Justin's Haythe's remarkably assured debut, The Honeymoon, has been compared to the work of Ford Madox Ford and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Set in London and Venice at the end of the twentieth century, The Honeymoon follows a young man as he looks back on a series of events that have caused his life to unravel. Traveling through the capitals of Europe with his eccentric mother Maureen, American born Gordon Garraty has led a life of barren privilege. Only after marrying Annie, several years his senior and the daughter of a North London cab driver, does Gordon begin to emerge from the sphere of his mother's influence. Accompanied by Maureen and her Swiss fiancé, Annie and Gordon finally take a long-delayed honeymoon in Venice but find that the brilliance of the city seems to distort rather than illuminate. The story gathers a palpable intensity before a single act of absurd but devastating violence pricks their happy bubble and lays bare the emptiness at the core of their gilded lives. A deeply observant and beautifully crafted tale, gently funny and tender in equal parts, The Honeymoon marks the debut of a compelling new writer.
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By Justin Haythe
Grove Atlantic, Inc.Copyright © 2004 Justin Haythe
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOn a nice day, we used to go out as if we were going out for a night on the town. I sat on the bed and watched her dress the way she thought a French woman would dress: a thin blue sweater, yellow linen trousers with a zip on the side, a hat for the sun. Light from the window fell at her feet. Her hair was folded up beneath her hat, a few loose strands dabbing at the nape of her neck as she leaned down to put on her shoes without bending her knees.
We spent our afternoons in the museums; our mornings in the park across the street. The leaves on the branches were swollen with sunlight. All across the park, the trees staggered with the weight. We walked around the empty pond, along the gravel path and through the flower beds until we found a bench in the shade of a tree. It was a wealthy part of the city. Most people had gone away to the beach or to the mountains and only tourists or those unfortunate enough to have to work all summer spent their mornings in the park. The tourists sat in outdoor cafes while the workers ate sandwiches and bathed their feet in the fountains. Maureen did not consider us tourists.
The only other children in the park were the children of wealthy Arabs, dressed in perfect miniature suits and dresses. They came with nannies and minders, and spoke English like royalty. I stood watching until they invited me to join in. We chased each other around the fountain and over the prohibited grass while Maureen sat aloof and reading, a shoe dangling from her foot.
When I grew tired of the game, she put away her book and took my head on her lap. 'To the museum?' she asked. She lifted her hands on either side of her, palms up, as if it was she who guided the airplanes on to their destination. 'Aren't we lucky?' she would ask, and I felt as if we were. But it was the breeze that answered, spinning the leaves above us with the sound of faint applause.
Maureen had wanted to live in Paris for a long time. She had aspired to it. As it happened, we stayed there only briefly, for just a few months, in an apartment she borrowed from a friend.
She had met Marcel somewhere else, in another European city I was too young to remember. That's what he told me when we met. We stood in the front hallway of his apartment and shook hands. 'We've met before,' he said. 'You were small.' He kissed Maureen on both cheeks and then held her by the shoulders. He said, 'Look at you.' She stepped back out of his grasp so that we could look at her. 'You have a beautiful mother,' he told me.
This was June of 1980. I was eleven years old and he was leaving for the summer. I have often wondered if he and my mother were sleeping together. He was twenty years older than she was, heavy-set, with a thick moustache. On the train into Paris, Maureen had assured me that Marcel was, in some ways, a great man. But I cannot help remembering his hands on her body, on her clothes where he could feel what she wore underneath.
He showed us to our rooms. He put Maureen in the large bedroom where he slept, where the bed was still unmade, and showed me into the guest room that had once belonged to his daughter, Claudia. There was a single bed, a hand-painted child's desk and dark carpet. He showed Maureen the priceless artefacts on the shelves that could not be replaced if broken and the wine in the cupboard that had survived both wars and was too precious to be drunk.
Maureen and I sat opposite Marcel at lunch. He gripped the bottle of white wine by the neck, and plunged it back into the ice bucket when the glasses were full. Without turning his head, he gestured out towards the street behind him and said the best shopping in Paris was just a few streets away.
'I have no interest in shopping,' she told him. 'And besides, I can't afford it, as you well know.' He laughed as if she had said exactly what he had expected her to say.
After lunch we waited at the table for him to finish packing. We could hear him banging closets and drawers until he reappeared wearing a hat. We followed him into the hallway and waited for the elevator. He stood amongst his luggage; my mother and I amongst ours. 'Be careful of the Arab children in the park,' he told me. He turned to Maureen. 'Petits voleurs,' he explained. She smiled although she did not understand. She would look it up as soon as he had gone. He picked up his cases and stepped into the elevator. She blew him a kiss. 'Bon voyage!' she called.
When he was gone, the reflection of Maureen and me looked back from the mirrored elevator doors. I wore a white canvas hat and a pair of favourite copper corduroys. Maureen had yet to remove her pink silk jacket.
'Don't listen to him,' she said. 'He's trying to impress you.
Only men need to impress children. You don't need to be any more careful with one person than another.'
She began her inspection of the apartment the way she entered a gallery: as if she had money to spend. She passed from room to room with increasing excitement. When she found one more impressive than another, she called out for me to come and have a look. There was a pink study with a fireplace and a pair of French doors looking out onto the street; a small toilet off the hallway containing a gold-painted sink; and the kitchen with three Thai-wicker umbrellas bound to form a single lampshade. She could not stand still and almost as soon as I entered a room, she left it. She was like a child receiving a gift long obsessed over - slightly panicked by a world in which dreams are realized.
Marcel had inherited his money. The apartment was large for a bachelor living alone, with both a guest room and maid's quarters. It was substantially larger than our place in New York, and had a view of the park across the street and, in the evenings, of the patches of setting sun reflected from the windows onto the tops of the trees. Marcel directed documentary films, usually about the Amazon. Several years later, Maureen took me to see one when it was playing in New York. I found it slow except for one gripping sequence when Marcel sits on a log with a spectacular view of a dam behind him. As he discusses the terrible outbreak of disease amongst an Indian tribe who worked on the dam with migrant labourers from San Paulo, he carefully inches the peel from an orange. He takes great care to keep it all in one piece. When he succeeds, he looks at the peel and nods with satisfaction before tossing it into the bushes.
He had agreed to let Maureen and me live in his home while he was away making his next film. His daughter lived in an apartment on the ground floor. Claudia was twenty-seven years old, five years younger than Maureen. He said she would keep an eye on us.
When Maureen went out to dinner or to the theatre in the evenings, she paid Claudia to come upstairs and look after me. Claudia was tall and exceptionally long-limbed, her torso nothing more than a hesitation between arms and legs. When she rose from sitting contorted on the couch, she unfolded to a startling height. Her mother was Venezuelan, but something besides foreignness was foreign between us. Aside from the desk, all that remained as evidence that she had spent her childhood in the apartment was the piece of coloured glass hung from the window frame in the room where I slept, and a small brass travel frame, the size of a matchbox, that sat on Marcel's desk. The frame opened like a locket and contained two photographs: on one side, a young unsmiling Claudia wearing a pair of swimsuit bottoms at the edge of the ocean; on the other, a lean, happy-looking Marcel against an identical background. The pictures were taken on the same afternoon, roughly in the same spot, as if this had been the only afternoon they had ever spent together.
Whenever Claudia looked after me, she fried eggs with small cubes of smoked ham for my dinner. She sat next to me on her father's sofa, smoking cigarettes and arranging her rings and earrings into piles on the table. She taught me my first French words. She did not seem to mind that my mother and I were living in her father's apartment, or that I was sleeping in her bed. Later, as I lay in that bed, I would listen to her move around the apartment. She played the piano and, when she tired of that, she talked on the phone, laughing loudly. When she hung up, I felt a terrible silence as if she had gone out and I was left all alone. Perhaps she felt the same, for after a moment, she would make another call and when she had run out of phone calls she walked around, her footsteps indecipherable from the rattle of the windows, or the lives going on in neighbouring apartments.
At the end of August, it began to rain. Maureen sat each day at her desk in the small study near the kitchen. I spent most of the week sitting at the living-room window looking out. The building opposite echoed ours: red brick with a white balustrade, a black-speared fence guarding the edge of the pavement. I thought I could see figures in the windows, but it was usually just the reflections of the sky cramping in darkness overhead.
On the fourth successive day of rain, the skies calmed for about an hour. For a brief period the street became brighter, but very soon the clouds were shifting, threatening again. In the building opposite, lights came on in the windows and, with each, a square of reflected sky disappeared. I had the sensation I was not alone. I turned to find Claudia standing in the doorway. Her hair was damp. She looked at me, at first, as if she did not know me and then she smiled. 'Bonjour,' I said.
A moment later, Maureen appeared in the hallway behind her. She held a pen in one hand, a cigarette in the other. 'Claudia,' she said. 'I didn't hear you come in.' Claudia turned and faced Maureen. 'You're still in your pyjamas,' Maureen laughed. 'It's the middle of the afternoon!'
Claudia looked down at herself thoughtfully.
'Are you just getting up?' asked Maureen. 'I don't blame you with this never-ending rain ... Have you heard from your father? I have some mail. The envelopes look important. You can take them.' She turned away. 'I was going to make tea,' she said, and disappeared into the kitchen.
Claudia stepped out of her shoes, leaned over and arranged them neatly against the wall. We did not say anything to one another, which was not unusual. I believed that we had an understanding.
One night, when I was almost asleep, I had heard her on the phone, weeping instead of laughing. Street light came through the piece of coloured glass she had hung at the window of her old bedroom. Claudia came into the room without turning on the lights. After a moment's hesitation, she lay down on top of the covers beside me. I felt her legs and her breathing, the weight of her grown body. I watched her face soften into sleep. I reached out my hand and laid it over hers. I thought that one of us should stay awake in case my mother returned and discovered us there together, but soon I fell asleep as well. To my great relief when I awoke the next morning she had gone.
Maureen came back with a small pitcher of milk in one hand and a plate of inexpensive petits fours in the other. She put them down on the table and switched on a lamp. The light made the sky seem darker still. 'Perhaps you can tell me if we should send any mail on to him directly ... How do you feel? You look pale.' She put her hand to Claudia's cheek. 'Petal,' she said. Claudia leaned forward and gave Maureen a kiss.
'Oh,' said Maureen, obviously surprised. 'Thank you.' Maureen looked old beside Claudia for the first time. Petal was my mother's name for me and Claudia was, in my eyes, a grown woman.
Maureen returned to the kitchen for the tea tray. Claudia crossed the room and stood beside me, looking out. She opened the French doors and went out onto the patio as if she wanted a closer look. She stepped over the potted plants and from the railing she stepped into the sky. She had come to us for the height.
For a moment, a breeze tapped the plants against the railing and then there was a version of silence, a flexing of the space that had swallowed her before Maureen returned. She was in the middle of saying something, but when she saw me she fell quiet. She looked around as if Claudia might have concealed herself in the shadows. She stepped out onto the patio and, without getting too close, peered over the edge.
Maureen held me on her lap while we waited for the siren. Small breaths of steam escaped from the teapot. She served the tea to the police once she assured them we were in no way related to Claudia. She wandered around filling cups, the policemen thanking her politely. She forgot to put out ashtrays and after some hesitation, the men went ahead and ashed in their saucers.
Marcel came home early from the jungle. Claudia's mother sat at the table in the living room where my mother had left the petits fours and the mail. Our bags were already in the hall. Maureen told her how sorry we were. The woman silently sipped her tea while Marcel stood at the window smoking cigarettes. They did not speak in our presence. Four bars had to be sawed away from the fence on the pavement when they cut Claudia's body free. Paris was finished. So was my mother's friendship with Marcel. And then there was the airport, the plane full of people and the sky.
Excerpted from The Honeymoon by Justin Haythe Copyright © 2004 by Justin Haythe. Excerpted by permission.
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