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Rosamund Gilchrist is restless. She has lived her life so far in supporting roles: widowed third wife of the much older Anthony, a famous poet; mother of the enchanting Joss; daugther of eccentric divorced parents, and mistress of her neighbor, Thomas. But now that her comfortable, long-term affair has come to an end, she has to face facts—if she is ever to become more than a half-hearted painter, ever to have a man of her own or another child, she has to venture out of her sanctuary at home and tackle life head ...
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Rosamund Gilchrist is restless. She has lived her life so far in supporting roles: widowed third wife of the much older Anthony, a famous poet; mother of the enchanting Joss; daugther of eccentric divorced parents, and mistress of her neighbor, Thomas. But now that her comfortable, long-term affair has come to an end, she has to face facts—if she is ever to become more than a half-hearted painter, ever to have a man of her own or another child, she has to venture out of her sanctuary at home and tackle life head on.
Ingrid Walsh sat on a sofa staring at the fire. The sofa was sumptuously covered with antique shawls and hand-painted cushions, but wasn't at all comfortable. There was another sofa back to back with it, facing some work in progress and a table holding paints and brushes and various plastic containers. Her hostess sat comfortable and relaxed on a dark blue modern-looking chair.
`How did you meet him?' Ingrid asked. `Your late husband?'
`I contacted him when I was in my last year at Brighton Art College. I'd been very impressed by his poem, Seagull. Do you know it? The girl staring at the seagull and the poet staring at the girl. That's the painting I did of it.'
Ingrid looked up at where Rosamund Gilchrist was pointing; a large canvas, two figures in grey on a greenish-grey background, grey-whites, egg-shell whites, whites with sunshine behind, no seagull visible, but certainly wing-curves and clamour; a feel of sea and wind.
`Did he like it?' she asked.
Rosamund seemed non-committal. `Do you?'
`Very much. It seems incredibly mature for a student's work. How old were you?'
`Twenty-one, I suppose. Almost twenty-two. What are you writing?'
`Only what you've just told me. If you like I'll show you the article before it's published.'
`Really? No one else has ever done that.'
`You've had a bad time from journalists?'
`No, not really. The only things I've ever sold have been as aresult of their soppy articles — Poet's muse finds consolation in her painting.'
They smiled at each other.
`Did you illustrate any other of his poems?'
`No. For a while I didn't paint at all.'
`Simply a poet's muse?'
`Simply an art teacher. I needed to earn a living.'
`Where did you teach?'
`Liverpool. St Bartholomew's Comprehensive in Toxteth.'
For a moment they were both struck by visions of that different world. Here, the wide green valley lay silent beneath them, the only sounds the bleating of sheep and lambs in the distance.
`How long had Mr Gilchrist lived here?'
`He bought it in the late Sixties. It was once the village school, of course. It closed during some reorganisation; there were only eleven pupils here in the last few years — too few to be viable, I suppose. He had several visits from the last headmistress when he first came. She's dead now. I never met her. Her name was Dorothy Mason. She used to bring him home-made wine.'
`It's made a wonderful studio.'
`Yes. I feel guilty having it all to myself. I've advertised — had one or two artists come to view, but they felt it was too remote.'
`You must feel that too, don't you? From time to time?'
`Not really. We get bad weather up here, but I've got a van with four-wheel drive; I can generally get about.'
`Isn't it very lonely for your son?'
`He has friends living quite near. My mother's moved to one of the new houses in the village, so he stays with her occasionally. I suppose he will start complaining, but he hasn't yet. He's only nine.'
`Will he go away to school?'
`No, I'd be lonely without him ... I expect I'll have to drive him into town on a Saturday night when he's a bit older, but I'm sure it won't be too much of a problem.'
Ingrid looked at the drawings of Rosamund's son which were pinned up haphazardly on the wall between the piano and the fireplace, none of them framed. `Do you sell any of these?' she asked, surprising herself by the question, realising that she'd very much like to own one.
`No, I never have. This part of the studio is my sitting room. These are really my private things.'
`Doesn't it get very cold here in the winter?'
`Do you mean inside the house?'
`Not particularly. Anthony had two central-heating systems put in, oil and calor gas — he wasn't very robust. I don't usually bother with the log fire, that's just because you were coming.'
`It looks lovely. All this was done before you moved in?'
`Years before. It's nice, isn't it? Those cupboards are the original ones, where all the schoolbooks were kept. The blackboard would have been where the piano is now. There was a piano here, but over on that wall. I wish he'd bought it. This one seems too new.'
`Do you play?'
`Not well. An old school piano would suit my playing.'
Ingrid couldn't think what else to ask. Her article was meant to be on Rosamund Gilchrist's paintings, but it was Rosamund herself who interested her. She'd speculated about her for years. All Anthony Gilchrist's obituaries had ended with two sentences summing up his third marriage. `He leaves a wife and six month-old son. He was seventy-five.'
She looked again at Rosamund. He had been seventy-five. Well, it happened. Artists were more attractive and perhaps more virile than ordinary men — look at Picasso, look at Casals. Anthony Gilchrist looked a pretty shrivelled-up specimen, though, tall and dignified, but stern. She'd often watched him on television, but never with a flicker of sexual interest. What had Rosamund seen in him? A good studio, perhaps, and an escape from teaching.
`Listen,' she said, `I've got something to tell you. I've come here on false pretences. I do intend to write an article on your paintings, I think they're really good, but there is something else.'
`I thought there might be,' Rosamund said gently. `No one's been interested in my work since Anthony's death. So what are you after?'
Ingrid tensed. `I'm not after anything. I've just got something to tell you. My boyfriend works for one of the Sundays. And they've been offered a series of your late husband's poems and letters.'
There was only a second's delay. `Would that be from Erica Underhill?'
`That's right. You know her?'
`I know about her. I've never met her.'
`They're fairly ... well, pornographic apparently. I thought you should know about them.'
`Simply so that ... I mean, I simply wanted you to have time to prepare for the shock. It's bound to come as rather a shock, isn't it? At least now you'll have time to consider what to do about them. Perhaps you should get in touch with your solicitor or something. I didn't want you to get hurt.'
Rosamund stared at the fire and Ingrid studied the drawings of Rosamund's son and started to count them. There were twenty-two.
Rosamund got to her feet. `Did your boyfriend know you intended to warn me about the poems?'
`No.' Ingrid started to count the drawings again.
`You thought they'd shock me? Well, it was very good of you to warn me about them. That's all I can think of to say. And now you really needn't do anything about my paintings. You've done your good deed.'
Ingrid stood up and faced her. `I've been commissioned by Country Homes to write a four thousand-word article about them with five or six photographs. I'd like to examine them now. Will you tell me something about them, please?'
They walked to the far end of the long room. `Well, that's Seagull hung up there in the place of honour. I've already told you about that. I didn't paint another for three or four years. Not until I finished teaching and came to live here. The others are mostly of these hills and this valley.'
`This is lovely, this little one. Wonderful sky, wonderful colours. How can I possibly describe this? "Cool greens, warm purple and gold, the gentle hills of summer,"' Ingrid wrote in her small red notebook.
`I have read the poems, you know.'
`You have? That's a relief. I needn't have mentioned it then. But I'm glad I did.'
`So am I. He was obsessed by Erica Underhill for several years, but not to the extent that he'd send her the only copies.'
`Where are yours?'
`In the bank. He wanted them to stay there for twenty years after his death. Then I'm to release them for publication.'
`Why the delay? Did he tell you?'
`His second wife was still alive and I suppose he didn't want to upset her. I suppose he felt he'd given her enough grief.'
`Is she still alive?'
`As far as I know. Yes, I'm sure she is or I'd have heard.'
`There's a son, too?'
`Yes. Alex Gilchrist. Also his wife, Selena, and two children. Teenagers now, I should think.'
`Has his son read the poems?'
`I shouldn't think so. They weren't very close. But I don't know.'
They moved towards another series of small paintings. `My Cubist period,' Rosamund said. `Mercifully short. You're welcome to note the influence of Cézanne. This one should be called, After Cézanne. A Long Way After.'
`It's good. Don't knock it. People take you at your own valuation ... Do you ever come up to London?'
`No. Haven't been for three or four years.'
`Do you have a boyfriend?'
`No. If you'd asked me a week or so ago, I might have said yes.'
`What happened? Your secrets are safe with me.'
`I thought you were a journalist. Oh, the usual thing. His wife found out ... This one's called Anthony's Gate. Not even up to my usual mediocre standard, but I thought someone might buy it because of the association.'
`Is that where he proposed to you?'
`No. Where I sometimes posed for him.'
`Did he paint?'
`No. Just looked.'
`Poet's muse. Botticelli's Venus.'
`Botticelli? That's a nice change. Pre-Raphaelite is the usual description.'
`Not at all. Those heavy women; all eyes and goitres. Not you at all ... So, you used to take your clothes off and sit on this gate?'
`Or astride it. You're not writing that down, are you?'
`Definitely not. And don't give anyone else that sort of detail, please, or you'll have a most unsuitable mob of journalists after you. "The five-bar gate leading to a sheep-run with the drop of the valley behind it, was one of her late husband's favourite views and called Anthony's Gate in his honour." Right?'
`Right. And these are the most recent. All painted in the last twelve months.'
`These are different again, aren't they? Much darker. This one is almost a nightmare scene, isn't it? "A wickedly dark sky, a peeping moon, the gate swinging on its hinges." Is it the same gate?'
`Yes, the same gate. But I can't comment, really. I seem to be seeing the world differently now, that's all ... You've written all that down, haven't you? I didn't mean you to.'
`You were careful not to reveal much. "I seem to be seeing the world differently now," simply implies that you're older. Or at least less young.'
`And the world does seem to be growing darker.'
`This one is very impressive. "The valley has a claustrophobic air; the trees are human arms, waving for release." How do you feel you've developed?'
`I don't know what's happened or why. I look at the landscape much more than I used to. And I suppose one gets to a point where one sees one's own life reflected in it. I don't know. I don't have any theories about anything.'
`Tell me something about your life since your husband's death.'
`Would you like to come for a walk — as far as the head of the valley? We could talk as we go. I can lend you some boots.'
`That would be great. Cheers.'
Rosamund led Ingrid into the kitchen which, along with an adjoining bathroom, had been converted from the second, smaller schoolroom. It looked like a normal country kitchen; an Aga, a pine table, dresser. Unlike the studio which was twenty feet high, the kitchen had a low ceiling, the open staircase behind the range leading to three bedrooms created from the roof space.
`I'm sorry I haven't offered you any tea. We'll have tea and cake when we get back.'
They went through the kitchen to a long, low cloakroom.
`This was the original school cloakroom. I often wish Anthony had left the partitions and the little pegs. Sometimes I can almost smell wet coats and hats and boxes of plimsolls. Isn't this a pretty window? Almost like a church window. If naughty children were sent out here they'd at least have a lovely view. The lavatories were over there by the rowan tree. Anthony had them taken down because they obscured the view. The children used to say, "Please can I go across the yard?" when they wanted to go to the lavatory.'
The boots Rosamund found for Ingrid were much too big for her, but she fetched her a pair of thick hand-knitted winter socks to fit inside them.
We look a strange pair, Ingrid thought as they started out. Dirty wellingtons didn't look too out of place with Rosamund's floral dress and beige cardigan; if she'd been carrying an ancient-looking pail, she'd have passed as a milkmaid in a Laura Ashley catalogue. But she, in a long-sleeved black dress, tight-skirted with side vents, and round black-framed glasses, looked ridiculous in her over-sized green boots.
For a time they didn't talk at all, Ingrid finding it more and more difficult to keep up with Rosamund who had a large stride and was used to hill country. Ingrid did very little walking.
`Here we are,' Rosamund said, slowing down at last. `This is the highest point and the best view. I often paint from here. Shall we cross the stile and go down?'
`No. I'm out of condition; tired already. I'm going to sit here for a moment. This is like looking at another of your paintings. But even more representational, I suppose.'
`I can't get away from this damned landscape. It's here, it's on my doorstep, so I feel I must try to get to grips with it, all its moods and rhythms.'
`"I feel I must get to grips with it, all its moods and rhythms",' Ingrid repeated, a hint of mockery in her voice.
`It may sound pretentious, but that's what I feel. Most of the time anyway.'
`What about the rest of the time?'
`I'd like to stop messing about and have more children. Two more at least.'
`Who knows. A handsome stranger may turn up some day.'
`What's your son called?'
`Joss. Have you got any children?'
`No. I don't think I want any. Lots of my friends, all career girls, got broody when they reached thirty, but I haven't. And I'm thirty-five now.'
`So am I. I thought you were about my age.'
`Thirty-five last month,' Ingrid said.
`And me! What date?'
`Oh, I'm on the nineteenth. I thought we might be twins.'
They laughed together like schoolchildren. What's your favourite colour? What's your lucky number? Can I be your best friend? was in both their minds; the questions eight-year-olds ask in order to get to know each other — and themselves. They were both silent for a few moments.
`Well, what else do you want to know?' Rosamund asked at last.
`That sounds as though you want to get rid of me.'
`Not at all. Joss is going to my mother's after school today to give us more time together.'
`What more do you want to tell me? I've got pretty well enough for my article now. I'll let you have a look at it before I send it in.'
`Why don't you bring it here and stay for the weekend?'
`Lovely idea. But ...'
`You have better things to do.'
`No. I'd love to come again sometime. But not next weekend. I'm flattered to be asked, though. Thank you.'
`You could bring your boyfriend with you, if you'd like to.'
`No, I'd rather come on my own. Soon ... Listen, there's a bit more than I've told you. About those letters, I mean.'
Rosamund glanced at her, but made no response.
`Ben's paper didn't feel they could publish either the poems or the letters as they stand. They're a respectable paper and it's not the sort of thing they do.'
`So she went to the other sort?'
`No. They suggested that to get the sort of money she obviously felt she should be entitled to, she'd have to get her autobiography published, which could, of course, include the poems and letters. Following that, the paper could pay her for certain extracts from the book.'
`That seems a pretty roundabout way of doing things.'
`It's the way it's done, apparently. And the thing is, Ben, as the one who first answered the phone to her, or at least the first one to take her seriously, was the person she chose to ghost her autobiography for her.'
`I see. But, no, I don't quite see what it's got to do with me.'
`It's just that I don't want to keep anything from you.'
They walked on in silence for a minute or two. `I don't know,' Rosamund said, then, `but I find it difficult to believe that you haven't any ulterior motive in all this.'
`Well it would help Ben if he had your good will; I suppose I'm aware of that.'
`Why? I've never even met Erica Underhill. It all happened thirty years before I got to know Anthony. I could be of no help.'
`But you must still have some of his private papers and so on.'
`Did he ask you to sound me out on all this?'
`No. It was he who suggested I should try to get a commission to write about you, but I think that was simply for my sake. Because I've been short of work lately. I don't for one minute believe he'd think me capable of being much help to him.'
`He sounds a real bighead,' Rosamund said. `Let's go home and have some tea.'
`The thing is, you've always intrigued me,' Ingrid said, after they'd walked another few yards. `Ever since reading your late husband's obituaries — with the inevitable photograph of the two of you with your baby son. I knew we were about the same age and I was extremely curious about you. I wanted to get in touch with you then, but I couldn't think of any excuse — I wasn't even a journalist at that time. I was obsessed by you for months, and when all this came up, I could hardly believe it and couldn't bear the thought of you being hurt by the letters,'
`And it was simply a coincidence? Your boyfriend getting involved with Erica Underhill?'
`Absolutely. He works in the newspaper's features department and by chance her call was put through to him. When he told me about it a few days later I was able to tell him something about you; that you were an artist, and so on. And that you were still young, only about my age.'
`I can't see why you were so struck by that. Lots of girls marry much older men.'
`Not these days. Not unless they're multi-millionaires, anyway. You can't have been in love with him ... Oh, I'm sorry!'
`That's all right.'
`But I mean, you were twenty-four, twenty-five or something when you got married and he was over seventy. You were an art student when I was at University. How could you have given it all up? I mean, going to gigs and parties, trying out men, all that tremendous ... fun?'
Ingrid's voice faltered. Rosamund was striding ahead; she wondered if she was even listening to her.
Was there a definite reason, Rosamund asked herself. There was certainly a man I was madly in love with in my first year. And when it didn't come to anything, I lost my confidence, I think, what little confidence I had. I suppose I really floundered after that, afraid of any commitment. And that was it really. No, I didn't have much fun.
`I'm sorry,' she said, slowing her steps. `You asked how I could have given it all up. I'm not sure I ever had very much to give up.'
`But why?' Ingrid asked, almost aggressively. `You're very attractive. You seem very normal. I mean, what was the matter with you? That you opted out at twenty-four? It worries me. I mean, why?'