- Knopf Publishing Group
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- 6.14(w) x 8.56(h) x 1.24(d)
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As a child, my parents and the parents of other children I met were part of the same social group; and every time anyone came back from a party in Paris, or wherever, we asked, "How was it?" And they answered, "It was absolute heaven, my dear, absolute heaven." It was the phrase ringing in one's ears. And I thought of calling this book Absolute Heaven, even though a lot of life in the 1920s and '30s in England wasn't heaven, but the opposite, some difficult and bad times in the rotten years leading up to World War II. I haven't finally decided on that title yet, it'll be a long time before I have to. I'm lazy.
Tomorrow was often a day to be afraid of, because my grandmother, with whom I lived, although witty and whimsical, was also unpredictable and sometimes became fearfully angry. What would be expected of one tomorrow night might not be made known until it was nearly over, and by then one could have become, yet again, a disappointing and even a wicked boy.
On this particular tomorrow I had become wicked before it was even half over. Exiled and in disgrace, still shocked by her reaction to what I had said to her at lunch, I stood alone in the dank greenhouse, watching the tunnels at the back of the spiders' webs. The webs were horizontal, thick and dusty. The tunnels were dark. To make happen there what I was about to make happen, was to ward off anxiety. Much that I did alone had become secret.
Today I was alone in a sense more than usual. My mother and father were indeed alive and about-my mother vividly so-and sometimes came to see me, usually from America or France. Otherwise, except when my cousin Virginia came to stay, I was alone withmy grandmother and my governess, Constance. I was eight years old. My grandmother's house was the only one I could think of as somewhere I "belonged"-and even that involved a question.
On that day, because of what I had said at lunch-and because, for a child, of the uninformed disquiet that lay between fear and curiosity-the question loomed larger. I should have known better, of course, but even on the warmest of summer days one was never quite sure of what was going to happen.
This was winter.
During lunch I had told my grandmother, Lady Tree, that she was ugly. We called her "Mameena," and-meaning to compliment her when, as I supposed, she contorted her face because she was about to imitate somebody-I had said, "Oh, Mameena, you are ugly!"
I had said it with a smile and was therefore all the more shocked at being ordered in a voice thundering with rage, which I had seldom heard before, to go out into the garden and stay there. "And then, may I come back?" I asked. "Perhaps never!" she said with another crack of thunder.
My grandmother, widow of the famous actor-manager, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, had been a schoolteacher; and then, through him, had become an actress of no great fame. But she was famous all the same, as a wit, a mimic, a woman on constant display. In a moment of silence during lunch, she had momentarily lifted her chin, jutted it forward and scratched at the stretched folds of her neck. Then she happened to catch my eye. I had naturally seen this as a performance, a grotesque imitation or ridicule of some famous figure, or friend, or both. Her imitation of Margot Asquith (wife of the Earl of Oxford and Asquith, until recently our prime minister), involved grimaces not unlike those she had just made.
Even Constance, my governess, so usually reasonable and on my side, had failed to see the matter as I saw it when she came to the greenhouse some forty minutes later, in search of repentance.
"Will you go indoors now and ask Mameena, very kindly, to forgive you?"
"Yes, but I want her to know why I said it. Then she won't have to forgive me, because I thought she was just being funny."
Constance shook her head and left-unfairly, I thought, because my grandmother was nearly always being funny. This was not just my opinion, but a well-known fact of English life since Edwardian days. Once, protesting Somerset Maugham's early departure from one of her supper parties in the Dome, Sir Herbert's apartment above His Majesty's Theatre, she had said: "But surely, Willie, you can at least stay and have coffee with us?" "No, Maud, I h-have to g-go to bed early-it's the only way I can hope to k-keep my youth." "But then why didn't you bring him?" said Lady Tree. "We love those kind of people!"
In those days my grandmother had been not only funny but beautiful. Now she was only funny; and I had apparently caused deep offense by thinking her funny when it was not her intention. After Constance left, I inspected the glass panes of the greenhouse again and found a fly, an old and dry but live bluebottle. I caught it, held it among one of the largest of the dusty spiders' webs, and dropped it. It had hardly touched the web when a huge spider, with a fierce tearing energy made even more frightening by its hunger and its eight thin legs, rushed out of the tunnel to seize the fly and drag it back in. In the greenhouse silence I could hear the dragging sound it made. As always, I was shocked by what the spider-and I-had done. But it was my betrayal of the fly, as well as the spider's ferocity and swiftness of execution, that shocked me. Mameena's sudden rage had been scarcely less appalling. I decided to apologize by saying that I thought she had intended to imitate Lady Asquith.
"Ah, that may well have been," said my grandmother forgivingly at teatime, when I had been allowed to make my reappearance. "But don't ever, ever let anyone know that you thought my imitation of Lady Asquith made her look ugly, dear! She used to be one of the most beautiful women in England. Some-though, alas, not her husband-think she still is." Lady Tree addressed this last tidbit to Constance, who glanced up gratefully from her darning needle. "One of the most beautiful," my grandmother continued, "and perhaps the most brilliant."
I had never heard Lady Asquith so described by my grandmother before, and suspected her of exaggeration. As if sensing this, she said to me, "Remember Lord Ribblesdale, dear?"
Today I remember this man, known as the Picturesque Peer, mainly because of his clothes. Sitting on a chair in the garden of my Aunt Viola's country house, he had worn a soft rakish hat, a long jacket buttoned only at the top, and underneath it a vest unbuttoned all the way down. I was five at the time, and thought him oddly untidy for a grown-up. Aunt Viola had said that he was the most beautiful man in England, but the man I saw was old, and his long face with its tracery of fine lines seemed made of cobwebs.
"Even Lord Ribblesdale," my grandmother said, "thought Margot Asquith one of the most beautiful women in England."
All very well, I thought, but because some people thought Lord Ribblesdale beautiful, did that mean he could pronounce Lady Asquith beautiful, with her horse's jaw and ferocious smile? And if so, was this-in my grandmother's phrase-the way of the world, dear? It was the answer she had given when I asked why women wore hats in church, and also when I asked why it was "improper" to serve egg dishes at dinnertime. On the other hand, when I asked why it was wrong to pour milk into the cup before the tea, she had said, simply, that it was "common."
Lady Tree's clothes, which were complicated, always seemed to be coming apart at some point: to one side below her bosom, or directly in front of her midriff.
"Coming apart, Mameena," was the warning I had been told to whisper to her when this happened, as it once did when we stood on the steps leading to the front door of a country mansion she hoped to rent for the autumn. Its owner stood above us, dressed in checkered jacket and mustard-colored vest, and looked down at her visiting card. "I'm awfully sorry, Lady Tree, but I'd really wanted a tenant who-well, who liked shooting and hunting and that sort of thing, you know."
Mameena took him up on it eagerly. "A hunting squire?"
"Yes, if you put it like that."
"I am he!" she said, extending her arms wide, with a gesture that parted silk over lace, in its turn parting to reveal the bare skin at my grandmother's middle.
The squire stared at her.
"Coming apart," I whispered.
The squire cleared his throat. "Yes, well, all the same, Lady Tree, I'm afraid I'll have to disappoint you."
Mameena turned back mournfully to our car, an Essex somehow not really big enough to justify being driven by a chauffeur.
Mameena had dark, symmetrical nostrils. I told my cousin Virginia that I believed she darkened them artificially. Although we were the same age, Virginia usually knew better and told me grown-ups never do that. "Shall I ask her all the same?" I wondered.
"Whatever you do, don't."
I didn't. And for fear of offending Mameena, I never asked why my morning lessons were always canceled on the day she heard the first cuckoo in spring. Not that Con's daily lessons were exacting, I only learned to read just before my ninth birthday. All the more vivid, then, were the readings out loud from Dickens every night, as I lay on the bear rug in front of the fire, scribbling block in front of me. All the more terrifying, too, when Mameena would "enact" in trembling tones the murder of Nancy by Bill Sykes. Or when tiny Great-aunt Harriet, so gentle and soft of voice, once came to visit and sat beside my bed to read by lamplight from a book called The Red Redmaynes, by Eden Philpotts, so bloodthirsty that when Mameena happened to overhear a particularly lurid passage, she ordered my great-aunt to stop at once. And forever.
Nowadays, in this age of murder, it is hard to understand how dreadful, how almost impossible it seemed to a child, living quietly in the countryside, that in real life anyone could commit a murder. Or how even more dreadful it seemed because, in those days, it happened so rarely.
A few years before I was born, as the press widely reported at the time, Police Constable Gutteridge had been shot in both eyes. The event was still spoken of in terms of such outrage that it seemed unlikely such a terrible thing would occur again in one's lifetime. As for the hushed, reverential tones in which the deaths of so many gallant soldiers in the recent Great War were mentioned, they only served to make it seem remote from any actual killings, let alone murder. In any case the War was something hard to conceive; it lay in a dark tunnel at the back of the imagination. It was an appalling event that seemed to have passed forever in the long hush following our "victory" in 1918, the year I was born, even though it was solemnized by two minutes of silence at eleven o'clock in the morning, on every November 11, for as long as I could remember.
My grandmother had been a widow since Sir Herbert died a year before I was born. I knew nothing of their marriage, and later, when I learned of its tribulations, it was only by an occasional anecdote or oblique reference. For instance, a slogan coined during the War had urged "respectable people," on account of food rationing and shortages, "to learn to stand in queue." When my grandmother was asked to explain the gap of several years between the birth of her second child, Felicity, and her third (my mother Iris Tree), her answer referred indirectly to Sir Herbert's notorious and prolific philandering. "By then," she said, "I had learned to stand in queue."
Her chief rival, and long-loved object of Herbert's affection, lived in a south London suburb across the Thames River. Mameena made light of her bitterness by never mentioning her by name. Instead, she called her, "Herbert's confinement in Putney." But although I never heard my grandmother speak openly of her bitterness, I was all too aware of her affectations.
I used to think it affected when she would call out, or rather sing out, "Water, tra-la-la!" to the twin red Irish setters, Sunset and Dawn, as the gardener filled their drinking bowls. The dogs responded instantly from somewhere in the paradisial grounds, bounded back to lap noisily, then raced off across the grass uplands and vanished over the horizon.
When Dawn was run over and killed by a car, we mourned her with slow, long tears; but Sunset soon forgot her, played and raced on.
There was a deep pool in the grounds, deeper and clearer in spring and summer, with water weeds and gliding newts. I learned to lie dead-still on its banks, observing the mottled black-and-green surface of its depths. At first you saw nothing, then perhaps a water beetle heading erratically downward, and then, as a darker outline on the mottled surface, the first oily-black newt would appear, wriggling upward, and finally exposing an orange belly as it rose and sipped the air before floating listlessly down again.
I used to find a worm, drop it in the water, and watch as it sank twisting to the depths. It lay there for only a moment before it was seized and dragged into darkness, carried off to invisibility by something invisible. My grandmother gave me a glass tank, where I planted water weeds and sand, and kept newts and water beetles. As I never closed the top, they could escape at will. And if the tank was empty of life in the morning, I never minded. The pond was the true wonderland, and when revisited at dusk, the most exciting place I knew.
One day, when my mother as well as Virginia had come to visit, we went for a picnic in the country. We had just settled down, and my mother had started to recite "Ode to a Nightingale," when a harsh voice suddenly interrupted her: "This is private property! Can't you read?"
A gamekeeper, stick in hand, wearing cap and leggings, glared at us as we sat among the bluebells with picnic things spread out all around us.
"We aren't doing any harm," my mother said calmly. She lay back, cigarette in hand, yellow stockings below her orange skirt.
"That's not for you to say, is it?" The gamekeeper pointed to a tree. "That sign there says, 'Private Property, Trespassers will be Prosecuted.' And it applies to all of you as well as the gypsies round here."
The gamekeeper glanced at my mother's stockings, which matched the yellow-gold helmet of her hair. She wore them, I decided, to attract the attention of strangers, and to draw particular attention to her legs. They were achieving both purposes now.
Meet the Author
Gavin Lambert is the author of five biographies—most recently, Natalie Wood—and seven novels, including The Slide Area, The Goodbye People, and Inside Daisy Clover. Among his screenplays are The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, Sons and Lovers, and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (the latter two were nominated for Academy Awards). He lived in Los Angeles until his death in July 2005.
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