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Tour de Force
By Christianna Brand
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1955 Christianna Brand
All rights reserved.
'Fasten your safety belts, please,' said the pretty air-hostess, walking alert as a fox terrier down the centre aisle. 'We're coming in to land.'
Inspector Cockrill looked out and down and saw nothing but a very small patch of grass which they were certainly going to miss and a very large building composed entirely of glass which they were quite certainly going to hit. The young woman on his right had immediately buried her face on his shoulder but this was no time for quixotic knight-errantry and he merely humped himself slightly away from her and gave himself over to prayer. The great rubber tyres bumped once upon the tarmac, bounced, bumped again, were still. Green to the gills, he shook off the clutching hands of the young woman, distastefully removed a long, curly red hair from the sleeve of his summer suiting and, as the aircraft began to taxi gently to its turning point, said with kindly pity: 'There's nothing to worry about. We've landed.'
'I don't mind when we're right at the top,' said the young woman, raising her head and looking at him gratefully out of large blue eyes in a face which, under a wealth of make-up, had gone exceedingly pale. 'It's when you begin to see the land and the little houses and things and realize that you are up.' She gave a sick shudder and half a dozen slick-looking feminine periodicals slid off her lap and down to the tilted floor of the aeroplane. She grabbed at them with one scarlet-taloned hand while with the other she continued to pick automatically at the sleeve of his coat. 'I'm so sorry. I seem to have moulted all over you, like a red setter.' In the bright Italian sunshine he squinted at the mouse-coloured end of one of the hairs and she amended ruefully, 'Well-like a setter.'
'All right, all right,' said Cockie crossly, aimlessly brushing at his sleeve. He left her and struggled out into the sloping aisle; and, stumping off across the landing strip to the little airport bus, he thought in despair: 'She's one of Them!' For Inspector Cockrill was setting out upon a Conducted Tour of Italy and ever since, his money being paid and withdrawal now impossible, he had received the assurance of the travel agency that he would find delightful friends among his fellow tourists, he had been contemplating their coming association with ever-increasing gloom. 'She and all the rest,' he thought. 'They're Them.'
'Goodness!' thought Louli. 'What a funny little man!' And fancy his having noticed so quickly about her hair. She thought it over rather wistfully, struggling down the aisle with her armload of slippery papers, trying to take her mind off the hideous feeling of sickness that heights always gave her. It was a brand-new rinse, and supposed to have been quite terrific. She had read about it in Vogue or somewhere: you applied it beaten up in yolk of egg and you could change your hair-colour half a dozen times a day if you wanted to, only the egg part was so revolting. She struggled into her place in the bus and all the magazines slid down to the floor once more. Scrabbling about under the seat for them, she noticed again that madly gay 'Billingsgate' stole. 'Beg a length of net from your fisherman friend down at Frinton,' commanded the caption, 'wash out excess tar, stitch gay white bobbles round the edge and wear thrown carelessly over your shoulder with an outsize straw hat.'
There was a picture of a young woman, taken in a London studio with a background of the Isle of Kerpree, wearing the net thrown over her shoulder. It was terribly dashing. She wished she had seen it sooner; before, in obedience to an earlier number of the same magazine, she had begged a red chenille tablecloth from her Edwardian aunt down at Bognor, washed out excess tea and ink stains, and stitched gay white bobbles round that. It was thrown carelessly over her shoulder at this minute and it really was dreadfully hot. She gave herself a shake to dislodge it and all the glossy magazines slid down to the floor again and shot under the seat in front as the bus started into action. Mr Cecil let go for a moment of his precious little red attaché case and stooped to pick them up.
Mr Cecil had noticed Louli already, at the airport in London. A wonderful figure for clothes; and she knew where to go for them, too – that vast circular skirt had not come off the peg and the white cambric off-the-shoulder blouse ('ransack the attics for Granny's old camisoles'), was the rage at the moment in all the Mayfair boutiques; he couldn't think where she could have found the stolo but that deep red was an inspiration with her colour of hair. 'My dear, do let me say that I think your stole's simply divine! Not Hartnell?'
'Oh, no,' said Louli. 'He did have some like it; but this one is real, it's my aunt's nursery tablecloth: I do think that's more fun.' The only thing about it was that it was frightfully hot.
'Oh, but worth it!' said Mr Cecil. He himself had forced, but forced, ducky, all his clients into Toile de Vichy this year, that heaven-blue faded cotton that one saw on all those touching ouvriers and people in France; but one did get a teeny bit sick of it by the end of the season. His clients? 'But I'm Cecil, dear, Mr Cecil, you know, of Christophe et Cie.' He gave a modest wriggle and surreptitiously tucked his passport further out of sight. It really was too inconsiderate of one's passport to blazon one abroad – literally abroad, thought Mr Cecil, giggling privately at his own joke – as Cecil George Prout. 'And you?'
'Well, I'm Louvaine Barker,' said Louli, going a little pink as she always did.
Mr Cecil couldn't get over it. He had thought her – what had he thought her? One of the Bright Young Cookies from Mayfair, eking out Daddy's allowance with tentative dabblings in the deplorable new cult of do-it-yourself? But – Louvaine Barker! 'My dear, I adore your books, I know them every one, positively bedside, I do assure you. Fancy – so distinguished! And you so young!'
'Twenty-nine,' admitted Louli ruefully. When you had been in the public eye for – yes, it was ten years now – there was nothing to be done but admit. 'Jolly nearly thirty: isn't it awful?'
'Wait till you're actually thirty-two, like poor me,' said Mr Cecil. Mr Cecil had been in the public eye for twenty-five years, but ho admitted nothing. He flung back a brassy forelock with a famous long white hand. 'Too exciting for any words, my dear, meeting the fabulous Barker in the – in the flesh.' He gave a tiny shudder; to Mr Cecil the flesh was something to be covered up as quickly as possible in Toile de Vichy. 'Do tell all about it, ducky, every single!' It was his latest affectation to leave unsaid any obvious terminals; catching on like wildfire it was, among the Mayfair cookies and such good publicity for Christophe et Cie, at any rate as long as they still had the decency to add 'as Mr Cecil would say!' Louli, to his great delight, caught on immediately like the good little cookie she was, and unspoken last words littered, or omitted to litter, her every sentence as, while the little bus bumped its way over the airport grass, she rapidly outlined the rise to fame – to distinguished fame as Mr Cecil had not untruly said – of Miss Louvaine Barker. 'My first book was when I was nineteen; my dear, you can't imagine what a little drear I was! My publishers often laugh over it now, the first time I went to see them and sat there ...'
Mr Cecil was beside himself with excitement. 'But yes, I've heard Cannington tell about it, he dines out on it to this day! Mum as a mouse you sat and they couldn't get a word out of you, they were in despair, too Charlotte Brontë for any!'
'My dear, I was petrified. Mouse? – I was complete mouse, mouse hair, mouse voice, mouse mind and goodness knows, mouse courage ...' But all that had changed, they had bought the first book and the reviews had been unbelievable; and then there had been a film and really and truly one did seem to have done a Byron and woken up one morning and found oneself famous. 'So then the mouse courage perked up a bit and the mouse mind followed, not to mention the mouse hair; and as for the mouse voice, let them lead on the whole of Debrett, I just natter away and couldn't care less. I mean,' corrected the neophyte, loyally, 'I couldn't care.' She rattled on and on; she had told it so often that she knew it by heart, the words fell into place without conscious effort from her mind. Her mind ...
Her mind could be given over to wondering, as she had wondered ever since they had left the London airport, about the man sitting three seats ahead of them.
The bus stopped at the great glass doors of the airport building and Leo Rodd was up and out before the rest of them and humping himself up the shallow steps with an exaggerated wrench of the right shoulder to propel him forward. He wished he had not come on this idiotic trip: thrusting himself into a whole new world which would gaggle at him and be sorry for him because he had only one arm – a whole new world to fall upon him and fawn upon him and wonder if he had 'lost' the other one in the war and refuse to believe him when he said, spitting it out at them with bitter venom, that no, indeed, dear lady, he had lost it falling off a bicycle one day in a country lane. Helen, his wife, walked beside him, tall, slender, elegant, wearing her air of quiet dignity like a queen; patient, considerate, silently sympathetic, relentlessly kind: carrying his brief-case as well as her own travelling bag, of course – because of his arm. 'Well, she will do it,' he thought. 'I can perfectly well carry the bloody thing myself but I just can't go through another scene about it.' There was nothing in the case but a score of the Scriabin Nocturne – Arranged for the Left Hand – and a bottle of Scotch in case there was none to be found in the wilds of Italia. Helen said, glancing back across her shoulder: 'Here she comes: I don't think we're going to escape her.'
'Here who comes?'
'The one you call The Bosoom.'
'Well, why should we want to escape her?'
'I thought you disliked her, that's all,' said Helen. Her arms ached with the weight of the two bags but she gave no sign of it.
'Of course I dislike her,' he said irritably. 'I dislike all women with dyed red hair and plastic nails and rubber brassières. And what's more she's been fluttering her false eyelashes at me all the way over, longing to be womanly, no doubt, about my arm. But we can't run away from her all over Italy.'
'Perhaps she's not coming with us.'
'Don't kid yourself! She and the rest of them – every last one of them's on this blasted tour of yours.'
'No tour of mine,' she said laughing.
'You don't suggest that I wanted to come?'
'My father just thought ...'
'I wish to God your father would leave me alone. I don't ask him to be for ever getting into a flap about my mental health.'
Helen's father was in a flap about his daughter's mental health and nobody else's. 'He only suggested that Italy would be a good place because we can fiddle some money here.'
'Because you can fiddle some money. I haven't got any money – not any more.'
'Oh, well,' she said, 'money doesn't matter. There's lots for two. And he just thought we might like a jaunt ...'
'On a "conducted tour",' said Leo. 'Dear God. And look at them!'
They were very much like the members of any other conducted tour: thirty of them – gay ones, jolly ones, vulgar ones; refined ones looking down upon the jolly ones and hoping they wouldn't whip out funny hats and shame them at the advertised 'first-class hotels'; inexperienced ones who never could make out whether you called this place Mill-an or Mil-ann, experienced ones who phased them all by calling it Milarno and furthermore talking about Firenze and Venezia and pronouncing the island of San Juan el Pirata, San Hoowarne; robust ones who drank water out of taps and confounded the experienced ones by not going down with bouts of dysentery, anxious ones who refused all shellfish, raw fruit, and unbottled beverages and went down with dysentery before they had even started. ... Pretty ones, plain ones, down-right repellent ones ...
Mr Fernando met them just inside the glass doors, wearing an enormous label to show who he was. 'Permit me, I introduce myself, Fernando Gomez, your courier, late undergrad St John's College, Cambridge University ...' He was a Gibraltarian, five foot four inches high and very nearly as broad, tapering off, however, into narrow hips and infinitesimal feet which in turn tapered in ornamental brown and white shoes. 'Permit me, I introduce myself ...' He was radiant. His hair shone with brilliantine, his smile shone with gold fillings, his hands shone with polished nails and chippy little diamond and ruby rings; his eyes above all shone bright with enthusiasm and friendliness behind a pair of enormous yellow sun-glasses, keeping a sharp lookout for the one with the Park Lane address. 'Happy to see you all, happy to welcome you, come all this way, please, we flash through the customs in a jiffy and the coach will be waiting outside. Then a jolly lunch in the town, a glance at the Duomo and off to the Riviera and stay there to-night. Miss Trapp, please, which is Miss Trapp? Miss Trapp, I introduce myself, Fernando Gomez, your guide ...' Miss Trapp was the one with the Park Lane address. It was curious that she should wear a hat wreathed in withered brown brussels-sprouts and for a moment his confidence in her identity failed him; but he took off the sun-glasses and saw that the brussels-sprouts were red roses, really, and expensive red roses at that. 'Come this way, please, Miss Trapp. I see you through the customs myself, we are through in a jiffy!' He picked up her suitcase himself, not waiting for a porter. It weighed half a ton but it was of solid crocodile leather and monogrammed in gold.
Mr Cecil was enraptured. He felt like a sheep, he cried to Louli in his gay, high voice as they lined up to go through the customs room: queueing up to be dipped. And his eyelashes fluttered like butterflies in the wind, for this wonderful Fernando had shoulders like a boxer and did seem a perfect pet! But he had somehow got separated from what he called his attashy case and he was distressed about that, so afraid it might be feeling lonely and bewildered, poor thing, and feeling the heat.... With a thousand like fancies he beguiled the waiting flock while Fernando dashed up and down their ranks like a sheepdog, sorting out baggage and owner, guiding both to a vacant spot at the customs counter, leaving them triumphantly there and dashing back for another pair. 'At any moment,' said Louli, 'you expect him to lie down full-length with his nose on his paws.'
'If only he'd put his silly paws on Little Red Attashy Case!'
'You seem in a flap about it,' said Louli. 'What's in it?'
There was nothing in it, Mr Cecil said, but drawing-paper and a few coloured pencils. This trip was not merely for pleasure, one was leaving the tour at Rome with a sheaf, but a sheaf one hoped, of scribbles inspired by the sunshine of Italy and San Hoowarne; and these would be finished off in the studio of one's Friend in Rome and shown at the exhibition of dress design there in the autumn; meanwhile, being executed in a thousand different exquisite materials for the coming London season. Mr Cecil was quite madly excited about it all and correspondingly worried about the attaché case; but when it turned up at last, he seemed oddly anxious that the customs officials should not see the paper and pencils. 'You wouldn't get it through for me, ducky? Sangwidged in between all those Vogues and things, it wouldn't show at all.'
'Oh, do you say sangwidged too?' said Louli, delighted. Mr Cecil, who knew no other way of saying it, was mystified but let it go.
The coach waited, true to Fernando's promise, outside the airport and there was a splendid confusion as they all found their seats, for the agency at home had blandly promised each of them a place in the front row, and Mr Fernando, moreover, was holding the seating plan upside down. 'This single seat in front by the driver is kept free in case anyone may be sick on the journey ...'
Everyone immediately assured him that in all likelihood they would be sick during the entire trip, a promise which with several of them was only too faithfully kept. 'Now, in the front here, please – Miss Trapp; here, Mrs Jones ...'
Excerpted from Tour de Force by Christianna Brand. Copyright © 1955 Christianna Brand. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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