Thursday, December 17, 2009

Pearls and Roses, chapter 12

Pearls and Roses, chapter 11

Five days later, she attended the meeting and found that it was all too late. Pat and Trish came walking into Lily’s house together, dropping their purses down their arms, breathless with laughter, and saying “Oh well,” and “Go figure Mother Nature.”

“I don’t imagine Charlie is any too heartbroken,” Pat said.

“Are you kidding? With a new baby in the house? I don’t think so.” That’s right. Alice had forgotten Charlie’s wife had just had a baby.

Alice was accustomed to their Board meetings starting with a great deal of banter and eating, so she still waited, though she felt uneasy. But this time Trish opened the discussion as soon as she sat down. “Well, in case you hadn’t heard,” she smiled at everyone, “there’s been a little change of plan. Since the Mississippi flooded” – she said this with big gestures of her mouth, her whole face and shoulders and hands, as if she were announcing that a comet, as expected, had hit the earth and killed billions and also impinged on their plans after all – “we’re not sending anyone to film at that little town where Monique and Frank started the company or whatever.”

“Thank God,” Lily said. “I’m sure Vicki doesn’t want Charlie coming home smelling like shit, and with a nice case of malaria.”

“Exactly,” Trish answered. “It’s now a mudflat,” and they all laughed. “And we’re postponing that perspective film. We’ll have to make it some other time, maybe for next year. There’s no point filming a big wash,” she laughed –

“Literally,” Pat laughed with her.

Trish said ‘perspective’ for retrospective, the same way she mistook ‘confectioner’s oven’ for convection oven and ‘pour over’ for pore over. She also continually mispronounced the newest employee’s name, calling her ‘Piller’ to rhyme with miller, instead of the beautiful and meaningful, and religious, Pilar. Pilar was from Colombia, and was beautiful. Trish had heard the name said correctly several times, but found the accent embarrassing and quickly didn’t care. All these thoughts flashed through Alice’s mind and her annoyance grew. Annoyance – no. She felt a threshold had been crossed, small, totally unexpected, a hairline crack in the ice that only on looking back in a shaft of Himalayan sunlight revealed itself a dizzying crevasse below, always there, forever.

So that was all Trish had to say about it. It was obvious that she expected no one to mind her solitary decisions or question her pronouncements. They were all women together, who couldn’t like mud. The four of them laughed and chatted, and began to eat each other’s delicious cooking. Alice had brought snickerdoodles and had to smile stiffly at compliments to them. She sat there otherwise feeling a fool at their bidding, which was hardly fair to them, since they could not have known what she had wanted to say and do. Was there any point in broaching her ideas now? While she speculated in angry silence, her attention closed to them, they took out their notebooks and files and began discussing new things. Now she was falling behind. She thought of something.

“Trish,” she said, just anxiously seeking information, “didn’t I sign a couple of checks for Charlie and the crew’s hotel expenses in Luxor? I mean, already? And wasn’t there an appointment with the mayor scheduled, and the preservation society and everything?”

Pat answered in her slow, big-shouldered drawl. “We stopped payment on the checks over the weekend. And we cancelled the meetings. I’m sure the mayor has more important things on his mind right now.”

“He told me his own home is a total loss. And it was historic, too.”

“Oh my God, can you imagine,” the others began to murmur and exclaim.

Alice nodded. Something told her she had better save her temper for another day. Nobody cared.

And something told her she had just met Pat, met her truly for the first time, never mind awkward proto-beginnings years ago when Pat’s hair had been a thin bowl of overworked yellow straw and her gauzy clothes unflattering on her big body. Pat had clanked through life since then, as always all rods and blocks beneath her clothes, cheerfully laughing at, explaining everything. Life had taught her to laugh cheerfully at everything and then, like Trish as it turned out, to stay obeyed at all costs. She was kind to strangers, she struck up conversations happily with Salvation Army bell-ringers, or ladies working at the supermarket deli counter, but if she knew you at all intimately, as a co-worker or fellow-volunteer coach with the middle-school swim team for example, she quickly expected obedience. Her way was to stand at your side, or sit if need be, and gaze down at a short distance while you made a reasonable suggestion, or pointed out a genuinely binding problem. Then she would pause half a second, as if recalling that she had already considered that idea and found it wrong, breathe in, and say “no.” She would turn on you her full height, and the clanking metallic boxes of her body, and her ringing rusted whisky laugh, the voice which drawled an extra syllable out of every word she spoke when she was not laughing, often making polite people feel she was the teacher and they the blinking child, she would turn the full force of all this upon you, continue her explanations if need be, and usually get her way. She gave the impression of hurry, too, which helped people feel they were imposing on her and ruining her selfless commitments if they did not do what she liked. True, though, that she had a lot of selfless commitments, because she had a great heart. Unlike Alice, Pat really did volunteer as a prison tutor when her pastor asked her to, and told no one about it except Joe. “There’s no smell like the smell of a prison,” she remarked quietly. “And you’d never expect it.” It would have surprised and troubled her to learn that people found her physique threatening. She had other things to think about. She was strong.

Alice recalled herself from distant prospects. Nobody cared, not today. Until now she had so liked being among the elites. Now, already, she began to act, she began to feel compelled to act for her own safety, like a hostage, or a spy in a royal court.

Feigning unconcern, she asked, “Oh, can you stop payment on checks that I’ve signed? I think it was Mill and me, wasn’t it?” That hardly mattered. Mill was a great friend of Trish and Pat. She, too, had daughters.

“It’s done now,” Pat laughed, in that big wheezing voice that sounded like rust and whisky. She too was beginning to act. To act polite with Alice, and to act as if Alice was not a threat to everything she held dear. A woman questioning a woman on a matter of policy, an official act: women don’t do that.

“Anyway I think we have slightly more important things in the pipeline,” Trish said, smiling kindly at Alice. “We have a chance to go to France,” she announced to everyone at the table. “A couple of weeks ago I got a very bizarre phone call and, well, this has been mostly Pat’s project so I’ll let her take over and explain things.” Alice sensed that the diction of their Board meetings had turned unusually formal.

Pat spoke. “Years ago when Frank Boyd hired me, he wanted me specifically to research the restoration work of one man in particular. His name is Peter Shepstone. He is an engineer from Imperial College in London, which, okay,” she laughed, “I had never heard of, but which is apparently an extremely prestigious place.” Her loud, lilting voice came out in a rotund series of carefully enunciated nasal waves. It was her nature always to declaim.

“I’m a mom,” she continued. “All I know about England is the Teletubbies. But anyway, Frank Boyd and Peter Shepstone had met at a conference in Texas, and Peter told Frank about a project he was going to be involved with someday in France. It’s the restoration of a medieval abbey where all kinds of famous kings and queens are buried. Apparently it’s hugely important. Mr. Boyd already knew of this man’s reputation, which again, is evidently huge, and he wanted – frankly – an excuse to cover this man’s work and bring him to the attention of public television. Are we all clear on that?”

Everyone nodded. “Okay. Fast forward about a million years. I admit, I was not able to do a great job at my original job, which was to try and find an American connection to this medieval restoration project so that we could film Mr. Boyd’s friend while still keeping within Mr. Boyd’s bylaws, which said ‘do American stuff and that’s it.’ Meanwhile Mr. Boyd passed away. The whole thing gets forgotten, until, this June, Peter Shepstone calls Trish, whose name he got from our old website that Caroline never updated” – the spellbound women began to laugh – “and he tells her that the project is now underway like a house on fire, you know, after some last-minute, bureaucratic delays or whatever, and are we still interested in filming.”

“I would say we are,” Lily put in, and Mill said, “Definitely. How fabulous.”
“Does he know Mr. Boyd is dead?” Alice asked.

“Yes, that’s on the website under ‘About us.’ However, Trish and I both felt that since this idea was important to Mr. Boyd, and since this man has contacted us to say things are finally underway, that it might be nice to go after it as sort of a tribute to him and to Monique, who is not getting any younger. That’s why we cancelled the checks and changed the plans about Luxor. We felt that filming this old abbey might be a more sophisticated tribute.” Alice saw the reasonableness of this, and softened, grudgingly. Still – she had crossed a threshold.

“And – “ Trish prompted.

“And the good news is that Mr. Boyd must be looking down on us because lo and behold, I found, now, an American connection to the whole deal after all. Personally we both think that Monique-Boyd’s prestige alone, plus Mr. Boyd’s interest, is connection enough, but our bylaws do say that we have to have an American tie to whatever we do, and what I found is that there is a pretty well-known American woman historian who is writing a book on this abbey and lives right there anyway. And who should she be but Linda Spellman, who is Monique’s very own, what, step-something?”

“Step-granddaughter,” Trish said.

“Step-granddaughter,” Pat finished. “Tra-la.”

“A what?” Lily asked. “How?”

“She’s Monique’s daughter’s grown step-daughter, if you can call it that. Jamie Boyd married Chuck, our lawyer, when he was already an older divorced man with grown kids. This Dr. Spellman is one of them.”

“So it’s not like she raised them or anything.”

“Oh, no. Jamie and Linda are only, like, ten years apart, if that. But the relationship is still, legally, step-mom step-child. So she’s Monique’s step-granddaughter.”

“Well, is that the point, or is this Jamie a historian?” Mill asked, as usual scarcely listening except when it suited her.

“Linda Spellman is an American historian working there, she’s an authority on this abbey, and she’s the point.”

“She’s our connection.”


“Can’t beat it,” Mill said, and everyone laughed happily.

“Exactly. So, assuming everyone agrees to vote we do this, we can get a crew together and go to Chinon, which is the town near the abbey, and do a really nice project, interview Dr. Spellman and this old friend of Mr. Boyd’s, and maybe have a really nice perspective for a twentieth anniversary party, hopefully next spring.”

“Chatham Pointe country club has its Walnut Room available for large parties next June,” Pat sang out meaningfully, “right in time for Monique’s birthday.”

“And it’s close by,” Trish added, and everyone laughed and murmured happiness. Alice thought of the Art Institute lions in a snowfall, with the wreaths around their necks. But she knew she had simply been outrun, and voted, therefore, to film Peter Shepstone at Fontevrault with everyone else.

Pearls and Roses, chapter 13

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