The Prospect Presented
Early spring, yes. It's one of those cautiously hopeful days at the beginning. of April, after the clocks have made their great leap forward but before the weather or the more suspicious trees have quite had the courage to follow them, and Kate and I are traveling north in a car crammed with food and books and old saucepans and spare pieces of furniture. We're on our way to the country.
Where is the country? Good question. I privately think it begins around Edgware, and goes on until Cape Wrath, but then I don't know much about it. Kate's rather a connoisseur of the stuff, though, and it's not the country for her, not the real country, until we've driven for at least a couple of hours, and turned off the motorway, and got onto the Lavenage road. Even here she's cautious, and I can see what she means. It's all a bit neat and organized still, as if it were merely a representation of the country in an exhibition. The hedges are machined smooth. There are too many stables and riding schools. We get impressive whiffs of decaying vegetable and animal waste from time to time, but we keep passing the wrong sort ofhouses--the sort of houses you might find around Edgware--and the people don't look right. There aren't many people to be seen, in fact, except in passing cars, like us. A lot of the cars are designed for rural life, it's true--specially squarish vehicles very high off the ground, made to keep their occupants well clear of foot-and-mouth disease. But the people inside them look disconcertingly urban. And on the few occasions when we've got close enough to any of their occupants to smell them--when we've stopped for petrol at Cold Kinver, for instance, or organic vegetables at Castle Quendon--they haven't smelled of earth or dung or moldy turnips. They've smelled of nothing at all, just like us and the people we know in London. I share Kate's unease about this. We don't want to drive a hundred miles out of London only to meet people who have driven a hundred miles out of London to avoid meeting people like us.
The country, what we call the country, begins after we've turned off the Lavenage road down the unmarked lane just past Busy Bee Honey. After a mile or two the lane begins to fall away into a little forgotten fold in the landscape. The county council has evidently not investigated the state of the hedges here for some time. There's a half-mile squish of mud and shit under the tires where a herd of live cows goes regularly back and forth between meadow and milking shed. Beyond the undergrowth on the left, at one point, is a scattering of bricks and broken tiles, growing a mixed crop of nettles and ancient leaky enamelware. Rusty corrugated iron flaps loose on ramshackle empty structures abandoned in the corners of tussocky fields. Lichen-covered five-bar gates lean at drunken angles on broken hinges, secured with rusty barbed wire. We begin to relax our guard; this is the real stuff, all right. This is what we pay a second lot of bills for.
We're both silent as we get closer to our destination. It's not the authenticity of our surroundings that's worrying us now. We've started to think about what we're going to find when we arrive. This is our first visit of the year. How damp will the bed be? How cold thekitchen? Will the knives and forks have been stolen? How much will the mice have eaten? Will they have scoffed crucial parts of the bedding again? Will they have started on the electrical insulation?
This isn't like any of our former visits. This time we're coming not for the weekend, or even the odd week. We're here for two months at least, possibly three or even four. Shall we be able to stand so much reality for so long?
There's another unsettling novelty about this visit, too--the long box jammed among all the junk on the backseat, and held carefully in its place with two seat belts. Faint sounds are beginning to emerge from it. Kate twists round and gazes at the contents.
"You did put the nappy-rash cream in?" she asks.
"We should have woken her up before. You'll have to feed her before we've even got the fire alight."
Yes, what will Tilda feel about the country? How will she and the mice get along? Will she find the cold and damp as bracing as we do? Will she appreciate the reality of everything?
I stop the car in the lake that collects in the dip by the wood where we found the dead tramp.
"Perhaps we should turn around?" I say. "Go back home?"
Kate looks at me. I remember, too late, that this will count as yet another example of what she sees as my infirmity of purpose, my alleged sudden shifts from one project to another. But all she says this time is: "I'll feed her in the car while you unpack. We'll leave the engine running."
So we drive on, and the proposal to abandon the expedition is never put to the vote. And now here we are. There's no sign to announce us, just a little track opening off to the left, and a certain unsurprised sensation of having arrived that we recognize, even if visitors wouldn't.
Since we don't know anyone round here who might want to visit us, though, this isn't really a problem.
We bump slowly up the track. But when we make the turnbeyond the elders, from which this summer we're hoping to get around to making elderflower wine, it's not our familiar green front door that confronts us. It's a length of fraying baler twine.
There's a lot of baler twine in real country. One of the ways you can tell this is real country is by how much of it's held together with the stuff. Not just bales. Perhaps not bales at all--I've never seen bales of anything tied up with it. Bales of what, anyway? Everything else, though--black plastic sheeting, bright blue plastic bags, gates, trousers, agricultural machinery--everything that used to be secured with string or rusty barbed wire before baler twine was invented. It kinks and unravels, but no one ever throws it away, and it's made of plastic, so it never degrades. Some of it's pink and some of it's orange, so it shows up well against the rural greens and browns. This particular piece is pink, and it's tied across the rear of an ancient Land Rover to hold its tailgate shut.
No question about the authenticity of this vehicle. It's as rural as a turnip.
Kate and I look at each other. A visitor! And not some friend from London--a real countryperson. Perhaps, after only two years, local society is putting out friendly feelers.
I get out to investigate, still in the wrong shoes, still not in country mode, balancing delicately from island to island in the mud. There's a huge barking, and two dogs the size of full-grown sheep come bounding around the side of the cottage. I'm a little taken aback to be kept off my own property by guard dogs--no, not a little taken aback--quite substantially taken aback, smack into the mud I've been avoiding. I'm wrong about the dogs, though; they're not keeping me out--they're welcoming me to the country, enthusiastically thrusting their wet snouts into my groin and wiping their paws confidingly down the front of my sweater. By the time their owner appears around the side of the cottage as well, I look almost as real a part of the scenery as he does. And a more real countryman than him neither Kate nor I has yet set eyes on.
"Heel!" he says, in an effortlessly landowning kind of voice, and the dogs become instantly subservient. I'm tempted to lie at his feet myself, but find the ground a little too muddy, at any rate until I've got my country trousers on, and instead take the hand he's holding out.
"Tony Churt," he says. "One of your neighbors."
He has the grip of a man who's used to wringing the necks of wounded game birds. He's taller than me, and as I raise my eyes to meet his I have plenty of time to take in mud-splashed boots, then mud-colored corduroy trousers and a mud-colored checked jacket. There are holes in his mud-colored jersey, and any hint of garishness suggested by the triangle of muddy green flannel shirt above it is counteracted by his muddy brown tie. He even has a gun, properly broken, in the crook of his arm. His long face, stretching away above me toward a mud-colored flat cap, is the only feature that doesn't quite fit the prevailing color scheme. It's simultaneously raw and bluish-gray, with little overlooked dribbles of dried blood where the razor's nicked it.
"Thought you might be round the back," he says. "Skelton said you were coming down."
Mr. Skelton, as Kate and I call him, is the man who fixes the local pumps and septic tanks. We phoned ahead to book his services. I introduce Kate. Tony Churt raises the mud-colored cap and reveals a brief glimpse of receding mud-colored hair.
"Glad to meet you at last," he says. "I've heard so much about you both."
"From Mr. Skelton?" asks Kate. Though why not? A man who understands your sewerage might have a lot he could tell about you.
"From everyone." Everyone? The woman in the paper shop, who knows which papers we take? Charlie Till, who knows what size of free-range eggs we prefer? "We're all so pleased to have you down here. Great bonus."
The country is finally taking us to its muddy bosom. And TonyChurt has a faint smell that I find instantly and reassuringly authentic. It's the sign that we've always missed in the few other people we've got near enough to sniff, though exactly what it is I find difficult to say. There's dog in the mixture, certainly, and the tarry trace of oiled waterproofs. Also the harshness that goes with a certain kind of rugged woollen cloth. Something else, too. Something stiff and morally bracing. Carbolic soap and cold water, perhaps.
"Laura and I wondered if you might like to come over one evening," he says. "Dinner, why not?"
"How kind of you."
"Nothing special. Say hello. Tell you the local gossip. Get you to tell us what's going on in the great world out there. We get a bit out of touch down here. Monday week? Tuesday? When would suit you?"
I mention Tilda.
"Bring her. Of course. Wonderful. Plenty of rooms to park her in. Upwood. Know where it is? So we'll say Monday week, then? Eight-ish? That fit in with feeding times? We might possibly ask you to help us with a little advice while we're about it, if we may."
A little advice. Of course. As I reverse to let him out, an alarm goes off inside the car with shattering loudness. Our clever little daughter is trying to warn us that someone is breaking into our lives.
Do we know where Upwood is? Yes, even we know where Upwood is. It's the big rambling house half-hidden in the trees at the head of our private valley. And now of course we know who Tony Churt is as well. He owns the valley.
Well, not all the valley. Not the patch of land around our cottage, for instance. Our property, as the urban owners of odd half-acres in the country like to tell you humorously in such circumstances, marches with his. The march isn't long enough to make either propertyvery footsore, it's true, but it gives us a bond. We're fellow landowners. Neighboring proprietors. Brother magnates.
By the time I've got three fan-heaters whirring, and a great log crackling in the hearth, with Tilda full of her mother's milk asleep in front of it, and four assorted oil stoves scenting the rest of the cottage with the cozy stink of kerosene, we're in curiously high spirits. There are fresh patches of damp in the bedroom, it's true, and strange efflorescences on several walls. The mice have eaten the towels and left droppings inside the refrigerator. Other, more surprising changes have come to light, too. I put on a pair of country trousers that I find hanging in the bedroom closet, and can't get them done up round the waist. They've shrunk in the damp. Or is it me that's expanded? Am I catching largeness off Kate? I look at her moving slowly and bulkily about, stacking supplies of nappies on shelves. Three months after the birth, and she's still enormous. She rolls a little as she walks. She does--she rolls! I laugh at her. She smiles at my laughter, and frowns to know the cause of it. I don't say anything, but when she sits down on the long stool in front of the fire to gaze at Tilda, as the gray spring evening outside the windows deepens into night and the three of us fill our little world, I come up behind her, lean over her, take two fat handfuls of face, and tilt it up to kiss, obscurely pleased that there's so much of her to love. Nor am I absolutely displeased that there's a little more of me now to love her.
"So," I say, sitting down beside her, "we're in with the gentry. All our vaguely leftish prejudices down the drain. Instant corruption."
"We could say Tilda was ill."
"You don't want to go?"
Do I? Yes! Why not? Social adventure. Human contact. Life.
"We shan't enjoy it," says Kate.
"Of course not. It'll be terrible."
She says nothing, which is a sign of disagreement. That is, she agrees it'll be terrible, but she knows I mean it'll be wonderfully terrible, a source of amusement, and this is not how she sees life at all. Also, she knows that my mind's made up. For once. And that although it sometimes unmakes itself of its own accord, it's unlikely to be discomposed by external pressure.
"Come on," I say. "He was charming. He raised his cap to you."
"I don't understand why he's asking us."
"He said--he wants our advice."
"Well, you don't have to give it."
Because what sort of advice does he want from us? Not, I imagine, our moral advice. Nor our advice about agriculture or animal husbandry. Is some small but vexing question of etiquette or precedence bothering him? Should the Lord Lieutenant take the divorced wife of the Queen's second cousin in to dinner? Do I think it would be all right for him to wear a cummerbund to the Hunt Ball?
Or could it be my professional advice that he wants? My opinions as a philosopher on some epistemological question that's come to haunt him? Can he ever truly know that his tenants have feelings? Is everything around him--his estate, his brown checked jacket, his Land Rover--really a dream?
No, Kate and I both know what sort of advice he wants. It's Kate's professional opinion. He has a painting that's always been rumored in the family to be a Constable, a Tintoretto, a Rembrandt, etc. A vase, a jug, a china dog, a porcelain shepherdess, which he of course doesn't suppose for a moment is of any interest or value, but which he'd be grateful if she'd just cast an eye over, if only to set his mind at rest, etc., etc.
"I'll do all the talking," I assure her.
Silence. She means I always do. I mean I'll explain to him that she's on holiday, she's on maternity leave, she can't be asked to identify things. And that even if she weren't on holiday, even if therewere no small baby in the forefront of her thoughts, even if she were sitting in her office at the Hamlish, being paid to think about art, she doesn't think about art like that. She doesn't identify things. She's not that sort of art historian, whatever the woman in the newspaper shop or the man who fixes the septic tank may have told him.
More silence. I know what she's thinking. She's thinking that perhaps it's my views on art he wants. Perhaps, she's suggesting ironically, the Churt family has some painting that they've always believed to be by the Master of the Embroidered Foliage, an artist whose name opens up delicate ground between us. I shan't rise to this. I shall remain as silent as she is. But it's a little unkind of her to bring the subject up now, however wordlessly. I've given her no recent cause for recrimination. In fact, I've just suddenly and surprisingly kissed her, which she loves my doing. But I shan't say a word. I shan't even not say a word. I shall simply nudge her fat shoulder and laugh her out of it.
"Come on," I say. "Just tell him it's a Constable and maybe he'll invite me to go shooting with him."
And as soon as I say it, and the silence sets in again, I realize that even joking about the possibility of my finding alternatives to writing my book while I'm down here is going to stir her suspicions. She was uneasy enough about my sudden pounce sideways out of philosophy into something more like art, or at any rate the philosophy of art, as if I were trespassing on her territory. She was uneasier still when I decided to take a year off to launch my new career by writing a book about the impact of nominalism on Netherlandish art of the fifteenth century; openly alarmed when, seven months into my sabbatical, I suddenly put the book aside to write an extended essay on one particular artist of the period who'd come to seem to me grossly underrated; and not relieved, but even more alarmed, when two months later, deciding that the Master of the Embroidered Foliage, far from being underrated, had no virtues that I could now perceive I abandoned this extramarital fling as suddenly as I'd begunit, and returned to the lawful embrace of nominalism, now with only five months left to finish the book before I'm due back in my department. Eight of my fourteen months of freedom have gone. She suspects that considerably less than eight fourteenths of the book that is going to launch my new career has yet been written. She fears that, come September, I'll turn out to have jumped off philosophy and fallen short of art. She thinks that I've lost my way in life. That, while her reputation in comparative Christian iconography slowly and methodically grows from year to year, like the standard work of reference she's writing on the subject, I've embarrassingly fallen off the back of the cart. This is why we've come down to the country--to get away from any friends or acquaintances, libraries or galleries, that might put some bright new idea into my head. We shall cook, look after Tilda, and write. There'll be nothing to tempt us out of the house, because there'll be nothing to do out there except fall down in the mud, and no one to speak to but sheep and cows. And now, within hours of arriving, I'm humorously contemplating another sudden relaunch as country gentleman. No wonder she's saying nothing.
I nudge her shoulder again, reassuringly, and announce a change of subject. "The iconography of sports jackets. Why does Tony Churt's brown checked sports jacket make it clear that he's a country landowner, while my gray pepper-and-salt sports jacket announces me as an urban intellectual? Why does the seediness of my jacket suggest high-mindedness and poverty, while the seediness of his indicates wealth and limited intelligence?"
Kate says nothing. But says it much more companionably now. Her moment of panic and distrust is over.
"In fact," I say, "the iconography of the entire estate is quite interesting. The battered Land Rover, the broken gates--they're all expressions of a certain style of ironic understatement. They all shout money. We could do a joint paper on the iconic significance of frayed pink baler twine."
"Does he have money?" says Kate.
"Of course he does."
We go on gazing into the fire together.
"His name's probably another irony. Tony Churt. He's really Sir Tony. He's Lord Churt."
"Is he, in fact?"
"No idea. I'm going to go on thinking of him as Tony."
Tilda stirs, then settles again. We gaze at her instead of the fire. She's lovely.
"You're getting as fat as me," says Kate, still looking at Tilda, but I think meaning me, an ambiguity I find curiously touching.
I say nothing. So I'm getting fat, like her and Tilda. All right. It suits me. I've a fat, phlegmatic, cheerful disposition. We all three of us do. I'm going to finish my book, whatever Kate thinks. Everything's going to be all right. I know that. How do I know it? Well, how do I know that the sun's warm and oranges are orange and Tilda's lovely? There's a simple but philosophically rather profound answer to all these questions:
I just do.
The ironic understatement of the Churts' iconography at Upwood begins as soon as you reach the end of their drive. The first touch of it is in the announcement of the house's identity to the world at large. It's as modest as our own: no announcement. The Churts feel, presumably, that everyone they might conceivably wish to see already knows where their house is and what it's called, and they're too modest to boast about it to anyone else. The message for the rest of the world, which appears on a flaking board glimpsed in our headlights through the rain as we turn off the road, is simple: PRIVATE PROPERTY. KEEP OUT.
The style's continued in the string of potholes and lakes on the drive, over and through which our ill-prepared little car thumps andswims with considerable alarm. Kate puts a steadying hand on the precious box on the backseat. "Did you put your boots in?" she asks.
"We shan't need them inside the house," I assure her. "Shall we?"
The house itself, when we reach it, consists phenomenologically speaking of a single lamp in the darkness and what the light from it falls on: a front door vast enough to keep the Peasants' Revolt at bay, with the barking of dogs on the other side of it and the wetness of the rain on my head, reinforced by the spray from a spout of water falling from the gutters somewhere in the night overhead into another lake in the gravel underfoot.
Then the door's open, and we're in the middle of a genial battle to squeeze past a lunging tangled slavering amiable mass of dog. We're simultaneously patting its snorting sneezing endlessly moving heads, holding our small human cargo out of its reach, and shaking hands with its roaring master. "Oh, what bloody fools you are!" he shouts at either the dogs or us. "Come on, come on, don't hang about out there, we'll all freeze to death! ... Don't wipe your filthy noses on her! ... Never mind these half-wits--just shove your way through! ... That's not your dinner they're holding, you great apes."
I was a little apprehensive that Tony Churt--or Tony, as I would call him now I've met him if he were anybody else--or Mr. Churt, since he's at least fifteen years older than me, or Sir Tony, or Lord Churt--no, Tony Churt, why not?--that Tony Churt might have put on a suit for the occasion. Or a velvet smoking jacket, or even a black tie, because who knows what the conventions are here? But all he's changed since we last met, so far as I can tell, unless some of the shades of brown are subtly different, is his boots, which have been replaced by brown carpet slippers, though possibly he's nicked his face in slightly different places. I'm privately a little relieved, since I've defiantly come exactly as I was before, in my corduroys and Donegal tweed jacket. Actually, it was either that or pajamas--I haven't brought anything else to the country with me. Tony Churt--no, come on, Tony, Tony--is wearing a tie, it's true--and in a festiveshade of burnt ocher, now that I look more closely, which means he must have dressed up a little, because I'm pretty sure it was more like burnt sienna before--whereas my collar is as defiantly open as Shelley's. Well, that's me. Take it or leave it. I'm not going to change my ways for Tony, for Tony Churt, for Tony. Also, I've forgotten to bring either of my two ties down from London.
They offer us the nursery for Tilda, but it's a mile away, and long unoccupied, because Tony's two sons are grown up and gone. So she takes up residence in the library, where Laura's turned the heating on specially, or so Tony tells us, though I can see that Kate feels hypothermia still threatens. Tilda's box is installed on the great desk, watched over by ranks of silver-framed Churts and members of the house of Windsor, some of the latter modestly half-concealed behind autograph inscriptions. I sneak a quick look at the books on the shelves. There's abundant leather-bound evidence of the voracious appetite possessed by earlier generations of Churts for genealogy and local curiosities. But by the time the leather bindings cease, literary intake seems to have declined, first to travel diaries and sporting memoirs, then to a few paperback thrillers and spy stories, then, in the last thirty or forty years, so far as I can see, to nothing at all. Our new friend's obviously not a literary man.
We plug in Tilda's alarm and withdraw to a big room where small pools of light in the gloom show up little islands of heavy furniture and threadbare carpet. Kate and I perch at opposite ends of a long sofa, which I think a secondhand furniture salesman might describe as comfortably worn. In fact, the upholstery seems to have been largely deconstructed by the dogs to tone in with the rest of the furnishings. The dogs settle themselves warmly over our feet, while their master pours us unidentified drinks out of a decanter. We sip them appreciatively. They taste ... how do they taste? They taste worn. They taste brown.
"Don't ask me what it is," says Tony. "Some muck Laura got at the cash-and-carry on the ring road. I tell her to buy booze inSainsbury's, then you know what you're getting, you know they haven't stuck the labels on a consignment of battery acid. But she never takes a blind bit of notice. Frozen food? Same place. Know where I mean? Used to be a factory. Made slug repellent. Poor pet. Half a hundredweight of this, half a hundredweight of that, wholesale prices, breaks her back carting it all into the house. Well, what should we do without them?"
I hope he means cash-and-carries. I suspect he means women. I avoid Kate's eye.
"God knows what's holding her up." He looks at his watch. "She's not doing dinner for twenty."
"Nothing we can do to ... ?"
"No, no. She'll have to get used to it. Did have a woman from the village who came in. Took umbrage, though. Also took twenty quid out of Laura's bag. Twenty quid and umbrage. Bit much, don't you think?"
To take my mind off the disturbing picture of poor Laura, stumbling broken-backed about the kitchen, struggling with unfamiliar saws and cleavers to hack off chunks of complete frozen sheep for our dinner, I have a quiet look around the room, trying to guess what it is he wants Kate to give an opinion on. A vaguely ancestral-looking portrait hangs over the fireplace, discreetly blackened by the smoke of centuries. In the gloom around the outer edges of the room I can just make out prints of racehorses and hunting scenes, of the sort that brewers hang in the grill rooms of suburban hotels, though reassuringly more mottled and fly-spotted. A few modern still lifes and landscapes hang in an alcove. They were painted, I should guess, in the unlikely event of anyone wanting my expert opinion, by someone in the local Women's Institute. It seems to me that the Churts may have very slightly overdone the irony of the iconography. I glance at Kate. She's also sizing up the artwork. She glances at me, and quickly looks away. She evidently feels muchthe same. The Churts' tasteful avoidance of ostentation verges on the garish.
A door opens in the gloom behind us. Tony looks up, and his humorous country gentleman's character changes somewhat. His voice takes on a slightly sharper edge.
"Problems?" he inquires. The dogs and I jump politely to our respective feet. "What's that thing around your hand?"
"What does it look like?" says Laura. "We'll have to get Skelton back to fix that bloody stove."
She advances into the light around the fireplace, and I get rather a surprise. I'd been expecting, if not a broken old crone, then at least another comfortably worn accessory, like the sofa or Tony himself. But she's entirely out of keeping with the iconography. Not much more than half his age, for a start--a lot younger than me--younger than Kate, even. She's thin and dark, and she's dressed not in brown but in scarlet--a loose scarlet sweater that rises high around her neck and comes halfway down over dark velvet trousers. She smiles at us, but doesn't offer her hand, possibly because it's wrapped in kitchen paper. "How super," she says. "What a treat. So sweet of you to come." She makes her point: she's not at all pleased to see us.
She looks suspiciously at the glass that Tony hands her. "What's this?" she says. "Not that homemade muck Skelton sold you?"
"I thought it was the stuff you got from that foul place in Lavenage?"
"What did it say on the label?"
"Nothing. No label. That's why I shoved it in the decanter."
I tuck my glass discreetly behind one of the perhaps priceless china ornaments. I hadn't realized that Skelton bottled aperitifs as well as emptying septic tanks. I nod politely at Laura's parceled hand. "You haven't ... ?"
"Don't worry about her," says Tony. "She's always in the wars. If she's not putting her hand on the hotplate, she's falling downthe stairs. If she's not falling down the stairs, she's falling down in the middle of the floor, because either there's no carpet and there ought to be carpet, or there is carpet and she's got her toe under the edge of it."
He watches her as he speaks. He's a watchful man, it occurs to me. He was watching us earlier, I realize, to see how we were taking his buffoonery. He's watching Laura now because he's irritated by her, and he wants to see whether he's managing to irritate her back.
"Or through the middle of it," she says, giving us a little taut smile. He's succeeding.
"That's right," he says. "Stoves, stairs, rugs, everything in the house--something wrong with all of them. All conspiring against her. Poor sweetheart."
And he's anxious about her. Poor sweetheart her, certainly, but poor sweetheart him, too. He's afraid she's going to run off with someone. Me, perhaps, I think suddenly. I see the whole story unrolling in front of us. It's only too plausible. Impotent aging husband; discontented young wife. Now this comical egghead appears in the district. Someone strangely different. Gray tweed jacket instead of brown. And closer to her own age--someone she can talk to. "A philosopher?" I imagine her breathing. "I've never met a philosopher before ..."
Whereupon some great tragic saga commences. Which might at least save me from writing the book. And there's something unsettling about her, I have to admit. The looseness of that scarlet sweater challenges the imagination, for a start.
I glance at Kate, and make a tiny subliminal face that means I'm trying not to smile. She subliminally suppresses a smile back.
Laura holds up a packet of cigarettes. "You don't mind?"
"Of course they mind," says Tony.
And of course we do. "Of course not," I say.
"If you didn't drop so much ash on the carpets, there wouldn't be so many holes in them," says Tony.
"Most of the holes in these carpets were there before cigarettes were invented," says Laura. "So you're some great art whiz, are you?"
I realize that she's looking at me through the smoke screen she's laying down, belatedly demonstrating a little polite interest in her guests. I nod at Kate. "Not me. Her."
Laura switches her gaze to Kate. "Oh, wonderful," she says. Kate, of course, says nothing; merely looks as if she's been caught out in some slightly disreputable piece of behavior.
"She's at the Hamlish," I explain, God knows why, except that I feel some obscure need to validate our lives in these alien surroundings. "In the Ecclesiology Department. Comparative Christian iconography."
"Wow," says Laura. "Do you know the little man around here?"
Kate looks startled. So, I imagine, do I. There's a local iconographer? A little man who pops round to decipher your mysterious griddles, keys, and lions?
"He's rather a sweetie," says Laura. I deduce from this, as obscurely as Laura was prompted to think of it, that she means not the local iconographer but the local Christian--the little man in the rectory. She's given up on Kate, though, and turned back to me. "So what are you, then?"
"He's a philosopher," says Kate.
"My God," says Laura. "I've never met a philosopher before."
You see? It's all starting to happen. Though somehow I hadn't imagined the conversation taking place through a haze of cigarette smoke. Or my end of it being conducted for me by my wife.
"But he's moving into art," Kate tells Laura, amazingly loquacious now that the subject is me instead of her. "He's writing a book about the impact of nominalism on Netherlandish art in the fifteenth century."
Laura gazes at me, immensely impressed. "Where's everyone's glass?" says Tony impatiently, holding out the decanter. But she's not to be distracted. "The impact of ... ?"
"Nominalism," I repeat, and even as I say the word, the meaning seems to drain out of it. I make an effort to stop the leak, if only to reassure myself. "Nominalism's the view that there are no universals."
I have her full attention. Nominalism is what she's been waiting all these years to know about. There seems no choice but to give her a complete tutorial.
"The view that the individuals making up a class do so merely because they have the same name, not because they share some common essence. That class membership's established by particular resemblances between members. That things are what they are because that's how we see them, because that's what we decide they are. It's essentially a rejection of scholasticism ... of Platonism. It's historically important because it's a step in Europe's emergence from the medieval world. It originated with William of Ockham. In the fourteenth century."
She releases the smoke she's been raptly retaining. "Wow," she says. I'm not sure, though, that dawning adoration is quite what I read in her eyes. I hadn't envisaged her unfulfilled longing for philosophical enlightenment taking us into technicalities quite so soon.
"Don't waste your breath," says Tony. "She doesn't understand a word you're saying."
"Of course I do," says Laura. "I'm fascinated. And it had a trememdous impact, did it? All this ..."
"Nominalism. Yes--it had a remarkably large impact, all over Europe. Including on Netherlandish art. Or so I believe." And am ceasing to believe moment by moment as I expound it and she gazes at me. "If you look at Rogier van der Weyden, for instance, or Hugo van der Goes, you see this tremendous concentration upon individual ungeneralized objects, on things that offer themselves not as indications of abstract ideas but as themselves, as nothing more nor less than what they are ... ."
I'm not certain, from the expression on her face, that she's heard of Hugo van der Goes. Perhaps not even of Rogier van der Weyden.
"Or look at Jan van Eyck," I try. "The famous mirror. The lamp, the clogs ... In the Arnolfini double portrait ... In the National Gallery ..."
I'm not absolutely certain she's heard of the National Gallery.
"But he hadn't got very far with the book," pursues Kate, quite unnecessarily, "when he was slightly sidetracked by the Master of the Embroidered Foliage."
Laura looks first at Kate, and then at me.
"Because Friedländer is so ridiculously dismissive of him," I insanely feel obliged to explain.
Laura turns from me to Kate, and back to me.
"Max Friedlander," I have to tell her. "The great authority on all the early Netherlandish stuff."
"But then," says Kate, "he decided Friedlander was right after all."
Laura turns back to Kate. "So nice, your husband taking up your line of work."
"Well ... ," says Kate, glancing at me. This is all a very delicate area. I move quickly to head Laura off.
"Kate's strictly concerned with the iconography of art," I explain.
"Whereas Martin's only interested in the iconology."
Laura's head twists back and forth as she follows this rally, her eyebrows higher and higher.
"She doesn't think iconology's a real discipline."
"He thinks mere iconography's beneath him."
Laura glances at Tony, the way I glance at Kate, to see if he's savoring the conversation to the full. But he's gazing into his aperitif, lost in his own thoughts. "Are we ready to eat?" he says.
I wonder whether to attempt to explain to Laura the difference between iconography and iconology. Iconography, I could tell her, informs us that a worn sofa and a vehicle held together with twine represent poverty. Iconology teaches us that the plain iconography has to be read in conjunction with a wider conception of style and artistic intention--that its real meaning is the opposite of what itappears to be. Iconography, I might go on, tells us that the look she's wearing on her face is one conventionally adopted to represent the expression of interest. Iconology, on the other hand, involves understanding that in this particular context, what this conventional expression of interest actually conveys is mockery.
But all I say is: "It's a distinction drawn by Panofsky."
There's something about the helpless look she gives me that moves me to offer a little more assistance.
"Erwin Panofsky," I tell her.
But with this I've gone two syllables too far. Her display of polite interest collapses like a soap bubble. "Excuse me," she says, and hurries out of the room, coughing on her smoke.
"Oh my God," says Tony, "you've driven her back to the kitchen again."
We settle down to another wait, another look at the racehorses. Wow, as Laura would say. This is going to be one of the great evenings. I make the mistake of catching Kate's eye, and at that moment I feel hysterical laughter rising irresistibly out of the depths of me. I jump up as hurriedly as someone with the runs.
"I'll check Tilda," I mumble.
"I'll do it," says Kate, jumping to her feet as well, galvanized no doubt by the same agonizing spasm, but a fraction of a second too late, because I'm already halfway out the door and merciless in my need. I rush for some room, any room, that will serve as a hospice for a man dying of laughter. But before I can find one, I'm stopped by a sound from behind the half-open kitchen door.
My laughter dies instantly. My iconology was totally wrong, I realize; I've completely misread the iconography. Laura's a lonely young woman shut up in this remote pile with her brutally insensitive husband. She turns to one of their rare visitors for a moment of human contact, a passing glimpse of the great sunlit world outside, and what happens? The visitor talks about things that he knows shein her simplicity won't understand. He rebuffs and scorns her. This is why she ran out of the room so abruptly. She was in tears.
I suppose I should pretend not to have heard. But tact is overcome by ordinary human sympathy. I raise my hand to tap on the door and announce my presence when the sobbing bursts out with a new and uncontrollable wildness.
I stay my hand just in time. Because it's not sobbing, I realize, now that I hear the paroxysm from the start.
It's hysterical laughter, just like mine.
I don't know what the problem in the kitchen could have been. There's nothing wrong with the pheasant casserole, or nothing that won't be right by the time they have it again tomorrow, reheated, after they've got Mr. Skelton to fix the stove. And although the dining room's large enough to accommodate all the Churts there ever were since there were Churts at Upwood, the temperature's by no means unbearable if you edge your chair a little toward one of the fan-heaters and get your feet under one of the dogs. And I suppose the cigarettes that Laura lights between courses must warm the air a little.
She's long since recovered her composure. So have Kate and I. In fact, we two have ceased to make much contribution to the evening; our conversational resources seem to have been exhausted by our exposition of nominalism and Panofsky. Not that this matters greatly, because now that they've got the initial polite interrogation of the guests out of the way the Churts seem perfectly happy to do all the talking themselves. After a few glasses of wine they've both become more expansive, in their different ways. The only thing they remain unforthcoming about is why they invited us. It can scarcely be anything to do with the pictures in the dining room, which by now we've had considerable opportunity to assess, and which are mostly flyblown cross-sections of ancient square-rigged sailing ships.
They may simply have had the kind intention of disabusing us of any naively romantic view of the countryside. They distribute snippets of bad news alternately to Kate and me on opposite sides of the table, moving in and out of agreement with each other like two motors going in and out of phase, while Kate and I, in the stands now like Laura before dinner, revolve more or less mutely back and forth to follow the game.
"You two come cruising down from town," says Tony, "and you think you've arrived in some kind of Shangri-la."
"In fact, you've walked into the middle of a battlefield!" cries Laura.
"Put your head outside that door--somebody'll blow it off!"
"The people around here! They're all lunatics!"
"Preservation-mad!" says Tony. "That's the problem."
"Yes, because you drive them to it!" shouts Laura. "You're the biggest lunatic of the lot!"
"Not at all. No one could be keener on preservation than me. But what people around here do not understand, what they cannot get through their thick skulls, is that to preserve you have to change. You can't go backwards--you can't stand still. You must go forwards. Forwards, forwards! That is the law of life! The remorseless law of life! But this my good neighbors cannot begin to grasp!"
"They're trying to stop him building a scramble track."
"A scramble track?" says Kate, surprised at last into breaking the rhythm of the conversation. "You mean ... ?"
"Yes!" cries Laura. "Yobs on motorbikes roaring about in the mud on Sunday afternoon!"
"Two thousand pounds a quarter for the lease, my pet!"
"Money, money! It's all he thinks about!"
"Someone's got to think about it!"
"He's already got the whole estate crawling with pheasants! You can't walk down the drive without them flapping out under your feet and squawking at you! Roast pheasant, boiled pheasant, fried pheasant,frozen pheasant--we'll be flapping around and squawking ourselves soon!"
"What do you want to eat? Barbecued sparrow?"
"I think it's absolutely disgusting, breeding creatures just so that you can kill them."
"It's not for my benefit, poppet!"
"No--Jeep-loads of Japanese businessmen banging away all over the place! We might as well live in the middle of a fireworks display!"
"Two hundred pounds per gun per day! Say ten guns, when we really get going. Say a hundred bird-days per year ..."
"Why don't you just sell the whole estate, and have done with it?" shouts Laura.
At this Tony becomes suddenly silent.
"This scramble track ... ," begins Kate. But Tony is moving toward a major statement of his beliefs.
"I happen to own this estate," he says slowly. "I didn't ask to own it. I just found myself with it, in exactly the same way as people find themselves landed with a big brain, or a weak heart, or nice tits. All right, I've got the estate--she's got the tits--you two have got the brains. As it happens. But it could just as well be Laura with the brain, and you two with the estate, and me with the tits. Since it's not, though, I'm the one who has to do something about it. Because I propose to go on owning it. Owning this estate is what I was put into the world to do. Nothing wrong in that. Everything has to be owned. That's what gives it life, that's what makes it mean something, having a human face attached to it. If we've learned nothing else from the Communists, we've surely learned that."
He turns to me. "You're the philosopher. Isn't that so?"
"Well," I begin, "there's certainly something of interest at issue here ..."
I've lost him already. "Anyway," he says, "whether it's so or whether it isn't, I'm certainly not going to sit on my backside and watch it all go down the Swanee."
"But down the Swanee is exactly where it all goes!" cries Laura. She turns to me. "He has a spectacular ability for finding crackbrained schemes to invest his money in."
"What do you mean? I'm one of the few people we know who survived Lloyd's!"
"You weren't in Lloyd's! They chucked you out of the syndicate!"
"I walked out on my own two feet, thank you very much."
"What about that offshore thing?"
"I don't know what you're talking about. Remember the Arab thing, though. That came up."
"No, it didn't--it went down, like everything else. They all ended up in jail!"
"I was out of it by then."
It's beginning to occur to me that my iconology really is wrong. Totally wrong. I've entirely misread all the symbolism of the estate, from the baler twine to the holes in the carpet. Really, no ology's needed--a little of Kate's straightforward ography's all that's required. The symbolism isn't ironic. It's literal. The Churts have no money. All they own is a bottomless money-eating swamp and an equally bottomless incompetence.
Laura has schemes of her own, it turns out. "I think he should try to get some pop promoter involved," she says. "Have some great festival thing here. Some New Age thing. Make a few crop circles. Ten thousand people, ten quid a head. All you need is a sound system and Portaloos. They'd bring their own sleeping bags."
"So where's all this happening?" says Tony. "On the lawn?"
"No, away from the house. In that great empty bit."
"Which great empty bit?"
"The other side of the woods. Where the barn fell down. There's no one round there."
"You mean the field at the back of us?" asks Kate.
"Oh, yes," says Laura. "Well, you could stay up in London that weekend."
I can see that Kate's quietly resolving to join the local Preservation Society. But I can't say I feel too much alarm. I think the field will remain in its present charmingly neglected state for a long time yet. The whole estate will. Pop festivals, scramble tracks--none of their great ideas is ever going to materialize.
Actually, I feel a slight twinge of sympathy for them, even gratitude. It's their straitened circumstances, their fecklessness, that are preserving the reality of this little pocket of real country for us. Still, there's nothing we can do about it. I look at my watch and begin to make the usual ritual regretful noises.
"Well, that was delightful," I say. "But Tilda's going to be waking up any moment. Also, we were up half the night last night. And we've got an early day tomorrow."
Why does one always have one excuse too many? Still, by now Kate and I are on our feet.
"Has he shown you the picture yet?" says Laura.
Ah. Here we go.
At least we haven't sat through all this delightfulness for nothing.
It's in the breakfast room. No, this scarcely does justice to its majestic presence. It entirely fills the breakfast room.
This, at any rate, is my first impression, because the breakfast room's relatively modest, designed to accommodate no more than a handful of Churts at any one time as they straggle down in the morning to their cornflakes and deviled kidneys, while the picture's entirely immodest. It lours down enormously from its elaborate gilt frame over the screened-off fireplace in the freezing room, occupying most of the wall between mantel and ceiling. Inside the frame ... well ... The four of us and the dogs, who have accompanied us to the viewing, all gaze at it respectfully but with difficulty, because we're far too close to it. It's leaning out from the wall, as if it expected to be at the head of a great sweep of stairs, with us approaching itfrom below. In its present position, it seems to be angled for the benefit of the dogs. I lean back and sag at the knees, trying to get close to their eyeline.
Tony and Laura turn to look at me. My respectful cringe has established me as the authority.
"What do you reckon?" says Tony.
What do I reckon? Nothing, really. No thought comes into my head. "Seventeenth-century?" I venture cautiously.
"Right," says Tony. "1691."
"Giordano. It's the Upwood Giordano."
"Ah, yes," I say wisely, as if I'd been about to say it myself. I'm not trying to claim false credit for my own percipience--I'm politely giving false credit to the fame of the painter and the picture. And, actually, I think I have heard of Giordano, if not the Upwood Giordano, in some context or other.
"What do you think, though?" says Tony.
I look at Kate, to pass the question on to her, but without much hope. She shrugs. "Not my period," she says.
Not mine, either, of course. One of the dogs yawns and settles to sleep; not bis, apparently. The other one sneezes thoughtfully. I privately agree with this assessment. But the scholarly fastidiousness of Kate and our two critical friends on the floor leaves me with the task of offering some more extended appreciation.
So, all right, what do I think? Well ... Let's look at this systematically, in the way that an art historian would, since an art historian I am in my own small way trying to become. What do we have here?
We have some kind of mythological scene. There are many figures. It's taking place at night. The period, to judge by the costumes, is classical.
What's the subject? A number of armed men are hurling instructions and imprecations over their shoulders, some to the left, someto the right, none of them apparently listening to what anyone else is saying. They're supporting what seems, from the strain on their muscles, to be a substantial burden--a stoutish lady whose clothes have been disarranged to reveal her left knee and her right breast. There are flames in the darkness, and the night sky is full of chimeras. Waves are breaking around the men's legs, oarsmen are straining at oars. Yes, what the armed men are struggling to do is to place the stout party in a boat. She's the wife of a Greek shipowner, off on a Mediterranean cruise. No--concentrate on the iconography. The figure hovering in the air above their heads, pointing out to sea, is Cupid. There's plainly some love interest involved. I believe Cupid is pointing in the direction of Troy.
"The abduction of Helen?" I hazard.
"The rape of Helen," corrects Tony.
"Rape?" says Laura. "It doesn't look much like rape to me."
"Ratto di Elena," says Tony firmly. "Written on the back. Rape of Helen."
"She's not exactly pressing her little alarm thing," says Laura. "She's not exactly squirting her little gas thing in their eyes."
"Rape," says Tony. "That's what we've always called it."
I don't think the Giordano shifting dimly about in the depths of my memory is a painter. Didn't he write operas? Perhaps it's the same one, though. Perhaps the picture's a kind of solidified opera. They're not shouting at one another--they're singing. This would explain why they're not listening to one another. People can't listen to one another if they're all singing in counterpoint. Now that we know what's going on, we can guess, even without surtitles, that there's some dispute among the tenors about the correct bearing for Troy, perhaps a cautious suggestion from the baritone about going back to pick up some life jackets.
"Rather splendid piece," says Tony. He sounds not boastful, but humble at finding himself called by fate to serve as its guardian.
"Wonderful," I murmur, continuing to gaze respectfully at the great work so as not to see the expression on Kate's face. Sometimes, I have to say, she carries honesty to unacceptable extremes.
"They really knew how to do it in those days," says Tony. "Real drama. Real feeling. They weren't afraid to let rip."
Rip Signor Giordano has certainly let. But I'm not sure about the feeling, in the case of the soprano, at any rate. Helen's not singing. Laura's right; she's remaining remarkably cool and collected. She seems to be neither pleased nor displeased by the turn of events--not even surprised. You can't help feeling that strange chaps are always carting her off in the middle of the night, and starting major wars over her. Her right hand's upraised, it's true, which suggests she's mildly concerned about something. Perhaps she has a delicate chest. One more breast exposed to the freezing air of the Churts' breakfast room, she thinks, and she may be spending her first night of illicit passion under the Trojan stars with a hacking cough and a streaming nose.
"So," says Tony, "what do you think?"
"Wonderful," I say. "Very ... very ..." Very something, certainly. But exactly what eludes me. Very unlike the Master of the Embroidered Foliage, at least. And very funny. In fact, the more I struggle to think very what it is precisely, the funnier it seems. In every sense. Everything about it, starting with the way it's hung, with its elbows resting on the mantelpiece as if it were a bartender in a slack period leaning across the counter for a chat. It plainly doesn't belong here--the proudest possession of the Churts of Upwood is hanging on hooks put up for a picture at least a foot shorter. Don't they have a staircase here to hang it on? What's it doing in the breakfast room, of all places? It's not the kind of thing you'd want to come face-to-face with after a heavy night on some of Mr. Skelton's by-products.
"It's certainly a very striking backdrop to cornflakes and boiled eggs," I venture at last.
Tony gazes at me, baffled, out of his depth in the critical vocabulary.
"Breakfast," I explain. "I thought you said this was the breakfast room?"
"We have breakfast in the kitchen," says Laura. The idea of using a breakfast room to eat breakfast in is obviously a naive solecism. "This is one of the rooms we keep shut up." She shivers. Kate shivers. I shiver. The room's damp as well as cold. So they sit in the living room looking at sporting prints, and keep the mighty Upwood Giordano shut away in the damp and dark to collect mildew unseen? What a lovable pair of eccentrics they are.
But apparently a critical assessment isn't what Tony was after.
"I mean," he says, "how much? What would it fetch? Current state of the market?"
"I've not the slightest idea. Why, are you selling it?"
"Might. If I could get the right price. Breaks my heart to see it go out of the family after all these years, but one has to make hard choices."
"Not doing much good in here," says Laura.
"So what do you reckon?"
I glance at Kate. "I'll go and fetch Tilda," she says, and leaves me to struggle on alone.
"Why don't you ring up Sotheby's or Christie's?" I say. "Get them to come down and take a look?"
"Because he doesn't trust them," says Laura.
"Of course I trust them! I trust them to take ten percent off me, and another ten per off the poor mutt who buys it, and V.A.T. off both of us! Don't tell me Sotheby's. I sold the Strozzi at Sotheby's. Christie's? Gave them the Tiepolo."
Tiepolo? They had a Tiepolo? Good God.
"And don't say go to a dealer."
"He certainly doesn't trust dealers!" says Laura.
"Been had once too often."
"What, with that Guardi? Yes, because you went to some crook in a back street!"
And a Guardi! What else has run through their fingers?
Tony turns back to me. "Anyway, off the top of your head. Ballpark figure."
No wonder he gets ripped off, if he goes around asking for valuations from people like me. Let's make a guess, all the same. Start from first principles. I imagine that pictures of this sort have a value as interior decorators' properties. They'll be sold by acreage, like so much arable or grazing. How much per square foot for basic period oil on canvas? It can scarcely be less than a hundred pounds. So what are we looking at here? It's about as tall as I am, and a foot or so longer. Say six foot by seven foot. Forty-two square feet. What's that? Over four thousand pounds! This is ridiculous.
All right, knock off a thousand for plausibility. But then the frame must be worth a few hundred. And probably the bare breast increases its salability. Perhaps even the naked knee's an attraction. Add a tenner for the inimitable expression on her face. Another couple of thousand out of politeness to my hosts. A thousand off again as a sop to honesty ... Where have we got to?
"No idea," I finally conclude. "Fifteenth-century Netherlandish I might just conceivably be able to help you with. Seventeenth-century Italian--you might as well ask me about pheasant breeding."
"Netherlandish?" says Laura. "You mean Dutch?"
"Well, the Netherlands in the fifteenth century included Flanders and Brabant." I can hear the pedantry in my voice again, the Erwin in the Erwin Panofsky. But this time it's Tony who laughs.
"What, Belgium?" he says. "Chocolates and beer--that's all that ever came out of Belgium."
So much for my little fling with the Master of the Embroidered Foliage. So much, for that matter, for the Master of the Saint LucyLegend. Also for van Eyck, van der Weyden, van Goes, Memling, Massys, Gerard David, Dirck Bouts ...
"But that's one of your Dutchmen," says Tony. "Skaters and whatnot?"
I turn around. Propped up against the serving hatch is a little winter landscape. It looks like the lid of a rather large box of chocolates, though it's certainly not Belgian, and there's an odd chocolatey tone to everything about it, from the frozen polder to the plangently sun-shot winter clouds. It's rather nice.
"Dutch, yes, certainly," I assure him. "Very attractive. Way out of my period, though. Seventeenth-century again. Who's the painter?"
He picks it up and turns it around. "Doesn't say. So what do you think? Couple of thousand?"
"Who knows?" I say. Who knows, for that matter, why it's propped against the serving hatch, instead of hanging on the wall? The hanging policy in this house is certainly difficult to understand. Who knows why there's another, rather smaller picture beside the skating scene, lying flat on its back? Tents and flags in this one, with three men on horseback, and a girl pouring them drinks from a pitcher, with more horsemen dashing about in the smoke in the background. The name Philips Wouwerman comes to mind. Another seventeenth-century Dutchman. Good. Fine. Not my kind of thing, though.
"Label on that one," says Tony. I turn it over. I was right--I should have spoken out and got the credit. "Wouwerman: Cavalrymen Taking Refreshment Near a Battlefield."
Tony waits expectantly.
"Sorry," I say. "I still can't help. Anyway, it depends what they mean by 'Wouwerman.' Whether it's School of, or Circle of, or Follower of, or Style of, or nothing much at all."
"Too much to hope that'Wouwerman' might mean Wouwerman?"
"That's the one thing it doesn't mean," I explain. "This label was written long before the Description of Goods Act. If it just says 'Wouwerman' and not 'Philips Wouwerman,' the one person in the entire world you know they're certain it's not by is Wouwerman."
"Perhaps it's a Rembrandt," says Laura.
"Well, possibly. But if you really want my considered advice--ring Sotheby's or Christie's. Pay them their premiums. I think it would be worth it."
Kate reappears with the carry-cot. "I thought we were going?"
"Yes," says Laura. "Let's get out of here. We're all going to have tuberculosis by tomorrow, like the sheep."
I move thankfully toward the door.
"Sorry we couldn't be of any assistance," I say. "Delightful evening, though ..."
But Tony's stopped.
"Just a moment," he says. "Where's the other one?"
"What other one?" says Laura.
"There were three of these Dutch buggers."
"Oh," says Laura. She goes over and reaches behind the fire screen that hides the empty hearth beneath the Giordano. "Sorry, but it just fitted. Those bloody birds in the chimney keep bringing the soot down."
She struggles to shift a large unframed wooden board.
"It weighs a ton," she says. I move to help her. "Wait," she says. "You'll get your hands filthy."
She finds an old newspaper under the empty coal box, and scrubs at the board as best she can. Then between us we hoist it out of the fireplace and balance it on the table.
So it's there, in the freezing breakfast room, among the indifferent chairs, with Laura still holding the filthy newspaper she's just been scrubbing away with, and Tony looking over my shoulder, stillhoping for a valuation, and Kate in the doorway, still patiently rocking the carry-cot back and forth, that I first set eyes on it. On my fate. On my triumph and torment and downfall.
I recognize it instantly.
I say I recognize it. I've never seen it before. I've never seen even a description of it. No description of it, so far as I know, has ever been given. No one knows for sure who, if anyone apart from the artist himself, has ever seen it.
And I say instantly. The picture's uncleaned, and for a few seconds all I can see, until my eye adjusts to the gloom, is the pall of dirt and discolored varnish. Then again, how long is an instant? The human eye sees very little at any one moment. All it can distinguish with any clarity is what falls on the fovea, the pit no bigger than a pinhead in the center of the retina where the packed receptors are closest to the surface. If I'm holding the picture at arm's length, as I am, to keep it upright, what I'm seeing at any one moment, really seeing, is a patch of paint about an inch in diameter. I'm seeing one tiny detail.
What is that detail? The first one I see? I don't know. Perhaps the highlights on the new green leaves where they lie in the track of the sun. Perhaps the figure caught for all eternity just off balance, with his foot ridiculously raised to stamp the ground. Perhaps just the foot itself. But already my eye's doing what the human eye always has to do to take in the world in front of it. It's flickering and jumping in indescribably complex patterns, back and forth, up and down, round and round, moving fifty, sixty, seventy times a second, assembling patch after patch into a first approximation of a whole; amending the approximation; amending it again. For a picture this size, some four feet high by five feet long, even the most cursory scan must take a matter of seconds.
Already, even as I look at it in those first few instants, what I'm contemplating is not the picture but my accumulated recollection of it.
And already, somewhere in those first few instants, something has begun to stir inside me. In my head, in the pit of my stomach. It's as if the sun's emerging from the clouds, and the world's changing in front of my eyes, from gray to golden. I can feel the warmth of the sunlight spreading over my skin, passing like a wave of beneficence through my entire body.
How do I know what it is that I'm seeing? As with the orange of oranges once again, as with the loveliness of Tilda, I just do. Friedlander, the great Max Friedlander, is very good on this. "Correct attributions," he says, "generally appear spontaneously and prima vista. We recognize a friend without ever having determined wherein his particular qualities lie and that with a certainty that not even the most detailed description can give." Friedlander, of course, had spent his life among these friends of his. I've spent only whatever time I could manage over the last five years or so. And in any case, I'm still way out of my period with this one. All the same, I know. It's a friend. No, it's the long-lost brother of a friend. A long-mourned child walking back into our lives the way the dead do in our dreams.
Here's what I see through the grimy pane of time:
I'm looking down from wooded hills into a valley. The valley runs diagonally from near the bottom left of the picture, with a river that meanders through it, past a village, past a castle crowning a bluff, to a distant town at the edge of the sea, close to the high horizon. Running along the left-hand side of the valley are mountains, with jagged crags sticking up like broken teeth, and snow still lying in the high side valleys. It's spring. On the woods below the snow line, and tumbling away in front of where I'm standing, there's the first shimmer of April green. The high valley air is still cold, but as you move down into the valley the chill dies away. The colors change, from cool brilliant greens to deeper and deeper blues. The season seems toshift in front of you from April into May as you travel south into the eye of the sun.
Among the trees just below me is a group of clumsy figures, some of them breaking branches of white blossom from the trees, some caught awkwardly in the middle of a heavy clumping dance. A bagpiper sits on a stump; you can almost hear the harsh pentatonic drone. People are dancing because it's spring again and they're alive to see it.
Far away, in the mountains, a herd is being moved up the familiar muddy scars toward its summer pasture.
Just in front of me again, half-hidden in the raw spring undergrowth, watched only by a bird on a tree, a little thickset man holding two small wild daffodils is expressionlessly touching his comically pouted lips to the comically pouted lips of a little thickset woman.
And away the eye goes once more, and the heart with it, out into the vast atmospheric depths of the picture, into deeper and deeper blue, to the blue sea and the blue sky above it. The last clouds are just clearing in the warm westerly. A ship is setting sail, bound for the hot south.
But by now I can't see the picture anymore--I'm ceasing to take it in. My eye's flickering back and forth too fast in its excitement, and my mind's clouded with anguish. Because it's all too obvious. It's so blindingly evident what this picture is that it can't be so, or someone else would have recognized it already. Yes, who else has seen it? How can even these two fools not know what it is?
I daren't think the name of its creator to myself, because it simply cannot be so.
"Very nice," I say politely, laying it down on the table. "Most attractive. Now, I've got a coat somewhere ..."
Because now my mind's moving over the situation as fast as my eye did over the picture. I mustn't go on looking at it. I've grasped that first essential (and how long have I been looking at it already?). Imustn't make any sudden movement with the muscles of my face, mustn't let my voice shake--mustn't speak any unnecessary words. How do I manage to maintain this iron self-control? Everything inside me is urging me to shout out in astonishment--to let everyone know the joyful news, to claim the credit for my discovery. But I can't even wordlessly bring Kate across the room to look at it, because she'd recognize it even faster than I did, and in her guileless, straightforward way she'd simply announce it to the world.
I mustn't so much as think--no, I must stop thinking, in case it shows on my face. I must just get out of the house and sort things out where no one's looking at me. But Tony's reluctant to let it go. He stands the picture up again and inspects it ruefully. "What, another dud?"
"They're none of them duds," I hear myself saying, in a voice that even manages a hint of impatience in its hypocrisy. "They're all interesting pictures."
"Hasn't even got a signature," says Tony. No, there's no signature. If there were, he wouldn't have his hand on the picture like that, because the alarms would have gone off and the security guards would have come running.
Laura bends down to look at the back of it. "There's a label," she says hopefully.
I hadn't even thought to look. I can scarcely bear to now; I don't want to know what it says. I shrink from seeing this sacred object insulted by misattribution. I shrink even more sharply from the hideous possibility that my great flash of intuition has been anticipated. It's not a possibility, of course. Not even these two clowns would be using the picture to stop the soot falling into the breakfast room if they had the faintest inkling of what it was.
But I suppose I have to know what the label's telling the world.
"Martin," says Kate, with the suggestion of an exclamation mark, as I squat concessively down to look. This is about as overtlyreproachful as she ever gets; I realize how urgently she longs to be out of this terrible house.
The label's a piece of yellowing paper, almost as dirty as the picture itself. The only thing on it is a single typed line, followed by a handwritten parenthesis:
Vrancz: Pretmakers in een Berglandschap (um 1600 gemalt).
Wrong! Wonderfully wrong! Painter and date, certainly. Whether the title's wrong as well it's impossible to say, since no one knows what the title is.
"Double Dutch to me," says Tony.
Yes. Pretmakers in a mountain landscape ... What are pretmakers?
"1600," he says. "Bit closer to your period?"
"Still about a century out."
"Very difficult to please you chaps. So you don't know anything about Mr. Vrancz?"
"Though if it doesn't say'Charlie Vrancz' ..."
"Sebastian, I think."
" ... it's not by him anyway."
"Unlikely, I agree," I say regretfully. But truthfully, because it is unlikely--the probability of its being by Sebastian Vrancz is about the same as for the green-cheese theory of lunar geology. My truthful reply's part of an outline policy that's already begun to form in my head. I'm thinking: I'm not going to lie, but I'm not going to tell any unnecessary truths ... Mustn't think, though, mustn't think! But I am thinking, of course. In another long instant--long enough for the dogs to have got to their feet, and for all of us to have followed Kate and Tilda out into the hall at last--I've replanned my entire life.
I'm going to have the picture off him. This is my great project. I don't know how I'm going to do it, but do it I shall. On that central point I'm already absolutely clear.
"Another Rembrandt, perhaps," says Laura, as she fetches my coat.
"Hope you didn't mind us showing you the family snaps," says Tony, as he helps me into it.
"Not at all. Most intriguing. I only wish we could have been more helpful."
"You can't imagine what it's like," he says, "trying to sell something when you know bugger-all about it. All you know is that every man's hand's against you. You're the loneliest soul on earth."
He opens the great front door, and the dogs go bounding and barking away into the night. I look at him as we turn on the doorstep to make our farewells, and I suddenly feel sorry for him. There's a note of defeat in his voice. The water's still trickling softly from the broken gutter overhead, and the white paint on the door has been worn back to the bare oak over the years by the scratchings of the dogs. The wife beside him is in spirit off into the night already, like the dogs. His world's disintegrating around him, beyond recall or understanding.
"He thought you might know someone," says Laura. "Some expert on Giordano. Or even someone who might want to buy it privately. He always goes about things in some ridiculous back-to-front way."
The loneliest soul on earth is what he is. And he's just about to watch another of his possessions slip out of his grasp. If I can possibly contrive it. Because the second-loneliest soul on earth at this moment is me. We're alone together in the arena, the two of us, and I'm going to take him.
I feel a flash of pure savagery. I'm going to have his property off him. He can't make good his claim to it. It's written in a language he can't read, because the only language he can read in his necessity is money. If he knew what it was, he'd hold the world to ransom. And if the ransom wasn't forthcoming, he'd sell it to any money that presented itself--to a Swiss bank, an American investment trust, a Japanese gangster. It would vanish even deeper into the darkness, even further from the light of common day.
If fuel prices rose high enough, he'd sell it for firewood.
In any case, he owns it no more than I do. No one can own a work of art. You can own the oak, you can own the paint. You can't own the shimmer of the green, the comicality of the pouted lips, the departure of the ship.
So I'm going to have it off him. I'm not going to do it by deceit. I'm not going to stoop to the kind of methods he might use himself. I'm going to do it by boldness and skill, in full accordance with the rules of war.
I know how he despises me, and all the skills and connections of mine that he was hoping to make use of. I'm going to play the hand in what he regards as his strongest suit. I'm going to give him a lesson in the gentlemanly attributes of ruthlessness and style.
Change, as he so sententiously informed us, is the law of life. That, he's going to discover, includes change of ownership. It includes the fall of one class and the rise of another.
And immediately I'm terrified at the prospect of what I've committed myself to. I know I'm out of my depth. I can feel the waters closing above me.
I'm even more terrified, though, by his parting politeness, as he begins to shut the great door.
"I'll take your advice about the old girl," he says humbly. "I'll give Sotheby's a buzz."
I'd forgotten my appallingly sensible suggestion. In another lightning cascade of thought, I see the man from Sotheby's as he concludes his inspection of Helen and turns away--then turns back as his eye falls on the boarded-up fireplace beneath it ... And I find I've the first glimmerings of a plan of action in my mind, and on my tongue.
"Hang on for a couple of days first," I say with a little smile. "You're right--you'll be in a stronger position if you find out what the alternatives are. I might just possibly know someone who'd take a look at it for you."
We pick our way through the puddles to our car. The rain hasstopped, and the first true night of spring has hung the thinly clad branches of the trees with brilliant silver stars.
In a few seconds from now I'm at last going to be able to speak to Kate. Like a lover first breathing the name of his beloved, I'm going to release the secret burning with such sweet fire inside me.
But I don't. I don't say anything. We sit in silence as the car lurches and splashes down the drive.
The fact is that I'm still thinking fast. And what I'm thinking now is that I can't simply burst out with the amazing news. Not even to Kate. Least of all to her. She won't believe it. No one would. Not the most credulous of art lovers, not the most trusting of wives. And Kate's not the most credulous of art lovers or the most trusting of wives. As a specialist in the subject, she's committed to caution; as a wife, she's already skeptical of what she sees as my propensity to sudden wild enthusiasms. Her first thought will be that this is merely another of my fugues, another of my excuses for postponing work on the book. I'm going to have to be almost as circumspect with her as I was with Tony Churt. At the moment, I'm relying on memory, on a fortuitous interest in something well outside the tiny smallholding of knowledge I've begun to cultivate. Before I say a word to her, I'm going to have to do some careful research. I'm going to have to prepare a very fully documented case.
But why is she so silent? Is it just the awfulness of the evening we've sat through, transformed now for me in retrospect, but not of course for her? Is she irritated at my slowness in leaving? Wary of my embarrassingly excessive forthcomingness to Laura? Hurt that the Churts and I were exchanging fatuities over yet another second-rate painting instead of tweedling appreciatively over the extraordinary and beautiful child she was rocking on the other side of the room?
Or has she sensed something suspiciously noisy about my silence? I make haste to bring it to an end.
"Wow," I remark. "As our gracious hostess might say."
"What?" says Kate. Yes, something's eating at her; choosing not to understand is a bad sign.
"Them," I explain, though it's entirely unnecessary. "The house. The evening."
"What about them?"
Silence again. Heartbreaking, at a moment when we should be more united than ever in our identical reaction to the common enemy. Maddening, when I'm feeling so full of myself. Then, suddenly:
"What's all this about knowing someone who might look at the Giordano?"
Ah. So that's the problem.
"Nothing. Just trying to be neighborly."
"But you don't know anyone who knows about Giordano!"
"You'd never even heard of him before tonight."
I thought I had, of course. But then I also thought he was the composer of Andrea Chénier, so I hold my peace.
"Then how's that being neighborly?" she persists. "Telling them you know someone when you don't?"
"I might look around a bit. See if I can find them someone."
"Look around where?"
"The woodshed?" I suggest. "Behind the cooker?"
But she's not to be jollied out of her dissatisfaction. She knows there's something up. I might be able to conceal it from the Churts, but not from her. In any case, I can't keep down the rising tide of excitement inside myself. I have to provoke her curiosity with further maddening hints and feints. The mystery of the missing Giordano specialist serves as a metaphor of the real mystery.
"Actually," I say, "I think I may be on the right track. I might find a possible candidate knocking around the cottage somewhere."
I mean, of course, as I understand but she doesn't, that I shall be in the cottage--that I'm thinking of constituting myself as the helpful authority. This is the plan that I began to formulate on the Churts' doorstep. I haven't the slightest idea how I'm going to do it. An hour or two with a standard work of reference, obviously. But then? False beard? Dark glasses and foreign accent? Or could I somehow take the picture away for my supposed contact to examine in private? I explain that he's someone who doesn't want his identity known. It's true--he doesn't! But why not? What reason do I give Tony Churt?
Because he's a mystery purchaser. Yes. Everyone's heard of mystery purchasers. A purchaser is, after all, what Tony Churt had been hoping I might supply, and he won't be surprised if I find one who's a little shy of publicity. With good reason, perhaps. He's a king of the underworld, a capo with a taste for the corrupt grandiosities of the seicento. Something at any rate dodgy, even if not downright crooked. That should appeal to Tony Churt's fatal weakness for the devious. Particularly if this shady figure's offering top whack, cash down.
Kate refuses to investigate the mystery I've dangled in front of her. When we get home, she feeds Tilda in a marked manner, mother and daughter cocooned together in a silent physical communion to which I can never be admitted. The subject hangs in the air until Tilda's asleep again and we're getting undressed in front of the fan-heater.
"I know you like to be nice to everyone," she says concessively, hushed and perhaps softened by the presence of Tilda in her box beside the bed, "even if it doesn't always mean very much in practice. But if you're not careful, they'll invite us again."
Exactly. But all I say is: "I've put both hot-water bottles on your side of the bed."
A yet more disagreeable interpretation strikes her, even so. "You're not suggesting that we have to invite them back?"
"Good God, no," I say. This will be quite unnecessary. I hope. I want to be in and out of their house, not ours, the trusted local expertwho deals with unwanted works of art in much the same way that Skelton deals with the septic tank and the aperitifs, or the wonderful little man at the rectory with beating the bounds and comfort for the dying. Yes, I shall become another of their local little men. "I think I can get my drug baron to go a shade higher on Helen," I hear myself saying confidentially, not too many weeks from now. "You want him to take a look at your Double Dutchmen as well while I'm about it ... ?"
But there's a lot of work to be done before we reach that stage. Pretmakers, first of all. This is easy, because I keep a Dutch dictionary in the kitchen with my other Flemish reference books ... . Pretmaker, pretmakerij: Merrymaker, merrymaking. So that's what those solemn clumping figures on the hillside are up to! I can't help doing a little merrymaking myself at the thought.
The next stage is going to be more difficult, though. I have to find out everything there is to be found out about my merry folk and their creator. I have to be able to make an objective case that will convince Kate. We've brought with us all the research materials that either of us thought we could possibly need, but neither of us foresaw our work taking in this particular artist or this particular period. I have to get to libraries and bookshops. There are no libraries and bookshops in the middle of these muddy fields and dank woods. I have to return to the city that we've just abandoned for three months. I nerve myself. Things have got to get worse between us before they can get better.
I wait until my hand is on the switch of the bedside light.
"Will you drive me to the station in the morning?" I say. "A few odds and ends I've got to check. I'll be back in time to make dinner."
I wait just long enough for her to see the innocent straightforwardness in my expression. Then click--blackness--before the answering disappointment appears in hers. Silence. She turns away from me. She knows I've another bee in my bonnet, another excuse for backsliding.
It suddenly occurs to me for the first time that she perhaps thinks my new love is Helen. I laugh silently to myself in the darkness. Then I start to think of pretmakers, and the four of us this evening performing our own ponderous merrymaking on the local hillsides. I laugh again. But not even the unexplained shaking of the bed provokes her to investigate further.
I lie for half the night listening to the faint sounds from Tilda's cot, as she rises restlessly close to the surface of sleep, then sinks away into the depths again. I rise and sink myself, moving back and forth between nightmarishly confused excitement and horribly clear-headed second thoughts. By the time Tilda's fully awake and demanding her three o'clock feed, I'm not quite as certain as I was about my identification. I'm not certain about anything.
One dark and uninterpreted formulation recurs: the prologue is finished. The prologue to what? I don't know. To my new venture. To our marriage. To life itself. The pretmakerij is over. Now comes the serious part.
HEADLONG. Copyright © 1999 by Michael Frayn. All rights reserved.