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The Monkey at the Temple Door
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In the week after they went south from Kandy to the white-stone villa behind the government building at Colombo, a change came over Mrs Kirkpatrick. The few words of Sinhala which she had thought suitable for use in the hill country were quietly put aside; the copies of the Island News, with their rousing stories of cobras found lurking in lavatory cisterns, gave way to ancient volumes of Blackwood's; the King's portrait—rabbity, putupon, and quite unlike the man Mrs Kirkpatrick had once shaken hands with on the Sovereign's Lawn at Cowes—was taken out and fixed to the dining-room wall to watch them while they ate.
The rain fell against the villa's angular, sea-green windows and wreaked havoc among the frail terrace grass, but it could not wash these illusions away. They were as fixed and incontestable as title deeds, church bells, the view over the fields beyond Henley—all those things that Mrs Kirkpatrick imagined she had brought with her from England and was sometimes startled to discover that she had left behind.
Like many people who live by the will, Mrs Kirkpatrick's intransigence was uniquely her own: specialised and thoroughgoing. She was a tall, ungainly woman who thought her height an advantage and had never noticed the ungainliness, and had a curious, extravagant, sea-horse face which people would have made jokes about had Mrs Kirkpatrick been the kind of person about whom jokes are made.
Just now, accompanied by the butler, she was making a tour of the villa's reception-rooms. There were ransacked cabin-trunks all over the red-tile floor, and a giant cauldron that none of the servants could account for was lying in the drawing-room fireplace. Mrs Kirkpatrick had not liked openly to blame the Harrisons, their predecessors, for the cauldron, but as she went about her inspection she meditated a little note that could be sent with it up-country to Trincomalee. Outside, the late-afternoon sun was burning over the lawns, and the dwarf conifers had not stirred for twenty minutes.
Mrs Kirkpatrick had spent her life inventorying houses and knew exactly what to do. Greenly purposeful and studiously intent, she looked like a large, eager bird racketing through corn. The rooms fell away from her as she marched towards them; their ornaments dwindled into insignificance. It was only she who was real.
Alone among the servants, the butler had grasped the force of her personality. He brought a chair for her to sit on as she examined worn chintzes, shook his head over an elephant's-foot waste-paper basket that had begun to rot at the base, picked up the forgotten handkerchiefs that Mrs Kirkpatrick routed out from under chairs or beneath sun-blanched linen-cupboards. These, too, would be sent up-country to Trincomalee.
The villa had been built in the 1870s and was showing its age, but the Governor General had sent up a box of ice, and the cook spoke English, and Mrs Kirkpatrick thought she had got the best of the bargain.
Twenty feet above her, from the vantage point of a cane chair set at right angles to the open window, Cynthia sat looking out over the garden. She liked gardens, finding them restful and invigorating but also full of interest: the moral equivalent of a painting by Claude Lorrain she had once seen in the National Gallery. From below, her mother's voice could be heard saying something about a defective curtain-rail, but by an effort of will she managed to banish it from her mind.
The garden, which had not perhaps been very well designed, was divided into four quarters: a silent, hoopoe-haunted lawn, a variegated clump of rhododendron bushes leading to a series of ornamental ponds, and the line of miniature fir trees. At first she had thought it empty, but now, looking closely at the rhododendron bank, she saw a native servant with a watering-can moving stiffly through the jungle of flowers. From below, the voices of her mother and the butler broke urgently out of the silence again, like static from a radio, and then fell away.
She was a tall, thin, pale-faced girl of twenty-one who, although she had been spoiled since birth, frequently told herself that she had not had much of a life. Sometimes she thought she would like to mannequin in one of the big department stores in Oxford Street, and at other times she thought she would like to be an undergraduate at Cambridge and bicycle to lectures in a black stuff gown, but as neither of these things seemed likely to happen she was forced to find solace in scenery.
The gardener had disappeared into the flower-jungle, and she thought about the sea at Bentota, the warm scent of the Indian Ocean and waves that were one moment green and the next blue, and the next some odd compound that words could not express. Then, quite unexpectedly, they were swept away by other things: autumn bonfires burning in the Oxford college gardens; the bright red buses cruising down Regent Street; smoke in a pale sky; and she wondered how lost that old England was to her and what might be the effect of seeing it again.
Twenty minutes later, on her way downstairs, she met her father coming up: linen-jacketed, white-trousered, and with a copy of Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant wedged under his arm. He was quite intellectual for a tea-planter and had once taken out a subscription to the New Statesman. A lizard, no bigger than a sardine, went scampering over the stair-rods and they watched it run.
'The Bannisters are at the Caradon, your mother says,' he told her. He meant to be kind, but he had a rather startled way of looking at her, as if she had been born into tragedy, spirited away from them at birth, and only recently coaxed back.
'I didn't think they were arriving so soon,' she said. The lizard's tail had not quite disappeared into the hole beside the air-vent. 'Do they like it at the Caradon?'
Mr Kirkpatrick tapped the copy of Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant with his forefinger. Perhaps Shaw had the answer. 'Your mother said the food was worse than ever, and one of the beds had betel-nut stains in it. At any rate, they're coming to dinner tomorrow.'
'Nobody ever has a good time at the Caradon,' Cynthia suggested, adding the news of the Bannisters coming to dinner to other contingencies that would need dealing with: the copy of The Constant Nymph that had turned up again in the Government House library, and the letter she had been meaning to write to her cousin Harriet in Perthshire. The implications of the Bannisters' visit she ignored. They could be addressed later.
'They say Bannister's selling that estate of his,' Mr Kirkpatrick said. He looked even more startled, as if he had been struck by lightning. 'I can't say I blame him, in the circumstances.'
Ceylon was not all it had been to Mr Kirkpatrick.
They tried one or two other exchanges of this kind, but their hearts were not really in it. After a bit she left him on the stairs, with their odd protrusions of light and shade, and the sun burning through the bottle-green windows, and went on down into the body of the house.
The worst thing about living in the East, she thought, was that everyone always spoke as if they were in a play by Noël Coward. There was no getting away from this. Even the lowliest colonial official acted up to his part, and a request to send the bearer with a chit was uttered as if it needed a round of applause. Meanwhile the copy of The Constant Nymph had reappeared in the Government House library and the Bannisters were coming to dinner.
In the kitchen, low-ceilinged and shadowy, with fly-papers tacked to every available surface, Mrs Kirkpatrick was working herself up into belligerence. This was part of her myth. There were times when Cynthia wanted to explore the source of her mother's considerable grudge against the world and most of the people in it, but this was not one of them. Instead she waited until Mrs Kirkpatrick had stamped on a phantom cockroach and examined a piece of fish that lay under muslin on the chopping board.
Here, in the aquamarine light of the late afternoon, the kitchen was a depressing place. The copper pans and the roasting spits that hung on the far wall might have been implements of war, and Mrs Kirkpatrick's face and torso looked more sea-horse-like than ever, quite green and erect, aggressively balanced on her shiny, silk-covered legs. In the end she said, 'I really don't think you should wear that dress, Cynthia.'
'Why on earth not, Mother?'
This, it went without saying, was not the way to deal with Mrs Kirkpatrick. She required obliquity, or even outright dissimulation. Mr Kirkpatrick had once defused quite a serious argument about the decor of the Nuwara Eliya Club by claiming to have seen a mongoose asleep in the waste-paper basket.
Mrs Kirkpatrick could be quite subtle when she tried. 'Well, I don't think it's the sort of thing Henry would like to see you in.'
It was quite a good dress, bought in Maddox Street and brought with them on the boat the previous year.
'As if Henry cared what kind of dress anyone wore.'
'Well, of course I can't order you to wear anything,' Mrs Kirkpatrick said, with an attempt at mildness that fooled neither of them, and Cynthia, staring at her through the shadows, very nearly threw herself on her shoulder and told her that the dress would be cut into fragments that night. But Mrs Kirkpatrick was not the sort of woman on whose shoulder you could throw yourself.
After dinner a rather gruesome couple named Atherton, ancient cronies of Mr Kirkpatrick's, arrived to play bridge, and she sat on the least uncomfortable of the six cane chairs and ate mangosteens out of a paper bag without caring where the juice went.
Twenty feet away the four grey heads bobbed gamely through the shadows. The conversation, it occurred to Cynthia, was orchestral: stray themes taken up here and there, abandoned and renewed, sometimes erupting into crescendo; like listening to some very bad musicians play an even worse symphony. When she could bear it no longer she went out into the dense, blue garden and thought about the Bannisters, and Henry, and their implications for her emotional well-being, and the possibility that a rule she had followed as a young girl about trying to keep the things that really mattered to you at one remove might now have to be broken.
A few pale lights from the army camp had sprung up in the distance, and the remoter parts of the garden seethed with vagrant nocturnal life. When she went inside her face seemed paler than ever and Mrs Kirkpatrick looked up from the bridge table and said, 'Gracious, Cynthia. Have you been crying?'
'No, Mother, I haven't.'
'Well'—triumphantly—'you've spilled mangosteen juice down the front of your dress.'
'Have I? Oh, bother.'
'You'd better let me tell them to get some hot water and lemon.'
Long months later, whenever anyone asked her what it had been like in Ceylon, she would always say: Oh, it was quite fun, in a way, only it was terribly hot, you know, and the grass seeds got inside your stockings and you were always ruining dresses. But this was not said with any conviction.
The Athertons left at ten, whereupon the household went to bed in a frenzy of groaning teak-boards that took an hour to subside, and she found herself sitting up late under the oil lamp, while the scarab beetles blundered into the grille-mesh of the window frames, writing the letter to Harriet.
So you can see, given how Mummy usually feels about men—you remember how rude she was to Johnnie Allardyce after we came back late from that dance?—that it's rather odd when she starts pimping for Henry Bannister. If Harriet didn't know what 'pimping' meant, she could look it up in the dictionary. The wax Victorian dolls, with their crinolines and bustles and stagnant blue eyes, simpered at her from the dressing-table as she wrote.
There was not a great deal to do at the villa during daylight hours. In fact, there was not a great deal to do at any time. The garden, which had been cool and mysterious by night, turned hot and noisy, and the bougainvillea burned so bright in the sunshine that it might have been overlaid with poster-paint. Mr Kirkpatrick went off to see his broker at Galle Face Green. Mrs Kirkpatrick had herself driven to Madame Bandaraike's salon in Barnes Place, where the assistants had names like Evangeline and Margot and spoke in passable imitations of Home Counties accents. There were times when the mock-familiarity of the East was agreeable. All too soon, though, these dusty approximations of the real thing began to grate.
Cynthia found she could dispel the thought of the Bannisters, which would otherwise have oppressed her, by concentrating on the routines of the day. In this spirit she played three sets of tennis on the cinder court at the back of Government House with a son of one of the attachés who was waiting to go out to Burma to join the Imperial Police, and—rather wilfully, for she knew her mother would have disapproved—went to the Pettah for a brace of pineapples, and it was only as she turned into the villa's driveway at six o'clock, with the gravel rasping under her sandals, and her fingers leaving four whorled, indelible marks on the cover of The Constant Nymph, which she had borrowed from the library, that the enormity of what her mind had been keeping from her struck home.
But there was no getting away from it. There was the Bannisters' car—it was an antique Armstrong Siddeley with the top taken down—and there, though currently invisible, were the Bannisters. The uneasiness that had been with her in the early part of the day came barrelling back, and she remembered a film she had once seen that the villa's frontage seemed perfectly to reproduce—the car sending up black, elongated shadows, the native servant attending to the dust-piles on the step.
A more resourceful girl, she thought, would have snapped her fingers and made the scene disappear, discovered some more authentic life in the heat that sprang from its ashes. But she was not that girl, and so she stepped indoors, left the bag containing the pineapples on the trestle table in the hall, went upstairs to change into a print frock that made her look like a schoolgirl, and by degrees descended to the drawing-room where her parents and the Bannisters sat in conclave.
'I believe I heard that Ronald Reagan was staying at the Galle Face,' Mrs Bannister pronounced, with a certain amount of sarcasm, as she came into the room. 'Now, who would he be?'
'A film chap, isn't he?' Mr Bannister offered, looking keenly at his hostess. 'That's who he is. A film chap.' But there was no point in appealing to Mrs Kirkpatrick. Disdain of popular culture was a central tenet of her myth.
'And here's Cynthia,' Mrs Bannister said, with an indescribable attempt at archness, and a slight air of surprise, as if Cynthia had arrived wearing a Pierrot costume. 'My dear, you're looking frightfully well.' There was a faint suggestion that Ronald Reagan had been rather too easily given up and might have to be returned to later. 'Isn't she looking frightfully well, Gavin?'
'Frightfully well,' Mr Bannister confirmed, with what appeared to be no interest at all.
The Bannisters' amiability, their conversational brightness, their feigned unworldliness—Mrs Bannister knew all about Ronald Reagan—was deceptive, Cynthia thought, for they were, at heart, sinister people. Brought together in the Kirkpatricks' drawing-room, they might have been a triptych of Egyptian deities—Horeb, say, and a couple of his satellites—zealously guarding the entrance to the underworld.
Mrs Bannister was a gaunt, stringy, curry-complexioned woman, the highlight of whose life had been to give birth to her elder daughter in a dak bungalow seventy miles short of Rangoon, attended by a Chittagongian midwife who spoke no English. Mr Bannister, who sat in Parliament for one of the Sussex constituencies, said less but arguably had to be watched more. Henry had come to ground a little away from the others, with his legs crossed so awkwardly at the knee that they might have been tied together with string, inspecting the garden with the air of one who would do some pretty serious things with its arrangement if given the chance.
Excerpted from The Windsor Faction by D. J. Taylor. Copyright © 2013 D. J. Taylor. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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Posted September 29, 2013
Posted January 14, 2015