In London’s prestigious National Portrait Gallery, an exhibition of Connie Benson’s art is set to open. It’s quite an event considering that the reclusive portraitist hasn’t left her home on the North Norfolk coast for the past thirty years—not since her lover Patrick Mount disappeared.
Mount, an eccentric guru who claimed to have discovered an elixir of bliss, is just as famous—perhaps even more so after his presumed death. Tonight, Connie’s masterful portrait of him, completed on the night he vanished, will finally be unveiled. But it’s arousing more than a love of art in Mount’s most secretive and devoted disciple.
Tony, a violent ex-con, never met Mount, but he’s committed the famous man’s autobiography to memory. He’s collected every known photograph of him, and every word ever written by, or about, him. Except for one prized possession that has been forever out of reach: Mount’s key to bliss. He’s prepared to trap Connie in his secret world to find it. But Tony is soon to discover the consequences of obsession—because he isn’t the only one with things to hide.
The recipient of the Somerset Maugham Award, Lesley Glaister is “an author for whom writing and storytelling is an unstoppable passion, as strong as a rush of blood to the head” (The Independent).
“Crime writing of the highest order.” —The Sunday Times
“Before Gillian Flynn, there was Lesley Glaister.” —Harper’s Bazaar
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Sheer Blue Bliss
By Lesley Glaister
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1999 Lesley Glaister
All rights reserved.
The effect of the elixir entering the bloodstream is swift.
The sensation is of lifting and lightening. Ordinary objects may appear luminous with significance. Haloes are common.
Tony closes his eyes and squeezes, trying to imagine how it would be. Sees a sprinkle of bursting lights or a spray like thin petals. Opens his eyes. No significance in the ordinary objects here, not a halo in sight, though he can see a glow of sun on dusty leaves outside the window. Significance though? Tried magic mushrooms only once, put off by the taste and the weird slithery nauseous feelings they gave him – followed by the shits. And anyway, he doesn't need drugs, Tony, likes to stay in control. World strange enough without, doesn't need artificial strange. But the elixirs, the elixirs would be something different. If they exist he will have them. That is his reason and his purpose.
He rises from his cushion on the floor, presses his forehead against the window. Light on leaves and below on cars and below that the road with its milk-cartons, fag packets, dog turds. The community centre with its wire-mesh windows throws a bulky shadow in which two Rastas in gaudy hats are joking. A head thrown back, glint of gold tooth, spike of laughter. Tony moves back, runs his finger thoughtfully through the greasy oval his forehead has printed on the glass.
The day bellows out there, laughter and light and the sound of traffic. Now the regular tin-can clang of the town-hall clock. He counts to three. Afternoon full on. Needs some stuff to eat, some carbon monoxide in his lungs. Ha. Pulls on jeans and a shirt, white shirt, all buttons intact. Clean. Sniffs the cotton. Nothing like the smell of clean cotton. Won't have polyester or even a mix, though Donna always says that's easier. No, one hundred per cent pure cotton, white, and he pays for his shirts and sheets to be laundered. Likes starch, the smell of it, the feel of it in the creases of his elbows when he bends his arms. It's a specialist job, starching shirts and sheets, not done much now in these polyester days, not commonly done for your common person which Tony is, no way, not.
He likes tidiness, to be tidy – and clean. You know where you are if you're tidy, what's what. Now the bed, that's most important. He makes the bed each morning in a special way. Pillows beaten to aerate the feathers, sheet swept and swept with the side of his hand to rid it of any flakes of skin or hairs. Top sheet whipped through the air and allowed to float down, blinding, airy white. Sometimes as it settles he has to blink against the outline of a child waiting, breathless with the gasp of air the sheet brings down, for the cool weight of fresh cotton on his limbs. Hospital corners, blankets and a proper bedspread, deep green chenille. Doesn't believe in duvets. Tony likes the weight and tightness of the tucked-in blankets, likes the bed-making ritual, possibly the only male of his generation who prefers blankets to duvets. Likes that thought. Gets a charge from the flat tucked-in shape, the rectangle of white sheet turned down over the green. Loves squeezing alone into the tight, cold, starched place at night. Will not put a thing on the bed. Will absolutely not sit on the bed during the day. If it was sat on, if anyone, say, was to come in the flat and sit on the bed, he would have to strip it off and make it all over again. Not that he's obsessive, he's read about obsessive compulsive behaviour, it's not that. It's just that it would spoil the moment of going to bed for him. And that's harmless, isn't it?
Outside is warm, warmer than the flat, the tired stewed heat of the end of summer rising from the pavement, soaking out of brickwork. He wanders down the shrieking street. Bouquets of skinny chickens hang by their rubbery feet, eyes skimmed white, little heads loose. Raucous peppers, plantains, hairy root things, yams, sweet potatoes and everywhere teeth flashing, the blare of bright cloth, smiles, sharp blades of light on chrome, hooting, the overhead rumble of a train. Wet meat smell, spice, pig's foot in gutter, pineapple and reggae, reggae, reggae from speakers in the street, from shops, from open windows. God on a megaphone. Beware, beware.
Milk and bread are what he needs, jam, tobacco. Thinking about cooking – fish in coconut milk. Yes? Buys the stuff and a paper, too, and walks a bit, sits in front of the Ritzy, bench scratched and sprayed, watches for a minute the gentle bob of McDonald's boxes in the fountain. Lets his head drop back, stretching his throat tight in the sun so it's hard to swallow, sun hot on his Adam's apple. The weight of that head ... awesome, the task of balancing it on the neck. Thinks of these things, Tony, he is a thinker. His long black hair hangs down behind him. He can feel the softness of it, each strand, beautiful hair when washed, they say every one of them when they get their hands on it, Apache hair, one said, once. Squirms at the memory of a girl with her hands in his hair, her voice in his ear, shocked at the strong stir in his groin.
Change the subject. Opens the Standard. What? The usual: murder, rape, corruption, pollution. A recipe for courgette tian – might be worth a try. Some beauty guff – Autumn Eyes. Huh. And then, turning the page his heart stops, actually stops then starts again stuttering like an old engine before it finds its rhythm. Because there he is, staring up at Tony. There he is: Patrick.CHAPTER 2
At first the sound of the engine is indistinguishable from the sigh of the sea. But it grows louder. Definitely an approaching car. Oh hell – and did she really say lunch? Connie stands behind the door, nails in her palms, listening to the grate and scutter of shingle, the slam of doors, the sudden voices. She cannot know how she will be with these.
The gate brays open and the voices come along the path. First a young woman's. 'What a completely brilliant place.'
'The air – what a blast, eh?' This a man. 'Wonder what's on the menu?'
'Don't you think of anything except your gut?'
'Light's just amazing.'
A ratatatat and Connie tries to smile before her hand reaches out. There's a sort of gargoyle stretch in her cheeks. Won't do. Then her hand goes to the door and a smile comes to her, a real one. Their eyes move down simultaneously. How tall did they think she'd be?
'How do you do.' A young man with shoulders, she does like shoulders, Connie, and a big warm handshake that makes her hand feel like twigs. 'Jason.' She stands back to let the pair of them in. A long time since there's been a man in her kitchen.
'Miss Benson,' the young woman says. What rosy cheeks!
'I'm Lisa. I've been so looking forward to meeting you.'
'Nice of you to say.'
Connie, who has been dreading this invasion, finds it's actually rather nice to have company. All this young breath in her kitchen along with perfume and the snazzy smell of a new leather bag.
'Interesting place.' Jason has his eyes narrowed, as photographers do, judging, judging, her square red table and the sea-shells stuck on all the walls and the window frames. In a jug on the table are wild flowers Connie found this morning among the scrub of sandy soil: sea-pinks, thrift, feathery grasses and one harebell, blue as – itself.
'It's a prefab,' Connie says. 'Only meant to be temporary, after the war, you know. But look how it's stood up.' She stamps her foot and the room lurches. 'All the rest of them went to ruin years ago, years and years.' She tries to remember how many but it seems like for ever she's been alone behind the sand-dunes. Seems impossible that there ever were neighbours.
She catches Jason's eyes on the cooker. Nothing bubbling, no cooking smells. She feels ashamed remembering. You have to feed a man. She takes a bottle of whisky from the draining board and luckily there are three glasses.
'Driving,' Jason eyes the bottle regretfully.
'Just a small one?'
'Go on then.' He grins. He is a looker all right. Connie glances at the fluff-haired Lisa and wonders if she fancies him, if there's anything going on. But no, there's not the chemistry there.
'Lisa? I expect you're both hungry?' Connie pours the drinks and twists her fingers together behind her back but they say yes, rather, the sea air and all. She opens the cupboard and reaches up. There are a few tins, some rice.
'You like rice?' She takes out a carton of rice and a bare silver tin. 'The snails eat the labels off,' she explains, sloshing it close to her ear. Something wet.
'What do you think?' she asks, tossing the tin to Lisa, who, though taken by surprise, catches it very niftily. There is a sideways glance between the two of them, a twitch. Well, Connie can play up to that. Eccentric? What else would she be?
'Beans?' Lisa hazards. 'Tomatoes? Peaches?'
'We'll take pot luck, shall we?' Connie reaches for the can opener. 'It won't be peaches,' she reassures them.
Connie cooks the rice while the whisky goes down well and fast. The tin turns out to contain spaghetti hoops which, mixed with rice and sardines, makes a surprisingly respectable concoction. She sags with relief when she tastes it, never mind the squashed-down grins on Jason and Lisa's faces. She hasn't entertained for some time. Anyone who knows her knows to bring their own provisions. These two had her rattled for a minute there, but all is well.
Connie doesn't bother much with food as a rule, lives on tea, tobacco, Fisherman's Friends, a sausage now and then if she can be bothered to cycle to the Spa shop in the village. Spirits she likes and salted things in packets, anything like that, nuts, crisps, Bombay Mix, all yellow with those crunchy neon peas.
'I'm really excited about your retrospective,' Lisa says. 'Does it feel odd ... so much attention after all the years ...' she tails off, maybe wondering if she's offended but she hasn't offended. Connie revelling in the chat and the whisky, watching Lisa's cheeks get redder and redder, like watching a fruit grow ripe and shiny tight. And talking of fruit, Connie has to wonder about Jason who, with the whisky in him, seems to have a suspicion of the homo about him, a touch of the camp in his gestures, the giggle with his fingers to his lips, the hyperbole and eyes frequently flung up to heaven. And that is fine with Connie who likes queers very much, far better at gossip – at least they always used to be.
Connie leaves the table to climb up the ladder to fetch her pipe from the studio. She pauses for a moment in the hot slick of syrupy light to look at Patrick. The carriers are coming for him tomorrow, to take and hang him in the NPG along with her other portraits but he, Patrick, will be the star of the show.
She picks up her pipe, tamps and lights it, listening to the two downstairs laughing. She sucks on the pipe, ivory-stemmed, carved-bone hands, angel-baby hands clutch the little bowl. A present from Patrick. Sweet cool smoke fills her mouth and dances in her eyes and Patrick winks.
It started as a joke, her pipe-smoking. She used to light his pipe for him sometimes, liked to suck where his lips had been. He bought her a pipe of her own and the joke became a habit. The throaty gurgle and the warming of the bone fingers can bring him closer to her now.
She goes down and they exclaim about the pipe which she rarely smokes at lunchtime or in public. With the whisky in her veins Connie doesn't care. She plays up to them, demonstrating a tap-dance that makes the window-glass rattle in its putty; saying scandalous things about the dead and gone, and telling them in a hot and breathy voice what a demon of a lover Patrick was right up to the very moment that he went.
'I haven't been naked since 1965,' she says and leaves them speechless. 'Since Patrick,' she explains.
'It's so romantic,' Lisa says after a pause. 'And is it true that you haven't painted again either ... not for over thirty years ...'
'Not since Patrick.'
Lisa shakes her head admiringly but Connie feels a pang, hearing it said like that by this fresh-faced girl. Nothing for over thirty years.
Jason unpacks his camera clutter, big white parasols and such, and Lisa offers to wash the dishes. 'Thank you, dear. You'll have to boil a kettle first.' Connie has to hide her smile at the falling face, poor girl hardly expected her to accept.
'OK,' Jason says. 'We better get on before the light goes.' He opens the door and stands back squinting round the kitchen through a wedge of sunny dust.
'I do like the shells.' Lisa strokes her finger over a dusty cockle shell stuck above the sink. 'Did you stick them all on yourself?'
'Not this room,' Connie says. 'Upstairs.'
'Up the ladder.'
'Surely not a room up there – there can't be the roof-space.'
'You come and look.' Connie climbs the ladder again. 'Patrick did it. We were warned, not the structural strength and whatsit but here it is.' She stands in the room and Jason pokes his head up through the trap-door blinking in the blatant light that floods through the skylights.
'Amazing,' he says. 'I am amazed.'
'It's all right for me,' Connie says, 'but Patrick couldn't stand up in it. Used to crouch like a monkey, knuckles practically grazing the floor.'
'But what fun ... and the little chair ...' Jason looks at the child-sized yellow chintz armchair that sits in the middle of the floor. He pauses as Patrick's gaze snares his. 'And this is the portrait that all the fuss is about? Extraordinary. Lisa, you must come up and see the portrait.'
'In a mo,' Lisa calls through her dish-pan clatter.
Connie feels a tug inside her, a yank of memory. Remembering the love that was made in this room, light frank on naked skin. Oh there really is something about those eyes, only pigment on canvas, which she put there herself for God's sake, not quite brown, not quite hazel. They meet her own eyes. A little smirk? How Patrick would have loved these two. Such a palaver for a Sunday article about her home. As if anyone cares tuppence.
'What's it like?' Lisa calls.
'Fantastic' Jason narrows his eyes again, looking round, searching for an angle. Jason and his camera, halved by the trap-door, bleached by the hot September light.
He backs down the ladder to get his equipment. Connie puts the kettle on again for tea. With her tongue she fidgets a bit of sardine out from under her plate and sits watching Lisa at the sink. The shape of her knickers shows through her thin white trousers, lovely little bottom, neat. How Patrick's fingers would have twitched.
Tomorrow a carrier will come for Patrick. And then she'll follow. The thought of returning to London after more than thirty years: of hotels and restaurants, of gallery chat, traffic, lipstick, teeth, suits, chatter, chatter, chatter ... she has to close her eyes. And she must get round to dyeing her hair, the white stripe just will not do. Quite a buzz, Deborah said, Deborah the new agent. Someone somewhere unearthed Connie and to her surprise she feels like it, being unearthed. It's Patrick's portrait that will be the star of the show though, the unknown quantity. Her tongue buzzes against her plastic palate. Upstairs the floor creaks under Jason's feet like an obscure memory.CHAPTER 3
Tony blinks against the dazzle of newsprint in the sun. Poor grey speckled reproduction but it is Patrick all right, Patrick very different, beardless, young. What? The portrait painted by Constance Benson and never before seen. Although he looks so different, Tony recognises Patrick as if there's some sort of imprint on his heart. Not that he could ever have seen Patrick, who disappeared on the day of Tony's birth: 5th July 1965. But he has photographs, paintings – reproductions of – he has articles and Patrick's memoir, everything Patrick was ever known to write. In Patrick's memoir is a description, never completed, of the Seven Steps to Bliss. Which Tony wants and means to get. And will because Patrick has got inside him somehow, like a guiding spirit, that's it, guiding him on his quest for the elixirs. It's been a waiting game, since he stepped out of jail – price paid, slate clean – till now.
A retrospective exhibition of the work of Constance Benson opens this weekend at the National Portrait Gallery. Benson, controversial portraitist and lover of the late eccentric visionary Patrick Mount, will allow to be shown her last portrait of Mount which she has kept under wraps for the thirty years since his mysterious disappearance.
Excerpted from Sheer Blue Bliss by Lesley Glaister. Copyright © 1999 Lesley Glaister. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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