
'Are you really a drunk ?' asked the little girl.'Theo said so, but my daddy Sebastian said he was being unfair. My name is Isolde, but when I get old enough, I'll change it.'
'You do that,' said Juliet.'And no, I'm not. Grownups tell stories sometimes, and you are not supposed to take it seriously. I drink more than Theo perhaps; but I had not had anything to drink when I fell over. I'd taken some medicine.'
'Like Uncle Auguste's medicine ?' said Isolde.
'No,' said Juliet,'I don't think so. I've got a cold. It's medicine for that.'
'Not like Uncle Auguste's medicine,then. Mummy told me about that. Do grownups often tell stories about each other ?'
'Quite often,'said Juliet.
'Mummy often tells stories about Tracey when I'm supposed to be asleep, to Theo and Maggie when they come round. But I like Tracey, even though she sounds so funny.'
'I like Tracey, too' said Juliet.
A tall blond in a slightly tattered blue-striped fisherman's sweater wandered into the room without particularly acknowledging anyone, wandered through into an adjoining room, and wandered out again clutching a bottle of vodka.
'Mind if I take this upstairs ?'he said.'Only there doesn't seem to be anything else and we need it for, um, hygienic purposes. And some of us would like a drink, too.'
'Go ahead,' said Theo.' I already told Auguste that he could have any of the provisions he wanted. It's his house too; and it's Christmas, after all.'
'That's right,' said the blond,as he exited to the hall.'God bless us each and every one.'He closed the door behind him, and there followed the noise of him stumbling, but not that of broken glass.
'That's Michael,' said Isolde.'He used to be a friend of Mummy's, but now he helps Auguste take his medicine. You're a friend of Maggie's, aren't you ? Theo said you were when he was talking to Mummy. Theo is friends with Mummy.'
'Oh yes,' said Juliet.'I've known Maggie since I was ten. We were at school together, and later on we shared a flat.'
'I'm nine,'said Isolde,'but I don't go to school, except for my cello lessons. Mummy teaches me all by herself. And sometimes Maggie does sums with me.'
A tall brunette in a tuxedo and a black satin miniskirt wandered over, and stroked Isolde's head in a proprietary and parental way.
'I said you could sit up with the grownups,' she said.'But I think it's time you went to bed.'
'Yes, mummy,' said Isolde with a well-disciplined sort of acquiescence in her voice. 'Can I kiss everyone good night.'
' No, darling. It would take much too long.'
Isolde shrugged. It had been worth trying it on, clearly. She left the room, and came back.
'Mummy, Michael is sitting in the hall. He doesn't seem to be busy or anything. Shall I get him to take me upstairs and tuck me in, like he used to ?'
The brunette shook her head and led the child out of the room. From the hall, through the open door,there came a vague mutter of conversation between her and Michael; he stood up and she and Isolde went past him to the stairs. He followed.
Sebastian came over and sat in his daughter's seat. He smiled at Juliet.
'Nice of you to talk to the kid,'he said.'She doesn't always have a nice time. Marianne isn't a bad mother, according to her lights, and I've no room to talk, really. But she tells the kid everything, you know, and the kid's so innocent anyway; bit unnerving.'
Marianne came back into the room.
'Theo,' she said. 'I'd like the key to my room.'
'I don't see why...' -
'Theo,' she said. 'You heard me.'
He reached into one of his capacious pockets, pulled out a key-ring, did some complicated twisting and handed one to her.
'Thankyou, Theo,' she said.
'It really isn't neccessary...' -
'Let's just say, Theo, that I don't want I and my daughter to be visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past. Let alone the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.'
The withering scorn present in this last remark had several of the men present look at each other with speculative superiority. Juliet decided that she did not like this woman, but certainly she admired her. Marianne left in a swirl of understated aggression; Sebastian looked at the seams of her departing fishnets with a certain vague regret.
'Gosh,' said Juliet.'Is she always like that ?'
'Yes,'said Tracey.'I need another drink, Sebby, and I need it now. Stolly, this time, if it's not all gone to sterilise needles.'
Theo bristled. Maggie pulled an 'Oh God, I know you're right but do shut up about it' face. Jonathan guffawed.The general buzz of polite conversation faltered. Sebastian went to the kitchen and made a lot of noise with the icepick. Juliet decided to put some more logs on the fire; at times like these, a lady needs an occupation.
When the silence became embarrassingly prolonged, Juliet rose to her feet.
'Well,' she said,'Merry Christmas,everyone. But I've had a long day, and I think it's time I got some sleep.'
'Some more sleep,' said Theo.
'Well,' said Douglas,'I'm off to Midnight Mass. Is anyone coming ?'
The quality of the silence changed from the prickly to the derisory.
'In your orisons be all my sins remembered,' said Theo.
Yes, of course, thought Juliet, he'd know Hamlet by heart; probably played him as a schoolboy at Choate or wherever. No, understudied him. Not out of his system yet.
'Goodnight, Tracey. Goodnight, Sebastian. Goodnight, Theo. Goodnight, Maggie. I'm having so much fun. I'll see you all in the morning. Good night, Douglas; enjoy Mass.'
I don't know where my mother got the idea, Juliet thought to herself, that I am incapable of being polite or gracious.
She walked gingerly across the tiled hall and climbed back up the stairs, which seemed a lot less Gothic with the lights on. She went to her room, banked up the dying fire, and got under the eiderdown without bothering to remove her clothes. I'll do that in the morning, she thought, already beginning to drowse.
Down the hallway, the vodka was clearly taking its toll. Michael, Auguste and whoever else was in there were singing along to the Toreador song, except for one person who kept just doing the Fate motif - 'Yaaar-da-da-da-dum-boom-boom'. Thank God, in a way, for Duplessis, because she was going to be able to sleep, even through that.
She had forgotten to ask Theo for the key. Never mind.
'Creatures of the night; how sweet they sing, what music they make,' she said, as she shoved the bedside chair under the door handle.
There was a rapping at the door. Juliet opened her eyes and realised that she felt absolutely dreadful, as if every drop of blood had been emptied from her veins and put back in upside down.
'Wake up, sleepyhead,' said Maggie. Juliet felt for the rope ladder to get down from bed, but that had been several flats and years ago.
She walked over and pulled the chair out from under the door handle.
Maggie was waiting patiently with a glass of champagne. She passed it to Juliet, who sipped it slowly as they sat together at the side of the bed.
'I thought I'd let you sleep in because you were feeling so rotten yesterday; but it's almost time for the big meal, so I thought I'd better assume you wouldn't wake up without help. And you didn't, you really didn't, pull that stunt with the chair under the door handle. What axe murderer is that going to stop, my dear? What Gestapo ? All it does is cause inconvenience to the person who brings you your early morning fizz.'
Isolde bounced into the room. This time it was dungarees with appliquee purple velvet kittens.
'Maggie, can I tell you the proofs of Pythagoras ? Marianne is too busy to listen and I want to show off in front of your friend. Isn't Juliet nice, Maggie ?'
'Yes, dear,' said Maggie. 'But couldn't you go and tell Sebastian and Tracey instead ? I haven't had a proper chance to talk to Juliet at all yet.'
'Oh all right,' said Isolde,' I tried Daddy earlier, but they threw a pillow at me and said to come back when they weren't busy. I don't know why grownups who are friends need to be private so much. And I do want someone to listen to me, because it's important I know that I have learned it right.'
'Well, maybe,' said Maggie. ' I suppose it is important.'
'Coz I want to do geometry and things when I grow up,' said Isolde. 'I don't want to be stupid and have to do Art.'
'Some people who do Art are quite smart,' said Juliet.
'Of those present, name two,' said Maggie with a sudden ferocity.
'Well,' said Juliet. 'Theo seems...'
'I love him,' said Maggie,' more than I have loved anyone in my whole life except one particular hamster when I was eight. But really don't think that I am entirely without illusions. He can do the verbals, hon; but we are not talking Nobel track, are we ?'
'Maybe not,' said Juliet, ' But I strive to be gracious.'
'Perhaps, sometime, you should say what you think,' said Maggie.
'Easy, if I really knew what that was,' said Juliet.
'I thought that grownups knew that,' said Isolde. 'Sometimes it seems like grownups don't understand anything at all.'
'They know about their friends,' said Juliet,' and they know who their oldest friends are.'
'I think I understand my friends,' said Isolde,' but none of the grownups I know seem to have friends all that long. Mummy has lots of friends, but she doesn't seem to like any of them very much.'
'I think I'd better go and hear her do Pythagoras,' said Maggie. ' I am sort of committed to helping out with her. Sorry, hon,it would be nice to sit and talk; but we'll get the chance after lunch probably. I feel responsible for the kid.With Sebastian having this Tracey, and, well, pas devant, but you met Marianne last night.'
'Oh,'said Juliet,'a charmer.'
Isolde looked perplexed; they seem to be teaching her most things, but she is really to young for irony, and who in this gang would be qualified to teach her or prepared to take the risk ? Juliet suddenly became aware that there was not much in the way of music this morning, or perhaps afternoon. Downstairs, 'Get the guests' was running again; perhaps that one was a hallucination.
There was a knocking on the doorframe and in came someone who was clearly trying to be the sort of clown who has baggy pants and a bowler hat several sizes too large but somehow not coming down over the eyes and a red rubber nose and silly shoes which go on forever; but he had not drawn the lines around the mouth and eyes especially clearly, and the elastic on the nose was cutting visibly into the side of his face.
'We thought we'd all dress for dinner,' he said.
'Who said you were getting any ?' said Maggie. ' You should have asked before, Auguste. I don't mind handing you the booze; there is too much of that anyway. But the fact you own part of the house and happen to be here does not make you part of the house party. Not as such.'
'I suppose I had better go and talk to Theo about it,' Auguste said.'And see what he says.'
'I really wouldn't rely on his taking your side on this,' said Maggie. 'There are limits, and this is sort of to celebrate his getting married, to me.'
'Well,' said Auguste,' you are free to marry him, of course. That does help.'
'Remarks with that sort of edge to them,' said Juliet,' are not normally the way to get people to give you dinner if they don't want to.'
'You're all being horrid to each other,' said Isolde.'Why are grownups so horrid to each other ?'
'Oh, hi, little girl,' said Auguste.
'I don't think you look nice like that,' said Isolde. ' I saw clowns once, and they did it better. Theo says that people shouldn't bother with things they can't do. And Mummy says I shouldn't talk to you anyway, ever. So you really shouldn't talk to me. Because otherwise it isn't fair.'
Auguste had a look in his eye that was not that one normally adopts to talk to little girls, even precocious and critical ones. Juliet thought hard about ways of defusing the situation, but this was rendered unnecessary by the simultaneous apparition behind him of someone who was possibly Michael and who looked impossibly good as the sort of clown who has a pointy hat and a white face, and Douglas.
'Hi, Michael,' said Maggie. 'Now, you look good like that, actually.'
'Well,' said Michael,' in the dictionary it says that an Auguste is a maladroit type of clown. And that's the sort of clown I don't care to be. One is enough, right, boss. And I heard there was some sort of hassle about the food; don't worry about me, OK ? My Master, when I had one, said I should avoid food at festivals. So all I have to do is turn back on to believing for the day and we're set.'
'Problem about food ?' said Douglas, in a competent sort of way. 'Wild boar do ?' And he marched off sharply.
'Man the bleeding hunter,' said Maggie, in an exasperated sort of voice.
'Gosh,' said Juliet, 'You don't mean he is just going off into the forest with a shotgun or a spear or something. Won't that take hours and isn't it awfully dangerous ?'
'Don't be an idiot, Juliet,' said Maggie. 'There is a restaurant five minutes down the road. Douglas has no shotgun and no spear; he has American Express. '
She left the room, followed by a slightly chastened Isolde; Auguste and Michael went back to their room, and Juliet changed into a bathrobe and went looking for somewhere where she might get vaguely clean. The water was icy cold, but this, she decided, was probably not a wholly bad thing. Being uncomfortable is being away and being awake was the sort of thing that was called for. She changed into the one dress she had brought, sort of purple velvet and a lot of it and sat in front of the mirror for a while, doing what she could in the way of makeup without taking any major risks of making a smudged idiot of herself. And by then she was aware that she was starting to feel iffy again, so she hitched up the back of the dress and took more of Duplessis' medicine.
There was noone around in the living room, and she did not feel especially like searching the house for company. The books in the bookcase were slightly damp to the touch, but not so unpleasantly so that curling up on one of the chaises longues and reading an Agatha Christie did not look like an attractive option for a half-hour or so. Stay out of locked rooms, girl, she thought to herself.
But hardly had it started to become clear whom we were supposed to expect to be the first corpse, when there was a clack of heels across the flagstone floor.
'Hello, Marianne,' said Juliet, without bothering to look up.
'Oh, yeah, hi,' said Marianne, in a tone that conveyed less than overwhelming personal warmth. 'Do you happen to know where one, the drinks cabinet, and two, my separated husband, are ? '
'Contrary,' said Juliet,' to what appears to be popular belief, I have no especial nose for alcohol when hidden. Nor have I wanted a drink and thus had occasion to ask. As for Sebastian, if he is not in his room, or exploring the finer points of geometry with your daughter, I would imagine he is somewhere in the grounds, or helping Douglas shop for more food. But I really do not know.'
'I suppose you think you're terribly hard done by,' said Marianne,'in the circumstances.'
'No,' said Juliet,'except that I do rather deprecate the way I have been convicted of hopeless alcoholism by some sort of kangaroo court convened by our delightful host, on the evidence of a couple of Maggie's anecdotes. And gosh, I could tell you a thing or two about her, if I wasn't her best friend and eternally devoted to utter discretion.'
'Really,' said Marianne. ' It would be nice for us to sit and talk about her properly some time. I have never entirely understood Maggie, or her appeal. And it would be nice to get the whole thing presented from a new perspective. Given how much better and how much longer than Theo and the rest of us you have known her. What do you think about this marriage ?'
'Well,' said Juliet,' it does seem all a bit cold-blooded. I mean, marrying in order to get hands on an inheritance is the sort of thing that I thought only ever actually happened in Edwardian novels. I keep expecting that any moment someone will forbid the banns, or challenge someone to a duel; I didn't think people did things like this, anymore.'
'I'm sure there will be no hitches or attacks of melodrama round here,' said Marianne. 'We're all civilised adults, making our separate sensible arrangements with each other in a rational way. Noone's interests really clash. At the end of the day.'
'I'm reeelly so glad to hear you say that, lover,' said Tracey who had entered the room with a large glass of Cuba Libre in her hand. 'It makes it all so much easier.'
'Nothing is ever going to be easy between you and me,' said Marianne.'There are exceptions to every rule.'
'Well' said Tracey,'that's reelly cool as well. Any terms you want, lover. It's all reeelly cool with me and Sebby. Just as long as we understand which stakes we are playing for. Because, on the whole, I don't want us to stay in Paris for too many years more. And I am not sure that we want to leave that nice little girl in conditions of moral turpitude, know what I mean ?'
'Fuck off,' said Marianne.'You're not getting her. No way.'
'Well,' said Tracey,'like you said, it's always possible to come to separate sensible arrangements.'
'I had a friend once,' said Juliet,' who got caught up in a custody fight.'
'Well, of course, your friends would get caught up in custody fights', said Marianne with the sort of venom that Juliet felt was a clear cue to stop interfering in private conversations and get back to Agatha Christie and good clean daggers in the back.
'Get the guests,' came a voice from another room.
'Look,' said Juliet,' if I can just ask without having my head bitten off....? What is that ? Or am I hallucinating ?'
'What's what ?' said Marianne.
'Well, this voice, the one that keeps saying 'get the guests'?'
'Oh, that, that's Elizabeth Taylor.'
Juliet greeted this addition to the houseparty with unnecessary equanimity.
'On a tape,'Tracey glossed. 'It's from this play. Theo's using her. Theo uses women's voices a lot, on tape. That way he gets say anything he likes when he's improvising and know that he can predict any smart comebacks.'
'Oh,' said Juliet,' he's practicing his performance.'
'People always work things out in the end,' said Marianne,' but some of us work things out faster.'
Maggie entered the room. She had changed into a formal little black dress with a belt at the waist and a high neckline; from commissar to chateleine, Juliet reflected, is not a huge, though an unexpected, step.
'Everything's just about ready,' she said. 'Theo's not in a very bad mood. And Douglas managed to get some wild boar stew to make up for having to have Auguste and his friends eat. And they all seem to be reasonably together, today. So please, you three, cool it, would you ?'
Juliet had not seen the dining room, which seemed to double up as the sort of library she had just been reading about. There was a long table and everyone she had met so far, and a number of others she didn't seem to have, was seated at it. A group in attempts at clown costume were all seated at the far end of the table; none of them were whistling, or humming, tunes from Carmen, but Juliet swore to herself that if any of them started, as they surely would, she would throw a bread roll at them. She sat down about halfway down the table; there was an empty chair next to her, and Maggie started to pull it out.
'Darling,' said Theo, resplendent in cream tuxedo and scarlet cummerbund ,' you really mustn't monopolise Juliet. And I need you up here to help me carve.'
'Oh,' said Maggie,'I'm not very good at that. And I thought we'd arranged that Marianne...'
'I need both of you,' said Theo. 'It's a difficult job, carving all these sorts of meat, and cutting up the nut roast as well. And if I'm going to be a perfect host, I need a lot of perfect hostessing. From both of you. Think of it as the Holy Trinity.'
Maggie pushed the chair back in, made a little face of regret, and went up to the head of the table, meek as a New Zealand lamb.
Tracey sat down next to Juliet. Oh well, thought Juliet, at least she's not going to want to use her napkin for a tourniquet halfway through the meal. And if she decides to use her knife on anything but the food, at least it won't be on me. I don't really know what game she is playing, but she seems to think of me as a player on her side.
'I haven't asked you,' said Tracey, cutting a large chunk of pate from a plate in front of them and smearing it on a hunk of baguette,' what you think about all this ?'
'Well,' said Juliet,' it seems to be a nice enough way to spend Christmas. But I don't know people, and I'm sure there are subtleties that I miss. I don't know who half these people are, and there is no way of telling who's not speaking to whom, and who's not sleeping with whom, and what the connection is between the two. And not really all that much point in my finding out, given that the only one I'll probably see again is Maggie. I mean, you and Sebbie seem the sort of people it would be nice to know, but I don't live in the same city. And from what you said just now, it soon won't even be the same continent.'
'So you don't plan on seeing Theo after this, even though he is going to be married to your friend ?'
'Well, they're putting me up until the wedding. And of course I suppose when they come to London, if they come to London, I'll try and be hospitable. And... Well, actually, Tracey, entre nous, probably not.'
'And what was that you were saying about subtleties ? You mean subtitles, lover ? That's what you're missing. Subtitles for the subtleties, right.'
Juliet decided that there really was a lot less point to Tracey when she was this far into a sequence of Cuba Libres, so she smiled sweetly and filled her mouth with saucisson and gherkins for the next few minutes. Meals are for eating after all, and there are times when conversation is an art about, mercifully, to be lost.
Big chunks of meat came next, roasted and carved into slices or in stewed and speared out of the foil containers that had been the result of Douglas' foray. And there were vegetables, lots of different kinds of vegetables and all of them dripped butter, except for the ones that dripped hollandaise, or swam in something even less identifiable that had shrimps or something in it. This was not like any Christmas dinner Juliet had ever eaten, it was not like any one dinner she had ever eaten; it was more like any twelve dinners she had ever eaten.
You found yourself taking absurdly small portions of one dish with the intention of finding room for the next and then thinking oh sod it and having a huge plate full of the next thing that came your way just because a girl might not ever again have this much food drifting past unless she got bought by a sheik and then it would be unmentionable parts of sheep and camels and lots of dates and nothing to drink. There was grease on her chin and butter on her dress and her fingers were slimed with red and ochre and green sauces so that no amount of sucking seemed to get them clean, and even bread only seemed to skim the surface of them.
She was drinking whatever was put into her glass, and since it seemed never to be empty, someone was probably filling it all the time with whatever came most conveniently to hand; certainly it kept changing colour. And she was stripes before the eyes woozy with the coldcure and the drink and she was probably about to get disgustingly out of it and fall from the chair and wipe her face clean on the carpet and justify forever everything Theo had been saying about her. Lets face it, kid, she thought to herself; they found you out at last. You're a glutton and a bit of a drunk, and when it comes to the polite and proper folk, you get found out in the end, you got no class.
Except that it probably could not matter, because when she eventually found herself full but was not actually falling out of the seams of her dress, and had wiped herself sort of clean with the napkin she had managed to retrieve from the floor without falling over,and was no longer obsessed with shovelling mounds of food and lakes of drink into herself, she realised that actually she was not really behaving worse than anyone else. Tracey was asleep in her chair with a last stick of asparagus clutched tight in her hand and Douglas was trying to balance a series of doomed champagne glasses on his nose. Jonathan was twisting his drooped mustachios and succeeding only in getting them limper and more matted with grease. Isolde was playing in a corner of the room with a pile of bones, doubtless trying to construct triangles with wishbones. Theo was looking around the table with a smile; his cream dinner jacket was still immaculate and there seemed to be no stain on his cummerbund. Maggie was looking fixedly ahead of her, and her face was drawn and tight; and Marianne had the expression of the cat who ate the creamery, its cows and several minor members of its staff. I suppose I would not miss subtleties if I ever paid real attention, thought Juliet to herself.
At the other end of the table, Auguste seemed to have lost his nose, or at least was searching distractedly for something and was no longer wearing it. Michael had smeared his whiteface, and had stained his suit of lights and was laughing a sort of slow Richard Widmark sort of laugh. Auguste was looking carefully through a bowl of fruit, holding everything that was red rather than green or yellow up to the light, and getting himself progressively into a visibly viler temper. He was also sweating slightly in a way that might, or might not, indicate repletion.
'I've said,' Michael announced to the table at large,' that he's not allowed to go upstairs and take his medicine until he works out where I put it.'
'Please, Michael,' said Auguste,' I've looked very hard indeed and if I don't go upstairs soon, I'm liable to have a little accident.'
'You shouldn't indulge yourself so heavily, Auguste,' said Theo. ' You see around you people who have been very greedy, but in the midst of it, I have remained the moderate man. temperate and in control of my appetites. And in fact Michael has hidden the nose by putting its elastic round your hat with the nose around the back. I do not criticise your choice of life style or pharmaceuticals, but you really should not let it cloud your capacity for rational thought.'
In some sort of way, thought Juliet, this ghastly man is trying to look after this even ghastlier friend; there is just some sort of terrible reserve going on which means it is friendly blokish insult between gentlefolk right up to the point when the poor bloody junkie kills himself and manly grief is shown only in the vigourous slashes of a goldplated biro with which Theo deletes him from his address book. If the great-hearted and superior one does anything as jejune as keeping an address book.
Auguste had taken off his bowler hat to check whether Theo had been telling the truth, and this proved to have been a fortunate decision since he was promptly sick into it. Luckily too, it was a rather capacious bowler hat.
Most of those around the table were too drunk or too polite to notice. Tracey opened a bleary eye at the noise of his retching, and quickly closed it again, raising the asparagus to her mouth and sucking at it as if at a comforter. Isolde left her games alone and walked along the far side of the table so as to watch this particular new piece of adult behaviour with real fascination. Marianne shielded her gaze with her hands in a manner clearly studied from more than one duenna of the old school. Theo's face portrayed a variety of moods in quick sequence; really you needed a score card to ascertain which each one was supposed to be.
'That does it,' said Maggie.' I really thought I had had enough when that bloody man gave me a stuffed sea gull as a birthday present, a stuffed sea gull with one eye missing and a glass marble unconvincingly inserted. And then there were the remarks about the bad influence of my politics on the purity of your art, remarks none the less offensive for having been spiked by the paper and dropped round to the flat as blue-pencilled galleys. Drugs i can cope with; opera at inconvenient hours I will live with; fucking stupid whims about clown costume at a dinner he was not supposed to even be at I seem to have been more able to take on board. But when that bloody man is too busy feeding his face on our Christmas feast to even remember his fix, and spews enough to feed several Chinese villages for a week, I really feel that the time has come to draw the fucking line. Theo, my love, my sweet, do we really have to have this bloody man at our wedding ?'
Theo drew his lips into a vulpine smile.'Why, of course not, my love. Auguste, you do understand, don't you ? My wife does not welcome you; you are cast out.'
'Thankyou, my love,' said Maggie.
'Hardly seems fair,' said Marianne,' not without some sort of trade.'
'Well,' said Theo,' I was coming to that.'
'What are you on about ?' said Maggie.
'Simple,' said Theo. ' I accept you have the right to purge my half of the wedding list. I hope you accept that I have the same right, Maggie, my love. It is very simple; no Auguste means no Juliet. Juliet, you do understand that you are simply not welcome as far as I am concerned. Your behaviour has been intolerable. I've tried, I have constantly tried, to create some sort of space for you here, but you constantly abuse it, you give nothing in return, sneaking around dark corridors, trying to play Cathy and Heathcliff. Maggie, come to my room; we have arrangements to discuss.'
He swept from the room, needing no opera cloak. Maggie followed, not even looking at Juliet. Marianne started pulling christmas crackers with Isolde. Everyone else looked at once embarrassed, and accusing; Juliet had clearly offended by not instantly disappearing or dying and leaving them to cope with her.
'Have a mince pie,' said Tracey. 'Me and Sebby are going back to Paris in a few minutes anyway, so you'd better come with us. And here's the port; sorry if I'm passing it in the wrong direction.'
Juliet did not think it was the cold or the cold cure; everything was behind great walls of glass or transparent ice, and soon they would cascade in splinters and she would have to be upset. But right now it was a matter of knowing that you are doing the white opposite of blushing, and are biting your lip with those teeth that are not grinding each other to powder. She took the decanter, and drank from it, and reached out and snatched pieces from the ruins of a smoked salmon between swigs. There are times when it does not matter that you are laying up ulcers and stomach cramps in heaven ; when greed is the aggressive word spoken by your rage and is the only thing that is keeping you going. To an extent that means you just are not going to let yourself be sick. Or cry.
It really did not take very long to pack; packing is one of those things you can do best when not letting yourself think about anything, even packing. She changed the dress for jeans and a sweater, and put on a pair of boots: even if the car was as well heated as it had been on the way down, she needed to feel she was making an effort to feel comfortable.
She found her way down the stairs, and kept her footing in the hall and wandered out into the courtyard where Sebastian already had his van with the motor running. Tracey ran out behind her, clutching the switch from the fuse box.
'Quick,' she said, 'into the car.'
Juliet obeyed. There really did not seem much in the way of alternatives except perhaps for walking a hundred kilometers to Paris. 'Won't they miss it ?, she asked.
'Yes,' said Tracey,' In about half an hour when Auguste and Michael and their gang get back round to Callas and the dishwasher is running. And then there will be tears before bedtime. Because it is possible to fix the fuses without it, and there is a spare switch, but it is going all to take time. And annoy people, and get them flustered, and with luck ladder the odd stocking or mark up the odd cummerbund.'
'Gosh,' said Juliet.
'It is better to make men suffer than see them suffer,' said Tracey.' Nietzche. '
They drove on in silence. Juliet was not sure that she approved of actual sabotage and it was clear that Tracey expected some sort of congratualtion. And she wasn't getting it from Juliet, and it seemed she wasn't going to get it from Sebastian, because he concnetrated on looking at the road and driving very carefully.
'Well,' she said after a bit,' that was reeelly boring, except for the food. And that was all a bit excessive. What do you hang around those folk for still, Sebby.'
'Food and drink,' he said, 'And the chance to see Isolde without having that awful way that the Saturday you get visitation works going on. YOu're not doing the whole trip of taking her to MacDonalds,and not giving her too many milkshakes,and finding a movie suitable for a kid that age. She's too young for the Louvre, and the Paris zoo is to per-uke. And besides, I want her to rememeber me as nice as possible and in that context I can't help but shine.'
'And you also want to see her, don't you?' said Tracey.
'Well, yes, a bit,'he said. ' I suppose I do like to torture myself a bit watching her and Theo. You know how it is.'
Juliet had been trying to doze and not pay attention, but suddenly she woke up.
' No,' she said,'How is it ?'
'Oh,' said Tracey.' Have we let cats out of bags? Don't be silly. Of course, Theo and Marianne. I thought you'd gathered.'
'Well,' said Juliet, 'Actually I hadn't. He is supposed to be marrying my approximately best friend. And I guess I'm just old-fashioned.'
'Yes, well' said Tracey. 'He is marrying Maggie for his money, after all. He can't marry Marianne, because she is still not divorced from Sebby. We reeelly thought you knew all this. I mean, It can't be much fun for you, watching her make such a fool of herself over the bloody man.'
'No,' said Juliet.'No. It isn't.'
And then she made a serious effort of the will and did go to sleep for the rest of the journey, waking up at the other end with a stiff neck, and a headache and a blanket wrapped around her.
'We can put you up on a couch tonight,' said Sebastian. 'Are you going to fly back tomorrow ?'
'No ,' said Juliet,'my best friend is getting married on Tuesday. And we will see what we will see. And in any case, my flight is not booked until Wednesday.'
'Well,' said Tracey,' normally we'd put you up until then. But my sister is coming over from Clapham tomorrow, my little sister? And there really is only one couch.'
'That's OK,' said Juliet, not caring whether this was the truth.'Tonight is fine. But I want mostly to sleep in beds, and if tomorrow you could help me find a cheap hotel ?'
They showed her through a darkened studio full of what looked like parts of robot crabs under dustsheets. Some were doubtless parts of robot crabs in glass and some parts of robot crabs in glass fibre, and the medium is the message, to those who know which. And they offered her a nightcap, but she said she would really rather go on sleeping off Christmas as quickly as she could. And snuggle in under all the duvets and blankets and fur coats they could lend her, and make whimpering noises when they could not hear her. And God bless us each and everyone.
In the morning, when she woke up, Sebastian had already found her a hotel, with the indecent kind haste of those who do not want especially to get involved. And when he saw that her cold was worse, he waited until she had taken another suppository, and helped her across Paris with her bags, and dealt with the manager for her, and even brought a large plate of couscous and merguez across from a cafe across the road, watched her eat it and then took the plate back.
'Don't get out of bed until you feel better or it's time for your plane,' he said with a brusque solicitude, and left before she could ask any questions about anything. There was no way she was going to get out of bed except to perform natural functions, and even those she kept shelving until they actually woke her up; she slept and read Rilke and, when she got hungry, bundled herself up warm and went over the road for more couscous. And soon it was Monday, and she was feeling fine.
She asked directions very carefully at the desk and they told her where Pere Lachaise was. She did not often visit cemeteries, but she felt like an outing and it did not seem especially likely that anything else would be open. Thing about cemeteries is that you can always get into them, one way or another.
It had snowed, and she probably would not be able to find all that many of the graves, and would get her feet a bit wet. But being morbid and risking a worse cold was about as good an option as she could think of. After paying her bill in advance, she did not have all that much cash left; she could pay for meals with credit cards, but she had not felt up to dining properly in the sorts of places that took them. Every cashpoint seemed she could find seemed to be non-functional, and while she could probably have coped with drawing money over the counter with her cards, and the clerks doubtless spoke English, she did not feel remotely like making herself cope.
She brought a few flowers, intending to look for a grave she felt like putting them on; the quartier was revoltingly cheerful when she got off the Metro, but the whereabouts of the cemetery were reasonably obvious - large Lasciate ogni speranza sort of gates were a bit of a dead giveaway.
Wandering among the dark trees, she heard a distant guitar; she had snaffled a xeroxed maplet from the stand at the gate and guessed that this meant she was near Jim Morrison. This proved correct, and pilgrims offered her a slug of bourbon as she wandered by;but if she was near Morrison, a few lefts and a couple of rights should bring her to.....
'Look,Maggie,' said Isolde, who was standing by the tomb of Abelard and Heloise, in tiny glamourous furs that made her look like something out of a vodka advert,'it's Juliet, just like you said.'
'You know,Juliet darling,' said Maggie, blowing on mittened hands.' You really are awfully predictable.'
'How nice to see you, Isolde,' said Juliet.'Do you often get brought here on educational visits ?'
'No,' said Isolde,' I think cemeteries are yucky. Especially in the snow. But Maggie decided it would be nice to take me for a walk. Though I think it was probably an excuse to see you. Grownups use me for things like that, a lot.'
'I wanted to see you, briefly,' said Maggie,'But we didn't get back to Paris until last night. I guessed you'd be at the Marillon, because it is where Sebastian and Tracey used to have their sordid little assignations. And when I rang, they said you'd left for the cemetery. And as to where in the cemetery you'd be, well, as I said, you are very predictable. And you'd think a tatty nineteenth century monument to doomed and hopeless love an appropriate place to brood.'
'Well, sort of,' said Juliet.
'Go away and play, Isolde,' said Maggie, and the child disappeared among the trees. 'I really don't know, Juliet, I really do not know what we are going to do about you. I do think that Theo behaved excessively, but in the circumstances...'
'What circumstances ? ' said Juliet.
'Your being in love with me,' said Maggie, and snuggled her face into her collar. 'I don't know why you never said. It's nothing to have been ashamed of, being a dyke.'
'Who said I was ?' said Juliet.'Not that it's anything to be ashamed of.'
'Well,' said Maggie,'Marianne tells me you even said something about it to the kid. Which I do think was a bit out of order.' Plumes of her breath misted in the air.
'I didn't do anything of the kind,' said Juliet. 'Oh, hang on, she asked me if I was your friend, and I said I was. And thinking about it, she said Theo and her mother were friends too, and I suppose she means... Look, Maggie, there's a misunderstanding going on; the kid has been brought up not knowing the difference between....'
'Well, OK,' said Maggie. 'But that only covers what you said. Ever since you arrived, you've been picking fights with Theo, and that has to be jealousy. You've never liked anyone I slept with.'
'That's because you mostly sleep with creeps. Including Theo, since you raise the issue.'
'Or you think anyone I sleep with is a creep, because you want to sleep with me yourself. You are very good at twisting the facts, Juliet Smith.'
'But I don't want to sleep with you, Maggie,' said Juliet,'that I'm aware of. You might as well say that your stealing my boyfriends means that you wanted to sleep with me.'
'Boyfriend,' said Maggie. ' And I didn't mean to steal Richard. It was just that the two of you were so obviously having rotten sex that I thought I'd do you a favour and show him.'
'Well,' said Juliet,' I didn't think the sex we were having was that rotten.'
'That,' said Maggie,' is probably because you don't like sex with men that much in the first place. Though he is not all that good in bed. I do have to say that. Not very dynamic, is he ?'
'It seemed all right to me,' said Juliet.' And if I were lesbian, i think I'd have noticed. And while I am very fond of you, I think that at some point over the years I would have noticed that you were not, and given up any sort of vast unrequited thingy in favour of going out and actually finding someone who was.'
'You mean you haven't ?' said Maggie. 'No wonder you get so ratty. But why should I believe you, anyway ? You always did look at me in a sort of soupy way, now it's been pointed out to me. And you were always sloping off places without me. I really don't know half of what you get up to.'
'Look,' said Juliet,'This is ridiculous. I am not in love with you in any sexual sort of way....'
'So you are in love with me,' said Maggie.
'This is all semantics.'
'Well, you would say that.'
'You're my oldest friend, and you're marrying a poisonous worm.'
'Of your time, and that I won't be seeing much of you ever again, but not of your body.'
'So you are jealous.'
'If you like,' said Juliet,' and so is Theo. He is the sort of man who really likes to own his women body and soul, and he'd probably be happier with a rival for your body, because a rival for your soul is harder for him to beat. And I really am not a bit lesbian that I'm aware of, but I suppose, yes, I am jealous, and if that means I love you then I suppose I do. And, in that sense, Maggie, you have always loved me. But that really is not the problem; the problem is that you love him, and he wants to own you. And he is evicting me summarily from your life by making you worried that I have designs on your body. And you seem not even to be worried about him and Marianne; and if you are so cool and hip about that,why be so worried, even if I did want to plant wet lips all over your body.'
'Do you have to be so physical about it ?'said Maggie.
'Well' said Juliet.'You raised the issue. And if you'd had different politics, and I could be bothered getting worried about such things, we'd probably have gone over the whole subject years ago. But I just don't think any of this is relevant to describing our relationship.'
'Hmm,' said Maggie, skeptically. 'I suppose so, if you say not. But when Theo and Marianne raised the issue, it did seem to explain a lot.'
'And what were you doing in the first place,' said Juliet, ' discussing whether or not I nurse secret desires for your body with bloody Theo and bloody Marianne ?'
'Well,' said Maggie, 'He's the man I'm going to marry, and she's his best friend. And that includes his sleeping with her, I know that. And she and I really like each other. My life has moved on a bit since you and I shared a flat, you know. You can't expect things always to stay the same.'
'And you're happy with that ?' said Juliet.
'Well,' said Maggie,' I wasn't. But he does love me too, and in a way they've gone on long enough that it's different. And he can't tie her down to him, and he really wants me too. And I know he doesn't love me, but he really likes to screw me, and he needs me to look after things for him, and for the money, and we get on, and maybe he'll love me in the end. If I wait, and look after things. And you don't even begin to understand, because if you've not been in love with me, you certainly haven't ever been in love with anyone. Because there hasn't ever been anyone you'd put before yourself, has there, Juliet Smith ? Not really ?'
'I don't know,' said Juliet. 'I think I've put you first a couple of times. Not that that means anything more than that I've put you first. Because once I thought you really wanted Richard, rather than just patronising me..'
'Let's face it, Juliet,' said Maggie,'What you actually did was run away from getting involved in anything like a serious situation where you might have to make choices, and dressed it up with being noble.'
'You can make anything look bad if you try,' said Juliet,'and you've been taking lessons from someone with a black belt in denigration.'
'Look,' said Maggie, ' I don't know what to do about the wedding, but here's a ticket for the performance tonight. He'll probably back down about you in the end.'
'He shouldn't have to,' said Juliet. 'You should just stand up for me.'
'You really don't understand,' said Maggie.'Putting your lover first means putting him ahead of everybody else.'
'And ahead of justice, and fairness, and truth ?' said Juliet.
'Yes,' said Maggie.'Those too.'
Juliet became aware that she was very cold and that ice water was just starting to find its way through the worn bits of her boots. Maggie reached over and hugged her, and kissed her on the lips; her lips were dry and slightly chapped, but still soft and interesting. Suddenly a snowball whizzed past Juliet's peripheral vision to splatter on the worn effigies.
'I'm getting really bored,' said Isolde, and wandered over and started swinging on the railings.'Can't we go and drink some coffee, Maggie ?'
'Yes,darling,' said Maggie. 'Juliet, I'll see you later. Or we can walk to the Metro ?'
'No,' said Juliet,'No, I think I'll go on being morbid for a bit.' She struggled up the hill, and found Piaf's grave with the photo on it, and the ossuary with Isadora Duncan, and then made her way back to the Metro and the hotel. Theo knew what to raise to make a problem; he covered an infidelity by creating an imaginary one. Love and jealousy, she thought she knew what she meant, but you can't always make things clear, and it's always possible for people to blur the edges for you. Horrid people get smarter, and nice people get more confused.
She looked at herself in the mirror from as many angles as possible before going out that evening; if you are walking into the lion's den, and are expected to admire his teeth, it is important to put up bella figura. Not that they care, but it is the only way of conning yourself that you might get out in one piece, and that is the only way you might con them that you're not scared. She borrowed some polish from the hotel staff and did her boots, and she did her eyes as well as possible and brushed her hair lots. The gallery was somewhere in the Marais, and so she took the Metro to St. Paul and walked up.
She showed her ticket at the door, to one of those women with stick insect legs, white eye-shadow and leather minis, that always seem to hang around the sort of gallery that has white paint carefully spattered across very thick glass doors so that you think it is really trendy and hip, and fail to notice the large security men looking unconvincing in sharp clothes. The bare bits of the floor were varnished, and the carpeted bits were the sort of carpet that people were not about to drop their fag ash onto. Not with security men around, even security men with trendy haircuts. And the pictures were beige abstracts with spidery matchmen wandering through them, with typed dialogue balloons coming out of their heads. Mostly bits of Rimbaud, how corny.
Most of the gang were there from Christmas; she nodded to Michael and to someone flaky looking who was probably Auguste but she did not recognize him in mufti. Someone passed her a glass of the sort of wine you get at private views and which anywhere else you would pour onto chips; she had hoped that they ordered these matters better in France, but life is, she knew, a constant round of disappointments.
Various people from the Christmas houseparty were engaged in sotto voce conversations with people who hadn't been; it was probably paranoia to think that they were all of them explaining who she was and what dark designs she had - the way to combat paranoia is to devalue its perceptions by seventyfive per cent and then see where that leaves you. Which was still being gossiped about by a quarter of the room, mostly in the sort of French she'd have to be really close to someone's mouth to understand.
Douglas hung around at her elbow, clearly having appointed himself her companion and her watchdog. He offered her another wine, which she drained as quickly as she had the first; this would never go down smooth, but if you breathed in hard and then gulped, it was not too horrific on its way down. He kept hovering and smiling nervously; he was, she realised, the sort of twerpy man who often fell for Maggie and hung around trying to do her services and trying to anticipate her wishes. After another glass, she felt ready for some conversation.
'It's nice here, isn't it ', he said.
'No,'she said,'it's not nice. It's typical, and not actively unpleasant, except for the decor and the people and the pictures.'
'Typical of what ?' he asked.
'Of the whole way the art racket just gets in the way. I mean, in the old days, they put the fool of the family into the Church, and now they buy her or him a little studio somewhere and help sponsor places like this so that there can be some sort of pretence of a career structure. I mean, I'm sure a lot of this is very pretty, and I'm sure it keeps you all off the streets. But very little of it is anything I'd call art.'
Douglas looked dismayed, and she realised that she had raised her voice, and people were looking at her with that nervousness that comes from having the worst you have heard about someone confirmed. She looked round and grinned. This could get to be fun, if you had nothing to lose.
She walked over to Marianne, who was glaring at her through a particularly silly set of mirrored sunglasses, and wearing a skirt that appeared to be made of crocodile. Juliet kissed her, lingering long enough over the embrace to check the texture of the skirt - it really was crocodile by the feel of it - and to wreck Marianne's lip gloss with her tongue. If the woman has views on your sexuality even before she's met you, she's not going to change them even if you act like Little Miss Muffet. Might as well be hung, and all that.
'How's your daughter?' she asked.
'At home. In bed. Asleep,' said Marianne. 'She seems to have an educational morning,what with you two making out among the gravestones.'
'She gets educated quite a lot,' said Juliet,' or so I gather. Hanging around the lobby of the Marillon reading The naughtiest girl in school and doing a whole 'Father, dear father, come home with us now' number when people emerge from adulterous trysts. When she does get to school, she is going to be well-informed about adult life, and so popular you wouldn't believe it.'
'I really do think you should mind your own business.'
'Well,'said Juliet,'I tend to think people should mind their own business too....'
'And keep your hands to yourselves, and off other people's lovers.'
'My position entirely,' said Juliet.'I'm so glad we share moral perspectives, and that goose and gander share sauce.'
Marianne looked at her with a light in her eye that implied that if she were to spit, it would be an acid at least as strong as the red wine in her glass. Maggie wandered over, patted both of them on the shoulder, and looked alternately and nervously at them.
'I thought I'd come and get you two,' she said.'He'll be starting soon, and you may as well get decent seats.'
There was a back room, and it had benches, and chairs that ensured you were not going to fall asleep, md the back of it was hung with sheets. The rubber cloud was over in a corner of the performance area, and it looked like something out of Disney heaven, white and fluffy and bouncy. And over on the left, there was this combination of cage and aquarium, and the frogs croaked loudly enough that you were aware of them doing it even as the back room filled up. Do French frogs make a different noise, Juliet asked herself quietly; Americans go ribbit, and Greek ones do that thing from Aristophanes.
Theo came on suddenly, in the white silk paratrooper suit, which looked as if it had been pressed, and raised a hand for, and got, silence. There was authority to him, and, damn his eyes, he kept and earned it. Some of what he did was silly mimes with the cloud, and conversations with the frogs, but you did actually laugh, and some of the things that he said the frogs were saying back to him were sentimentally profound. And there was a lot of stuff about shrimp fishing in the Sound; Maggie had been right and he hadn't cut it. A lot of the time, he was using that coiled spring body and all those facial expressions, listening to the tape that had Elizabeth Taylor saying 'Get the guests' in an endless loop with incredulity and horror and scorn. It went on and on, but you only noticed time was passing because of the accumulation of your memories of the last bit he had done, and your emotions changed at his whim. This is what this sort of thing is supposed to be like, Juliet thought; I see now, I really do see.
And then it was over, and everybody was shouting for more, and someone was pouring champagne, and Marianne and Maggie were hugging him. Juliet stayed in her seat, with her chin in her hands and her elbows on her knees, reappraising.
'Well,' said Theo,'what did you think of it then ?. He had walked up to her and stood looking tired and sweaty with a bottle of champagne open in his hand.
'Actually, Theo. I was surprised. It's not a sort of thing I like, but you could convince me, have convinced me for the moment. I'm well impressed.'
He looked unconvinced.
'You needn't think you're going to talk me round,' he said. 'I can tell insincerity a mile away, and just saying nice things does not cut it.'
'You are a brave man,' said Juliet,'being unpleasant to a woman with a glass of red wine while wearing that silly, but not altogether unappealing,white silk thing. But no, I mean it, I don't like you, and I am incredibly suspicious of your sort of mixed media, cross genre,change the rules any time it suits you sort of thing, because it fits oh so neatly with the way you change the rules on people and call things anything you choose, and at the end of the day looks a bit like ego-tripping self-indulgence to me, but you have real talent. You really do. Just avoid fucking up the lives of Maggie and Sebastian and little Isolde too badly, and I might even respect you.'
Theo looked at his watch. 'I've got better things to do than listen to dykes be insincere about work I know is good anyway. Like eat dinner with my wife. Or didn't she tell you we changed the date, and got married this afternoon ? Just after she saw you in Pere Lachaise.'
'Oh, well,' said Juliet.'I may not have made it to the wedding. But at least I got to kiss the bride.' And laughed a high clear laugh as he did a better foiled again glower and turning on his heels in rage than she had seen since a student production of Maria Marten.
She went on laughing, aware that the walls of glass were close to breaking again, as the room emptied. Maggie wandered over, looking nervous.
'Theo asked me to have a word with you about money,' she said. 'People paid for the food at Christmas, and since you stopped being our guest, and ended up not being witness, he thinks it's only fair...'
'Does he, by God ?' said Juliet. 'Well, tough, because I've had to pay hotel bills, and that means I've got no money, and I'd fling it in your face if I had it, so it's probably a good thing I haven't.'
'Don't be difficult,' said Maggie. 'You're always so unreliable about money, Juliet. I've come close to losing patience with you before.'
'Well, gosh,' said Juliet. 'You've come close to losing patience with me. Well, zipppedydo, missy, because I have entirely lost patience with you. If I'm in love with you, as we are supposed to believe, I'm not going to pay for having my grief trampled on; and if, as is certainly the case by now, and was anyway, I am not, you can fuck off if you expect me to pay for one of the most spectacularly bad times of my entire fucking life. Second only to hearing you through the walls lecturing Richard on the use of French ticklers and that particularly good sort of vibrator they only make in America and you have to use an adaptor for.'
'But he asked me to ask you for two hundred francs.'
'I'm sure he can get the trust fund to make a special payment.'
'Isn't our friendship worth more than two hundred francs ?'
'Right now, it's not worth thirty pieces of silver, and I don't even have those.'
'This is the end, isn't it,' said Maggie. 'We won't forgive each other this time.'
'Who knows ?' said Juliet. 'We said that over the bicycle clips, and over the punt party, and over Richard. But right now it feels like the end. 'Bye then, our kid.'
Juliet kissed Maggie on the lips, and wandered out into the street, not bothering to look at anything or notice anything as she walked away but traffic and things liable to be dangerous to her health. And saw no shadow of another parting from her.
'Gosh,' said Zenobia, licking the last bit of chocolate mousse off her lips,'you have had a time, haven't you, you poor darling ? But I think you seem to have handled it reasonably well, even stoned out of your tiny. Me, I'd have thrown wine in his face the first evening and caught a plane home, but I wasn't brought up with proletarian inhibitions about good manners. So what are you going to do about it all ?'
'Nothing,' said Juliet.
'Nothing at all ?' said Zenobia.
'Nothing,' said Juliet.'Oh, there are a million things I could put in a letter and send to her, but she would never read it all the way through and there really would not be any point. Sometime she might leave him, and then she might come crawling for forgiveness and I might remember who she is long enough to let her lick my insteps. But I doubt it. She really isn't the sort of person who apologises, and they really have persuaded her that I have designs on her body. And that conviction is liable to persist even when they are through.'
'You don't, of course ?' said Zenobia.
'Well,' said Juliet,'I really don't think so. But how do you ever find out what is going on in your subconscious ?'
'Ways and means,' said Zenobia, and looked mysterious and dark-eyed across her cup of excessively strong black coffee. And then insisted on changing the subject entirely and talking about the price of gold, and the organ music of Messaien, and things sufficiently impersonal to be a change of subject.
A little while later, Juliet went to the Ladies, up a flight of stairs and along a corridor, past the manager's office, and some rather tacky prints of Picasso minotaurs being cossetted by nymphs. On her way back, she found her passage slightly obstructed by the door of the office, and smiled nervously at the dark-haired passionate-mouthed godling with a moustache who was sat the wrong way round on a chair, and stared at her.
'Why don't you come in and have a brandy with me ?'he said with a huskiness that threatened to become a croak, but stayed the sexy side of it.
'I have a friend waiting downstairs for me,' Juliet said. Strange good-looking men did not often ask her to have brandy with them and it was one of those new experiences she found disconcerting. Late-night reveries concocted from chocolate ads and movies were one, but flesh a different, thing.
'She had to go, ' he said, and took her by the wrist, placing an already full glass in hers and steering her to the other chair by the desk.
'What part of London do you live in ?' he said, gazing intently.
'Sort of Islington,' she said, and sipped the brandy. It seemed the sort of thing to do, and nothing too dreadful could happen while she was doing it.
'I used to live in Clapham,' he said.'It was elegant in Clapham, in a way. Did you like your meal ?'
'Yes,' she said,' It was very nice. Your restaurant is elegant, though not like Clapham, even a bit.'His gaze got even more intent, and he smoothed his moustache with the hand that was not holding a glass. It was clearly a gesture he did a lot and which he did not even think about, the sort of gesture that usually precedes a decision.
He walked over, putting his empty brandy glass on the desk, took her empty away from her, and drew her to her feet. Then he pulled her close into his chest, a place where she had no especial desire to be, and looked down into her eyes, before kissing her. The moustache was like being bothered in a friendly sort of way by a dog belonging to people you don't want especially to offend, and the presence in it of odd droplets of brandy did not make it any more inviting. None of this was a positively unpleasant experience, just an experience she did not want. She tried to disentangle herself, gently and firmly.
'Relax,' he said. 'I'll make sure you have a good time.'
'What ?!' said Juliet.'When I want a good time, I'll fucking ask for one. And my idea of a good time is not being pounced upon with phonily civilised he-man manners by someone who regards five minutes of polite conversation over not very good cognac as grounds for a fast grope on the floor of his office. '
'Armagnac,' he said, disengaging. 'Me, I think cognac is shit.' He looked hurt, so she stroked his moustache for him.
'Look,' she said,'it's nothing personal. But I've got a plane to catch in an hour and three quarters, and I have to go and collect my luggage on the way. You're quite cute, but not to miss a plane for.'
This did not seem to mollify him, much. There is no pleasing some people and so she smiled and left the room.
Downstairs on the table, there was a note. 'Lunch was my treat, anyway. I hope you enjoyed meeting Edouard; I always find the service here quiet, and efficient, and clean, and not too quick. And it sounded as if noone gave you a Christmas present.'
Juliet grabbed her coat,and scarf, looked inquiringly at the cashier, who nodded the implication that the bill had been paid, and exited. She was going to be pushed for time,a nd so she strode briskly along the embankment of the Seine. The grayness of the weather would have tempted her to pleasing melancholic brooding, if she had had time to look at rivers and think about mutability. As it was, just get on with things, and get back to London and do some work. She had been wasting too much time, but there are always ways and means to stop that. You can't expect things always to be the same, and there are innocences that get in the way.
She would never again be as she had been.