Chapter 1 - Naked Shingles of the World by A.J. Hall
The moment Ralph stepped down from the ‘bus in Deauville he knew he had made a mistake. No; he was not (yet said the minatory voice in his ear) improperly dressed for the resort; last summer’s cricket flannels and the navy-blue blazer from which he had with such care unpicked the school badge were eminently suitable for a young Englishman en promenade along the plages.
The plages resounded with the genteel screeches of upper-middle-class England at play. Less than nine months ago he would have been counted one of this tribe. Patagonia had been less alien.
As he continued along the boardwalk, his dislocation increased. He might have treading the steps down to a Purgatory hand-crafted from his own particular revulsions. Take those four women in garish beach pyjamas, strolling along arm-in-arm, lips and talons alike blood red — en travestie indeed, but to negate, not titillate desire; for who, no matter how specialised his tastes, could face that prospect and not be moved to horror?
He quickened his pace, so as to get them behind him sooner. He was almost clear when a peal of over-refined laughter rang out from the midst of the gaggle. It could have no other object. He flushed red, and hated himself for doing it.
“Mr Lanyon! Come here and sit by me.”
Over to his left, a cluster of tables with striped beach umbrellas spilled across the beach from the terrace at the rear of one of the great hotels. Une femme d’une âge certaine, crisp in white linen and navy, semaphored vigorously at him from the nearest table.
His hand went to his pocket. He had not planned on drinking in the smart hotels, and resented having to spend his limited funds on meeting the social obligations of a world which had rejected him.
“Mr Lanyon!” The imperious voice was impossible to ignore.
The soft sand was unexpectedly pleasant beneath his feet as he scrunched towards her table. She sat very upright, product no doubt of a Victorian governess with strict views on deportment. Ralph wondered what the governess would have made of the glass of Pernod in front of her, especially since something in her too-focussed air suggested it was the latest in a series. Or, for that matter, what the governess would have said about the book on the table, her place marked by the tip of a peacock’s feather. That would be seizable contraband if she tried bringing it back through any of the English ports.
“Ah, good. I thought it was you — you have a most distinctive walk, even when not on a cricket pitch it suggests you are returning from the crease, having treated triumph and disaster just the same — but the young of our class do tend to merge into one after a while.”
Since he had been thinking much the same thing, he was for a moment lost for words. The reference to cricket made it all but certain she was the mother of some school acquaintance. (He locked the wider implications of that away; she had addressed him by name, after all.) If so, he could not recall her name or face. He cursed the school custom that decreed mothers, in particular, should make themselves as inconspicuous as possible when on school premises or render their offspring liable to mockery without end.
She looked past his right ear, with a fixed intensity which made him once again wonder about the Pernod, until she gave a sharp exclamation of annoyance. “Merciful heaven, will nobody summon up the courage to tell those freaks of nature how appalling they look from the back?”
He turned. The quartet in beach pyjamas were returning, baulked of whatever prey they had sought.
It might have been the attraction of finding a kindred spirit, but he found himself sitting beside her on one of the white-painted iron chairs. A waiter materialised by the side of the table, summoned by some subtle lift of finger or eyebrow.
“What will you have, Mr Lanyon?” she enquired.
His hand went to his pocket; his mouth began to frame an objection. She waved an impatient hand.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Mr Lanyon. I am staying at this hotel. All the bills will, in due course, be picked up by my husband, whenever they reach him in London. You cannot possibly have any scruple in charging to his bill whatever it is you choose to drink. I assure you, I do not, even though I came here with the express purpose of deciding whether or not to leave him.”
Her expression had the savage glee of a tiger’s. He found it simultaneously repellent and exhilarating.
Perhaps best to pretend all was as it appeared on the surface. She was the mother of some school acquaintance, and he (for all she knew to the contrary) was a blameless Old Boy, holidaying here during the Cambridge long vac.
What would that man do?
He glanced across to that callow chinless wonder two tables over, sipping cidre de Normandie like a blushing virgin. His older brother, in the next seat, held a tall glass of Pilsener and laughed, politely, across its lip to the rest of his party.
No. He rebelled.
“Thank you.” He looked at the waiter. “What brandies do you have?”
She inclined her head, her expression self-satisfied, as if he had passed some sort of test.
“Try the Armagnac. They are particularly proud of it here. N’est-ce pas, Claude?”
“Mais oui, madam.”
“Armagnac, then, please.”
She gave their order in rapid French, topped off with some observation he did not quite catch, but which left the waiter smiling as he nodded and departed.
The umbrella’s shade fell across them both as the sun shifted. The wind had freshened. Out beyond the line of similar umbrellas, beyond the plages, there was a scatter of white crests on the treacherous blue of the Channel. In the shade of her hat, his hostess’s eyes glittered equally blue. Whether equally treacherous, he was inclined to doubt. The sea, after all, had aeons more practice.
“Thank you, Mr Lanyon. I am most infinitely obliged to you.”
“To me?” It seemed an odd way of looking at it.
She produced a cigarette case and a long amber holder from her bag.
“But of course. A single woman minding her own business at a hotel table is an object of fear and suspicion. If she is English, so much the worse. Her compatriots are flung into the most dreadful dilemma. Are they to break the habit of generations and approach her without an introduction? Alternatively, are they to leave her to her own, doubtless unspeakable, devices?”
There was something about her vowels, especially when she spoke French: a liquid quality which had an elusive familiarity about it.
She fitted a cigarette into the holder and held out the case towards him. “That family you were looking at a moment ago have been in quiet agonies ever since I sat down. Now you have arrived they can breathe again. They assume you are one of my sons. The French, of course, presume our relations are something quite other; did you not notice how Claude looked at you? Nevertheless, both nationalities, having placed me, can now rest quite at ease. By the way, they are perfectly respectable Russian, not scented or mentholated, I assure you.”
After a moment’s dislocation he realised she was referring to the cigarettes. He took one, lit both his and hers — she seemed to expect it — and inhaled. The harsh, familiar bite of smoke helped settle his jangled nerves.
They sat in silence for some moments, until the drinks arrived.
She raised her glass to him in salute.
“Your health, Mr Lanyon. Speaking of health (and sons, for that matter) Rollo wrote yesterday from Merton to say that yet another cricket ball has hit him on the head. Furthermore, it succeeded where your sporting attempt to remove his right eye failed. He has decided to give up the game altogether. For this relief, much thanks.”
“Especially for his team-mates, I imagine,” Ralph said, before he could stop himself.
Rollo — Maunsell mi. — had been the second of a quartet of brothers of resolutely average athletic attainments, conventional even in his unconventionalities, though for a brief period his dark-lashed pale eyes had promised otherwise. Now Ralph had the key, he could just see the physical resemblance beneath the brittle artifice.
Mrs Maunsell smiled. “Quite so. He was always weak on the back foot, especially against fast bowling.”
He must have betrayed surprise. Her smile broadened.
“Mr Lanyon, I have four sons. And, before them, three brothers. Also, do you not find some perverse thrill in practising the idioms of a world you have no desire to enter?”
Absurdly, he was reminded of Rawlinson, the sandy-haired, raw-boned young Lancastrian with whom he shared quarters. The young man’s clumsy attempts at friendship, his unshakeable core of innocence beneath an inexpertly-applied maquillage of bad language and coarse knowingness had brought out some latent, wholly disinterested protectiveness in Ralph. Baulked of common ground on so many axes, the two of them had turned to Association Football, tracing the fortunes of Rawlinson’s beloved Blackburn Rovers through smudged columns at the back of weeks-old English language newspapers across three continents and rather more than seven seas.
For the first time it occurred to him that this encounter, whatever it was, would make a good tale to tell Rawlinson, without need for any more elision or editing than the shreds of gentlemanly instinct demanded.
She nodded, as if some thought had pleased her.
“Are you enjoying your Armagnac, Mr Lanyon?”
Its surface smoothness belied the smoky fire in its depths. At a guess, it must be about three times his own age. Given the location, he might as well have been consuming gold dust.
The bill would make the absent Mr Maunsell sit up, assuming the hotel forwarded it itemised and unsanitised. Which, come to think of it, given Mrs Maunsell’s odd opening gambit, might be rather the point. His senses sharpened. He had never thought of himself being cast in the part of co-respondent. Oddly, he found the possibility both hilarious and faintly flattering.
Nevertheless, the Hazell fiasco had left him with a strong preference (almost, to be truthful, a kink of its own) for clarity in his encounters.
“Mrs Maunsell?” he enquired. “What you said earlier — about your husband —?”
“Teddy the tedious? Ah, so you did hear. I was beginning to wonder if it was tact or deafness.”
The Pernod must be having an effect. He ploughed on. “Why are you thinking of leaving him?”
She laughed. He pictured Maenads closing in. “My dear boy, you have plainly never met him. No surprise, that; he always found an excuse to avoid Speech Days and the like. A better question would be, why did I marry him in the first place?”
He had spent the last nine months not rising to one bait or another. It was purest heaven to let his self-control slip a fraction.
“Well then, why did you?”
“He came from somewhere else. And, praise heaven, had every intention of returning there.” She mused for a moment, and then added, “Also, he had a very great deal of money.”
Experience, if it had taught him little else, had pummelled that sort of hypocrisy out of him. If Mrs Maunsell had elected to sell herself twenty-odd years ago, he should congratulate her for having done so at the top of the market. Especially since he was currently drinking part of the proceeds.
“Of course, I flatter myself I didn’t do it for the money.” She blew a perfect smoke ring. “The ferry out of Queenstown would have been temptation enough.”
Queenstown. That explained the vowels. Behind that non-committal “Maunsell” lurked a Plunkett, a Fitzgibbon, a Desmond or a Woulfe. His imagination hovered over other possibilities. He thrust them behind him with conscious effort.
The waiter arrived with drinks he had not seen ordered. The level of Armagnac in the second glass had risen, though whether he had yet achieved the top of the tide he had no way of judging.
His hostess gazed into the milky depths of her own drink as if reading fortunes. Ralph respected her silence. After some time she raised her head.
“‘The Big House.’ Such an evocative image. A beacon of peace, justice and culture, shining out across the whole district from behind its wrought-iron gates. And what a sodden, crumbling, cold, carnivorous monster it is in reality.”
For the first time, he saw her hand shake a little as she lifted her glass to her lips.
“I have a daughter, Mr Lanyon. Molly. Five years old. A drab, almost dumb little creature. I cannot say I can imagine her setting a ball-room aflame a dozen years from now, but a mother has to be prepared for all contingencies. And still , after all that’s passed, I cannot imagine advising her to make another choice than mine. No. Run from the creaking country pile that eats its children. Choose trade.”
It hit him like a blow over the heart. She had, after all, known. All the time she had been playing with him. She had addressed him as “Mr Lanyon.” Four sons at the school — no, Maunsell ma. had been up at Oxford already. Three sons at school and they would have enlightened the fourth. Not the kind of thing a man tells his mother. Not the kind of mother he could imagine having, at any rate. Mrs Maunsell was not in the least the kind of mother he could imagine having. And who knew what Jeepers might have insinuated, for that matter?
Trade. So that was what she thought he was about. Paradoxically, it stung the worse because (leaving aside odd matters of detail) for a few weeks, before he found his first berth, it had as a matter of fact been true.
He had risen to his feet before being aware of it.
“Well, I think in the circumstances I had better be going. Thank you for the drinks.”
She blinked up at him, for a moment caught off-balance. Then she made a long, exasperated “tchkk” noise.
“Sit down, Mr Lanyon. Yes: I do know how you came to leave school. I walked into a room where Piers was in the process of explaining it to Giles, with some warning notes of personal application I took care not to hear. Even if I had not heard as much as I did — I was brought up to step softly, and have not forgotten the knack — the way they fell silent on seeing me would have told me it was all about sex.”
Even after all that had happened, her frankness still had the power to shock.
One elegantly sculpted eyebrow rose; her voice sounded sardonic.
“Please. I am neither a child nor an imbecile. Nor are you. And, though the other customs of the public schools are quite as absurd as their cricket, somehow I find far less interest in immersing myself in those particular idioms.”
She raised her hand. The waiter was immediately beside them.
“Encore, Claude, s’il vous plait.”
When the waiter had gone she looked up at him, the mockery quite gone from her expression.
“Let me make one thing clear. I may know what you were doing a year ago, but I do not know what you are doing at present. However, what I can say is what you are not doing. At least, not here and not with me. And, Mr Lanyon, as a single woman of means staying in this particular milieu, I have had ample opportunity to judge a wide range of approaches of that kind. Furthermore, I have taken to attending church since I arrived. I remain, for the foreseeable future, an unbeliever and a sinner. But I find the atmosphere of the Mass rather like the — frankly disgusting, you truly do not wish to know — process by which one clears consommé. My judgment now is clearer than it has ever been. I suggest you trust it.”
Ralph’s knees gave way. He sat down, abruptly, on the unforgiving iron chair. The Armagnac, when it arrived, was more welcome than any drink he could ever remember. She waited until he had finished and then tapped with one fingernail on the rim of her own glass. The clear, pure sound rang out like the Angelus he had last heard — yes, it must have been — in Queenstown.
“A suggestion? Let us forget the last few minutes and start afresh. This is a hard place, I find. Not an excuse; there’s something within me which enjoys all that. Usually. Not the point. Not your fault, either.”
She lit another cigarette, elegantly-ringed hands clumsy on holder and lighter, despite the calm clarity of her voice. The intimation of vulnerability woke a faint protectiveness within him, almost as if she had been Rawlinson.
“No,” he said gravely. “Not at all my fault. But not yours, either. Mrs Maunsell, do you remember me? Lanyon. Ralph Lanyon. From the house cricket final, two years ago, on Speech day. I bowled — “
“— the ball which put my wretched offspring into the San with concussion for two days. Of course I know you, Mr Lanyon. Completely his fault, he tells me — I know nothing of cricket, of course. So. Have you been reading anything interesting lately? The new Agatha Christie, the one on the train, it’s rather clever, isn’t it?”
Some considerable time later — the shadows had lengthened across the plages, the wind had died to nothing — she looked across the white expanse of the table at him.
“Well? Should we?”
He was still not proof against her frankness. For a moment he stared at her open-mouthed. She looked impatient, like (he recalled it unwillingly) he had used to be with slow-on-the-uptake types in the lower forms.
“I said, should we? That is, may I invite you back to my room, for whatever you may take that to imply?”
Without giving him pause to answer, she pushed the book which had lain closed all the while over on the table to him. At the last minute before he took it, she pulled out the peacock feather, sacrificing her place.
All his words had dried up. He nodded.
“As I said, I had three brothers, growing up. And when they were poised on the brink of some mischief or other, they would always do the sortes Vergilianae first. I think, you know, in part it was to leave me out. My father would not have me taught the Latin. He thought it indelicate. But I watched them, and I found it most instructive when it came to making decisions. So, Mr Lanyon. Why not now? It’s not Virgil, but it will suffice.”
The note in her voice made it an unquestionable challenge. His besetting sin was his inability to resist a challenge. He took the peacock quill, flipped the book open at random and stabbed down with the sharp end.
I was in my teens, a growing boy. A little then sufficed, a jolting car, the mingling odours of the ladies’ cloakroom and lavatory, the throng penned tight on the old Royal stairs (for they love crushes, instinct of the herd, and the dark sexsmelling theatre unbridles vice), even a pricelist of their hosiery. And then the heat. There were sunspots that summer. End of school. And tipsycake. Halcyon days.
He raised his head from the page to meet her intent, knowing eyes, and felt the downward tug of the nymphs around his drowning legs.
They would do it: she in some spirit of revenge on the absent, the man he had never met and never would, and he on a bet to himself. Also, perhaps, not merely something to tell this Rawlinson but all his future Rawlinsons. A talisman, in case they chanced to wonder.
A sterile, loveless, meaningless act, an observer would say, and most surely they would never meet afterwards. But for him it would set a seal on something, close off that part of his past he had left open for the air to spoil. As for her, he suspected, the act would be its own sortes. If she left Maunsell, this aimless, expensive life of aperitifs in grand hotels and rope bridges woven out of casual connections would be her most likely future. Small wonder if she wished to try it first, to check it fitted.
He waited the ten minutes she had suggested, for discretion’s sake, finishing his Armagnac and smoking another of her Russian cigarettes. Then he made his way through the hushed cathedral of the hotel lobby, up the grand staircase and to the room whose number he had memorised. One deep breath before the plunge — he could, still, after all, turn back — and then he knocked.
In the drugged heat of late afternoon, the shutters closed, her room heavy with the scent of vanishing creams and pearl powders, incense of a mystery from which men were forever excluded, in the depths of a gilt-framed bed, reflected in the depths of a gilt-framed mirror on the wall, her back arched above him and she cried out on a dying fall.