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Authors: Kristel Thornell

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BOOK: On the Blue Train
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How had it come to this? A part of him, rational and indifferent, hard and cool, had observed what was taking place, without having the energy required to avert it or any particular interest in resistance. Looking back on his first year without Valeria, searching for a clue that would have helped him to avoid arriving at such an impasse again, his memories were a boggy terrain. He confused the careless condition he'd been in with the despised room that had housed all those awful, stagnant hours. As if at some treacherous instant his rented living room and his mind had become reflections of one another. Something had gone awry in that familiar space
occupied by him peacefully enough in the past. Was it the arrangement of the furniture? What angle, what detail was badly amiss? Something unobtrusive but crucial. And the door had locked behind him. He was reduced to that room, to its unfortunate convergence of brown sofa, brown curtains, green rug, floral-print armchair (quite late in the game he began to ask himself whether the design, in perky mauve and acidic lemon, could be a poor approximation of ranunculi), detritus of reproachful unopened books and clotted dust. He found the sofa especially noxious, reeking as it did of Valeria's wronged cat—or of his own decrepitude. It seemed to remind him of a sin he had committed.

At the furthest outposts of his awareness had sailed the possibility that he might have performed a rearrangement, as it were, of those unsavoury furnishings, some simple adjustment that would have set everything to rights. But how would he have gathered himself to proceed with it? He couldn't breathe deeply enough for that.

His travels began not long after the flight of Flash. It was Mr Vaughan's idea, actually: another proof of his wisdom. Soon after pitilessly opening the curtains, he made Harry a cup of tea and ordered him to drink it, watching for the first reluctant sip. The aggressive sweetness of the beverage caused a fluttering in Harry.

‘Don't take umbrage,' Mr Vaughan said, possibly after a prolonged interval. ‘You've been a good tenant till now. I've had no complaints. But it might be time for you to move on, so to speak. Change of scene and all that. You do see my point.'

Harry struggled to organise his thoughts. He did, of course. Most definitely, he could not remain there. They both recognised that Mr Vaughan had after a fashion come face to face with the cadaver of the Harry who had lived in his flat. That life was no more. The notion of going on living there made his flesh creep, like the prospect of wearing a dead man's woollen suit to a funeral on a day in high summer.

‘Could you go to relatives for a time?' Mr Vaughan suggested with some hope.

Harry shook his head, seeing the veranda of his parents' farmhouse in Young as he had at sixteen, looking back at it on a cool morning, bound for Sydney. He hadn't even scratched one last time behind their blond mutt's ears, the gesture already of the past, a rite he'd teach himself to forgo. Having taken off her apron to lend the occasion formality, his mother was nonetheless in one of her businesslike poses that made him curious about the time before her marriage, almost never alluded to, when she had been in domestic service. His father appeared resigned and somehow sympathetic. A man who assured his control of their household by allowing himself to utter—not necessarily every day, nor even
every week—underhandedly or plainly vicious words. Harry had often wondered whether it mightn't have been simpler if he and his mother had been able to rely on cruelty, or even suffer bodily knocks that would have been more irrefutable than twisty, slippy speech. The sky above the roof had been so open, cobalt blue, marbled with soft, silvered cloud.

‘Hardly.'

‘Drink your tea. A health spa?'

Harry almost laughed, extraordinarily, sugar in his sinuses.

Mr Vaughan went on, ‘I myself was once at Bath, for a liver problem. I benefited from it, I did.' He studied Harry's continuing groggy silence. ‘You'll have to go somewhere—and better somewhere they'll look after you a bit. Drink.'

Everything was desultory, ludicrous. See-through. Every inch of that horrendous charade of a room, the pigheaded sunlight, any word Harry might voice. The daft uneasy cage of his body. And yet more intolerable pen of his mind. Notwithstanding, Mr Vaughan had planted a seed. A visit to a health spa, in spite of—no,
because
of—the quaint futility of it, the folly, the farcical self-indulgence, just might have fitted his unworthiness. It was an idea, at least. What else would he do? He had no better plan.

First, aided and abetted not a little by Mr Vaughan, he moved from Lincoln's Inn Fields to new lodgings in Chelsea. His
next landlord was of unexceptional height, stout and sardonic, a joyless joker. Harry was not in the least impressed by his sagacity and couldn't seem to trouble himself to recall the gentleman's name. His new rooms, though, were smart and blank (the sofa a hygienic shade of rose), and he never stayed in them too long. If they started to look a little
off
, if he caught himself turning a less than benign gaze upon them, he'd expeditiously pack a case and away. Head for some small hotel somewhere in the British Isles or on the Continent, often in a spa town. And there he'd stay until he'd had enough or he was moved to visit another place. Or it appeared safe to return experimentally
home
. He was a transient for much of the year in the hope that time, broken into these shards, wouldn't congeal again as it had in the flat in which he'd failed Valeria. Harry considered himself very much an invalid.

He had a thought occasionally for the cat, Flash, wondering if she had survived. He imagined she had. She flourished in a sleek new coat beneath which her heart beat smug and strong. Her iridescent eyes remained as contemptuous of cowardice as ever.

He and Valeria had lived well though carefully, without any pomp, in their little flat in Lincoln's Inn Fields. Neither of them had received a bean from their family. Harry had been the private secretary of a wealthy businessman, Mr Ainsworth.
Valeria had announced one day early in their marriage that she would become the assistant of an elderly lady she had just met in an A.B.C. tea shop. Though he assured her that his salary was sufficient for them, she'd insisted that it would hardly be work (and wouldn't pay much, anyway), more a device for providing a few hours of company each afternoon to a lonely widow with poor eyesight but personality, who only wanted to be read to and taken for walks around Bloomsbury, where she resided. Her husband having been a diplomat often posted abroad, Mrs Mortlake had far-ranging international interests and was a proficient conversationalist in three languages. Valeria had claimed, furthermore, that since she'd given up painting she needed something to occupy her mind and shape her days. And her association with Anne Mortlake had indeed been a happy one—for the first seven years. Then Mrs Mortlake had grown good-naturedly senile before lapsing into a rather long and cantankerous decline. Valeria remained a steadfast friend to her till the end, even seeming in the most testing times to have a flair for nursing. Harry understood that Mrs Mortlake had bequeathed his wife a token sum in her will. When Valeria herself died, he was shocked to discover that Mrs Mortlake had made her, in fact, an heiress of some stature.

Why had she not let on? Why keep it from him? The money might have made their life together much more breezy. Very puzzling, especially as in her own will Valeria left the
entirety of the startling amount to him. He became a man of not insignificant means, able to take an early retirement at thirty-eight. And after Mr Vaughan's intervention he began to behave like a man of leisure. It may seldom have felt so, but he was freakishly fortunate. Had he lacked such resources, he'd no doubt have died.

The System, as he thought of his new itinerant life, was working, though he was aware it could break down at any moment. He had himself in hand for now, but a lesson of a period such as the one he'd lived through was that control is an illusion. Once everything has gone see-through on you, it can again. You know that perfectly well. If only your head were to be tilted once more in that way . . . He hadn't been saved so much as granted a reprieve.

Another lesson learned, as modest and obvious as it might have seemed, was the importance of having his mind and body engaged. To this end, he made a concerted effort to take an interest in the newspapers, he read a little and listened to music, he became a compulsive walker, frequented Turkish baths and submitted to massages and other treatments. Sometimes he became fixated on women. The latter was a mild distraction he never mistook for love. (He was certain that after Valeria he was incapable of falling in love, of anything so grand and strenuous.) He'd simply cultivate an interest in some lady or other, someone unaccompanied and, if possible, travel-wearied, a little frayed and tending to the antisocial. Work to convince
himself he was bewitched. The aim was to clear his head and ideally—did he really believe in this possibility?—to achieve a sensation like the one you could have at the sea's edge of being gently thrilled, washed clean. In reality, nothing had ever gone far beyond tame flirtation. No doubt the women could smell despair on him, like the dankness of an alleyway that may have a certain shady allure but into which, after a hesitation, you would not venture.

Teresa Neele was alone and apparently reclusive, and maybe wilted. However, she wasn't like the women he usually chose or who chose him. She was singular in a way he couldn't identify. He strongly intuited it would be a mistake to concern himself with her. Sipping sherry and undressing distractedly amid the pretence of hotel furnishings, he relived their conversation. Then said to himself, Music. At the gramophone, he dithered before deciding on Monteverdi's
Lamento della ninfa
. Perhaps it was a suggestion of the music, but as that exquisite woe unrolled itself, he wondered if he'd really glimpsed in Teresa Neele's eyes what he'd once or twice thought he might have. He couldn't let go of the impression that she was suffering, or endangered. It quickened his heart. He pulled on his tartan dressing-gown, the wool softly aggravating. He was suddenly startled to remember that so little space separated them. On what floor was her room? Was she already in bed?

He saw the gestures she would make as she took off the pearls he'd noticed. Her head dropping forward, heavy all at
once, the back of her neck revealed, and her long thin fingers fumbling at the clasp. How many times had he watched Valeria make those gestures, grappling with fatigue until she eventually asked in the tones of a child for help? Countless. No, they had indeed been counted. That was all over and done with. Concluded.

Teresa Neele (
Please call me Teresa
) was taller than Valeria had been and, Harry thought, longer-necked. More statuesque. These comparisons, a dark reflex, pained him like a contemplated betrayal. But he'd only had one conversation and, for heaven's sake, danced the charleston with Teresa. Why was he taking the encounter to heart? How was this different to his other flimsy infatuations?

BOOK: On the Blue Train
10.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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