Thursday, April 30, 2009

Pearls and Roses, chapter 7

Pearls and Roses, chapter 6

In the winter that Alice was twenty-six and Hunter nine, on the day they went sledding and life was sweet as honey, the one jet they heard muffled through the clouds happened to be carrying Peter Shepstone, soils engineer, from his home in London – Chicago stopover – to a conference at the University of Texas at San Antonio. This Peter was not like Alice in one way: normally an invitation to come and lecture people would not have interested him much. How many people, ten, three hundred? The few times they separately carried out these tasks, Alice secretly hoped for three hundred, or at least fifty, and got ten; Peter expected ten and got two or three hundred. He was a modest man. He taught, quietly. He went abroad when he was asked and gave advice, quietly, to foreign governments on how best to prop up their aging and weathered national treasures, cathedrals, palaces, towers, and the like. He was married, un-quietly, to a frenetic, blustery little woman who adored him and could not believe her good fortune in being married to him, but who also thought all well-married couples were hale and bluff with each other. Peter, one of those gentle, rumpled men whose soulmate probably married a fellow physicist when she was sixteen, married her to amuse himself. As time went on he found he loved her.

In the past he had been too modest (and too busy) to run about lecturing, but an event had occurred recently to make him come out into the world more, accept more invitations, and take the risks of facing ten, or three hundred, people in a spotlit hall. His older brother Fred had died, leaving hardly a trace that he had ever lived. Perhaps in the great picture, no one leaves a trace – perhaps the God who answers bargains with a telephone call consumes and is everything – but over Fred Shepstone the waters seemed to have closed especially quickly. During his illness he and Peter had talked about really living, about getting out there and doing something with yourself, if not ever before, then certainly now. Travel. Seduce a woman. Spend five hundred on a bottle of wine. Who is ever going to know or care? It’s funny. When you are well you are so anxious, at least Peter was anxious, to keep your life exactly and tidily the same. You have your little concerns and your little angers, there’s that columnist in the paper you love to hate, you have a little turf of happiness to jealously guard. You really do carry on as if you are the center of the universe. "That fool Galileo," Renoir said. "Tells us we revolve around the sun, and nobody behaves as if it were true." People keep themselves just as mousy and moral as if somebody is watching – as if they’re going to live forever. And then when you get cancer you suddenly think you had better go out and do something big. What, something extra, extra-normal? Something greatly true? Fred was only fifty-eight. After years, a lifetime, of caring for and, in her last years, living with their aged mother, he now had cancer, and no wife or child beside him – nothing, Peter repeated to himself over and over, to show he had ever lived. Fred was a plumber, a divorce, a good friend, a kind brother, a devoted son. When their mother died he burst out crying and slammed the kitchen table with his fist. Everyone was alarmed and thought this reaction was a bit excessive with regard to a woman of eighty-seven, even if she was his mother. He liked antiques and bicycles, and won several bike races in Sussex in the early 1960s. Even fame was a modest thing in those days and his victories were only credited, in little paragraphs in the local paper, to "F. Shepstone." And then a little less than thirty years later he died. What had been the point?

At the time he was diagnosed, his doctors gave him three years to live. He rebelled against such pessimism, as they all did. He was going to fight it. Oh yes. He was going to go to a clinic in America, he was going to live on orange juice and greens to purge the toxins from his body. The family were going to pray for a miracle. Elaine especially counted on that. Peter never argued with her but felt such mooning was ridiculous and even dirty. How many millions of people were in need of a miracle today, and why should Fred Shepstone in particular get one?

Besides, the doctors were just about right. He lived two and a half years after his diagnosis. There was nothing to do towards the end but make peace with it. Pain and nausea and the unseen clockwork mastery of the disease helped insure that. Maybe peace was the miracle, though such treacle annoyed Peter in its turn. That was as bad as "It wasn’t meant to be" or "Sometimes God says no."

"I didn’t want to live to be an old man anyway," Fred said towards the last day. He asked for a pear, and ate it with great pleasure. The next hour he died, the one hour that Peter had chosen to go home and see Elaine. He had just been in his brother’s room, and now on the other side of town he was told of the death over the telephone. "He’s gone," the nurse said. Gone, gone where?

"You mean ...out?" Peter asked, and then realized the enormity of his mistake. He wanted to die or kill someone or laugh with embarrassment. He felt as idiotically guilty as if he had been away for years and never bothered to learn of Fred’s predicament at all. "Oh. I see. Thank you." Don’t tell me ‘gone’ with your nurse’s lingo, he thought after he hung up the phone. And don’t say ‘gone’ when I go. Say I died, like everybody else.

Fred died in the spring. That winter following, when the invitation came from the university, all expenses paid, he said yes. Why not? He was fifty-one. A three o’clock connecting flight at Chicago took off into a snowstorm and he happened to fly, roaring, over Alice’s and Hunter’s heads.

By about seven that night he had landed in San Antonio. After fetching his bag – amazing how easy things became, when you didn’t feel so shy anymore – he looked around for the woman who, it had been promised, would meet him here to escort him to his hotel. How on earth would anybody find him? An adventure, Fred. Why not. From a small distance he noticed an attractive creature walking towards him, a tall blond lady dressed in a brown suede suit and flashing silver earrings. He glanced quickly away. Surely she was on her way to some assignation, or was an actress or a spy. She could not possibly hail from the university’s engineering department, come to collect him.

But indeed she approached. She held out her hand with a great smile and asked, "Professor Shepstone? I’m Kathy Nathan."

Mrs. Nathan, of course. He had envisioned something larger and older, duller, like him. He smiled and shook her hand, and in a moment it seemed had gone out into the night and found himself seated with her in her car. Through what might have been five minutes, or forty, of roundabout driving and feeding paper tickets into machines and long jewel-strings of headlights circling around them in the dark, she finally merged into a straightaway of traffic. They appeared to be gaining ground, going somewhere. The suffocating fumes and noise of the airport receded, leaving a taste of diesel in his mouth. A warm breeze ruffled their clothes as they sailed along, elbows out the windows, the city’s lights glittering everywhere.

They chatted, about what he hardly knew. He loved the sound of a southern American voice, not in song – please God, not that – but in speech. Its lilt and lull, its hidden hardness, especially in a woman, soothed him almost to sleep and yet made him want to stay awake and keep the voice talking, more and more, sleepier and sleepier. Mrs. Nathan’s voice was a fine specimen, soft and grainy. They talked, she talked until they reached his hotel, and then she dropped him off, reminded him to get his bags from the trunk, and assured him she would come to get him in the morning. He registered at the desk – an eternal process – got his key, went up and fell into bed exhausted. In an instant it was morning and he woke up famished.

Mrs. Nathan picked him up that morning, and drove him to the university campus, and then he never saw her again. That was the way of things in America, he knew, but he was disappointed afresh and wondered how they stood it. Meeting nice people whom you could never see again, just because the land was so big and everybody had things to do. Still he lectured for the three days, enjoying the Texas winter warmth and all the grand voices. The engineering department treated him to an evening on the Riverwalk and then to the obligatory hour at the Alamo. He could only hope he had been properly responsive. Everything was genuinely interesting, but jet lag was beginning to make itself felt, and besides, everywhere he went he was washed over by voices half in Spanish now – soothing, babbling, fascinating. Was there anything so wonderful as having strangers’ conversations flood around you, some of them very important, knowing none of them mattered at all to you and therefore you needn’t respond, needn’t even be polite? He sat at breakfast in the hotel done day, pretending to be absorbed in his newspaper but really eavesdropping shamelessly on two different conversations. One woman had a friend who knew a friend whose husband had actually been killed in a bar-room brawl last Christmas. The widow was still coping and the murder trial would soon begin. Another couple talked about their children’s school. Talking to people was a duty that Peter often found exhausting. Listening, ignored and anonymous, could be a joy. It was like having a novel read out to you, one you had not begun and need not finish, whose title you did not even know. Was there anything like a good human voice? The women’s especially remained the most entrancing.

He seemed to encounter quite a few women during this pleasant weekend. He had never imagined so many women engineers existed, especially young women students, but they apparently did. What would Fred say? He looked up smiling once or twice that weekend at the massive prairie clouds. Fred would have laughed, and bid him look in a mirror if he fancied foreign blondes were even glancing remotely sidelong at him. He would have said, now, "This is Texas. These aren’t my clouds. I’m not there."

On the Sunday of the conference, the last afternoon before his flight home that night, he and two colleagues spoke at a session open to the public. Frank Boyd was there. When it was over he introduced himself to Peter.

"I enjoyed your talk very much," he began. Peter thanked him, and they shook hands.
"But I had hoped to hear more of the international work you sometimes do. Wasn’t there that cathedral in Lima you were involved with?"
Peter was taken aback. He had been lecturing about clays and silts and subsidence, and here was a man approaching him, apparently, as a species of celebrity. A quite well informed man, in fact. "Yes, I was," he said.
"I thought so," Frank smiled. "I make documentary films about restoring historic places. I would love to be on site on a project you were working on. Are you here for any ulterior purpose like that? Or is it just the lectures? I mean, if you don’t mind my asking." "No, I don’t mind. No, I’m not here for anything like that. Just lectures."
"Too bad. Though I realize you can’t quit your day job. I couldn’t. Would you believe I ran a women’s clothing store? With a degree in architecture?"
Peter smiled wanly. It was true. They really will tell you anything. He groped for a subject. "Really? And is this your alma mater?"
"Oh no. I read the announcement in the paper over the weekend and I thought, why not. No, I’m down here to begin with only because – well, let’s say I have great respect for the University of Texas medical school’s oncology department. Fine people."
"Really. Are you associated with them?" Then the word oncology sunk in. "Oh. Oh, I am sorry," Peter stammered. He might have sworn Mr. Boyd looked the picture of health.

Frank shook his head. "I’m sorry to burden you with my problems. May I ask where we might be able to find you in future? I mean, my company? Do you have any restorations you’ll be working on soon? I know you’ve been in Paris and in Moscow fairly recently. If you’ll pardon my saying so, our little artsy documentaries have done pretty well. We’d love to catch you on site. I don’t suppose there’s anything falling down in America that you think you might be asked to prop up."
"No, I don’t think so," Peter laughed. "Unless you can think of something." For some reason he imagined this man was missing a drink in his free hand. Perhaps it was because his name sounded like ‘Bond.’ Or was it Bond?
"Oh, I can. But I haven’t got enough influence with anybody, to take you away from your day job. When I say little and artsy, I mean little and artsy. Our last project was the waterfront in Lahaina where the whalers and missionaries used to go. Everybody liked the film, but they treated it as a charming little piece of historiana, you know? The place itself is still falling down."
"Maybe your films are too good."
"Maybe. But have you ever done work outside Europe?"
"Just the once, in Lima."
Frank looked stupid for a moment and then put his hand to his forehead. "That’s right, I knew that. I’m sorry. They call it chemo-brain. Miraculous stuff, when it works. The side effects are mortifying."

Peter stood fascinated by this new, no doubt very impermanent friendship. Soon this ruddy-faced, ill gentleman would vanish into the Texas warmth the way Mrs. Nathan had. Yet here they were now. "I understand," he said.

"What I mean is, do you think I should leave a memo at the front office to keep our eyes peeled for Professor Shepstone’s work? Is there a chance?"
"I don’t know. I’m very flattered you would think of doing so, but I rarely know much in advance. I just go where I am asked, when I’m asked. If I’m asked. And if my wife doesn’t object."
Frank laughed. "I understand that, but I’m sure you’re too modest otherwise."
"Not actually. Anyway, if it helps, I suppose the only project that is in my future, now I think of it, is an old medieval abbey in France. I was contacted about it years ago and then never since. Government bureaucracies are the same everywhere. It’s about a thousand years old and it’s got water in the basement."
"Really. My wife would like the medieval part. Is it famous?"
"Oh, pretty famous. Tourists know it. A lot of medieval queens were abbesses there. It’s called Fontevrault."
"Oh yes. Near Chinon."

Peter was very impressed, but remembered his manners quickly enough not to show it. "That’s right," he said.
"Well, well. I’d be tickled, if only there were some sort of American connection."
"Everything has to have an American connection?"
"Beg pardon? Oh, yes, I wrote it into the bylaws. Every other country has plenty of great ruins, and we plow ours under. I wanted to make sure my people didn’t get distracted. Though I kind of regret the stipulation now. This would be interesting. Quite a coup." They paused. Then Frank held out his hand. "Well, sir, obviously I’ve monopolized too much of your time. It’s been a pleasure."

Peter shook hands heartily. "Not at all. I mean, a pleasure for me, too. Good luck."
"And you. I may just write that memo. You may be in demand here sooner than you think." He waved his hand to indicate generally the University, the conference, America as a whole. "Look at all those cameras." Then he walked off.
Peter replayed that conversation in his head during the long trip home. A nice man with cancer, who had kept such track of his own field, and his career in it, that he had heard of practically everything, beginning with the cathedral in Lima. Probably no one else in the world except a handful of friends and Elaine and Fred remembered that. He felt as if he had been talking to Fred this afternoon, in some way atoning for all the times before cancer.

Frank Boyd returned to his wife at their townhome that night and told her about the lecture and about meeting Professor Shepstone, and asked her advice about someday doing a film on a European project. Something really interesting, like saving the old abbey where Richard the Lion Heart was buried.
"Really! And Eleanor?"
"Oh yes."
"Oh, I’d love to, but I’m afraid we’d have a hard time explaining it to our auditors."
"Yes, I know. But what if we find some sort of American connection to it?"
"Like what?"
"I don’t know. An American scientist involved, or maybe a hundred years ago some robber baron tried to buy the place or something. The last thing it was used for was a prison. If we buckle down and do our research we might find some kind of connection that would serve."
"Well, if you think so, I suppose there’s no harm in looking into it. Still, that’s not the same thing as actually filming here. Like we’ve always done."

"True." He stood at the window, gazing down three stories. "Imagine being so renowned that you are just plucked from Imperial College to help national governments save priceless monuments. Imagine that kind of prestige. That kind of expertise."
Monique handed him his cocktail. "Is he that renowned? You said he was surprised you even went up and introduced yourself."
"He may have been surprised in that setting. Open to the public and all. But any professional who knows the field knows him. That’s why it kills me to pass up getting him on record – our record. Whatever he’s doing. It would be quite a coup to be known as the company that introduced him to public television here." He swirled his drink and sipped.
"How do we know it hasn’t already been done?"
"Oh, I doubt it’s been done. I think he would have said."
"Were there cameras rolling there today?"
"As a matter of fact, yes. Strictly local press, though, I think."
"Well. Suppose we make a film off-budget. Just we two, even. Privately."
He turned to her. "Can we do that?"
"I don’t see why not. What’s to prevent us going to France with a camera, if you feel up to it? Remember our home movies of Luxor, Missouri? We just won’t show Peggy." She smiled, jostling his arm and his memory.
"But what would be the point – "
"We could sell the film through some other vendor than Boyd and Monique," she went on.
"I suppose," he mused.
"When is this renovation going to start?"
"He doesn’t know. Whenever the French stamp everything in triplicate, and so on. Just like bureaucracies anywhere."
"Well, suppose we ask Chuck what he thinks, and then in the meantime we can have the research department do a little digging, and maybe we’ll find our connection as well. Then it would all be legal anyway. I would think it’s possible. Does that sound good?"

"All right. Why not?" He put his arm around her, and drank again. The ice tinkled. "I would really like to get this last project off the ground before – well, God forbid, in case anything should happen. Broadening our horizons, and so on."
"I’m sure it can be done," she said softly.

It was not long afterwards, in these middle years of Alice’s experience in the working world, and of Peter’s adjusting himself to a new identity without a sibling, without any of his birth family left him at all, that Trish arrived at Monique Productions and the Boyd Foundation, confident and perfect. She had been hired away from the film school of the Art Institute of Chicago, hired away, which is to say, very much wanted. She walked the halls briskly, her cap of flaxen hair glowing like a halo, at home in the place from her first day on the job. Trish was small and abundant in her figure, and always, while cheerful enough, veiled. She veiled her body in long skirts and blouses, often white or cream colored. When scarves were fashionable she veiled her white clothes in bright gauzy scarves. In summer her swimsuits were black, or skirted and printed in aqua blue flowers. Already she was, not dowdy, not quite matronly, but private and commanding, already guarded by a cover-up of some kind.

She was veiled in her eyes and in her manner as well. Even when she walked the corridors of the Art Institute as a student, she gave the impression of being very much in the know and friendly with people whom the ordinary soul – you – would never meet, with the dean perhaps, or visiting artists or curators. As she walked she kept her eyes down, not out of shyness (she was never shy) but out of a kind of lofty busyness, a sense that she was too preoccupied to be disturbed with ordinary things, with you. She was an exclusive person. Even her birthday was February 29th. Leap Day. Leaping over obstacles. She never sat in the Art Institute’s south gardens in the spring, among just anybody. Later, when she taught at the school, her students rarely approached her after class with questions. Yet she was not unkind. She laughed all the time, with her own friends, with the dean in his office.

Trish was one of those people upon whom civilization and decency probably depend. She was a rule-flouter, a human being among machines. And there are always machines, even in remote ages, even among cavemen there must have been machines. She was a person who shrugs and says, Oh, well no, but I shall do it this way – and then does it and succeeds. Even from the beginning her very presence at the School of the Art Institute was illegal: she lived in a fine house in the quaint Indiana town of Crown Point, but kept a fake address at her aunt’s house in Calumet City, so as to attend the School without paying its exorbitant out-of-state tuition. She planned to confess this to the dean someday, years in the future, laughing, after she had gotten an offer from Rome, or they had named a wing for her perhaps. In fact Trish was a person who would have been very annoyed to be pegged a rule-flouter. That sounds so negative, and above all things she hated the negative. To flout something already sounds petty, and she was not petty or mean-spirited. She paid up parking meters without tricks, and did not cheat on her taxes. It was only that if she perceived a higher value in doing something technically improper, she did it, especially if it seemed more grand or human, or saved time. Especially if it wasn’t hurting someone. "The Art Institute of Chicago has been around far longer than I have," she laughed among her friends. "I think it will survive."

Which is true. Anyway no one would have questioned her even if they had discovered her little financial sleight-of-hand. Trish had a great gift for bowling over people – for billowing over them in her cream clothes and bright scarves, sometimes a tropical print blouse in summer – simply by looking at them plainly with her un-shy eyes and expecting them to be nice, to be positive, like her. "Oh, well ...but I was planning to teach that course, too," she would look plainly, surprised, at her interlocutor when the staff discussed their curriculum for the coming year. "Too," just the word too was enough to say, Here I am, you are superfluous. And Charlie or whoever it was would back down, and she would get her way. And she was intelligent and attractive all the while. She gave the impression that a person had only to do one more, perfect thing to get into her entire good graces, and become the sort of friend to whom she confided the details about her tuition, or what she and the dean had been laughing about just now. She got her way.

And a good thing, too, a good thing there are people like her in the world. Who knows but that the Art Institute itself may have been founded by people who hadn’t any paintings and could not afford to buy them either, but did not tell their banks so, and just muddled along in sovereignty and judicious lies, and made it work anyway. Look at the glories there now. Who knows but that wars may have been stopped, and peace treaties signed, by people who lacked the authority, but did it anyway and saved lives. Shakespeare plagiarized Holinshed, and thought Bohemia had a coast. Beethoven scribbled "I allow it, you ass" in the margin of some composition book which forbade a certain musical thing to be done. Yet look at the glories. Rule-flouters, all of them.
After Trish came to "Monique-Boyd" one of the first things she did was to begin calling the joint company by that new, hyphenated name, a name of her own invention. No one had thought of slurring them before. "It’s just quicker," she laughed. She called it that on official press releases without notifying other employees or asking Mrs. Boyd’s permission. Mr. Boyd was already too ill to concern himself. Trish paced the halls, brisk and at home. She noticed Alice, too, and thought she seemed nice.

Pearls and Roses, chapter 8

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