An Exquisite Sense of What Is Beautiful (9 page)

BOOK: An Exquisite Sense of What Is Beautiful
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‘What are you doing in there?’ Macy at the door. Tapping.

‘Just a minute.’

‘Do you have a lemon?’

‘No.’

‘Tonic?’

‘No.’

‘How about a kiss?’

He opened the door. The blanket had dropped around her like an open cape, her hands occupied with the bottle of gin and a tumbler from the kitchen. He clasped her face, kissed her hard, forcing her to step backwards as she tried to return his embrace. They stumbled back across the room like this until they reached the couch and he pushed her down.

‘Wait,’ she gasped. She put the bottle and glass on the floor. ‘Now. Start again. Slower. Take your time with me.’

The big things in life give us pressure, he thought, but it is the small things that give us pleasure. Love, death, marriage, family, health, work are all sent to torment us. To wrack us with their conflicts and their complexities. But the tiny details, the minutiae, they exist in themselves and for themselves. Just for pleasure. Like the delicious curve between Macy’s neck and collarbone. There he could place his lips and she would arch her head towards him with a languid tilt. Or the wonderful twists and scallops of bone and cartilage that made up her ear, the dangling lobe of flesh beneath, just right for the nip of his teeth. Then the dense forest of her hair, like a thatcher’s layered, sweet-smelling weaving. Or the way she clawed at his clothing, releasing the tail of his shirt so he could first feel the cold air then the warmth of her palm. The scratch and trace of her fingers as they snuck beneath his waistband, the gap too tight
to allow her to venture further. He ran his hands over her skin, like a calligrapher with his brush, each gentle stroke infused with
meaning
. While she was the wild abstract impressionist, splattering him with the rake of her fingers.

‘I want us naked,’ she demanded. She sat up, quickly drew her sweater over her head. Then with a double-armed arch behind her back, she released the clip of her bra, allowing her breasts to spill out of their cups. He stretched out his hand towards a nipple.

‘No,’ she said, pushing his arm away. ‘I want to see you first.’

He felt more confident now, trusting in his concealed
hardness
, poised to spring out at her nakedness. He wanted her to see him erect. To let her know how ready and capable he was. With not much finesse, he hurriedly stripped off his clothes, then stood before her. She reached out her hand and touched him. He
shuddered
and thought he might spill his seed there and then. Then she drew into him, as a ballroom dancer might return to her partner from an outward spin. The soft pouches of her breasts against his chest. His penis pressed up into her belly. Her pubic hair rough against his upper thigh. He wanted to remember these moments, to somehow watch, feel, taste, smell, then register them even as he was a part of them. To be inside them and outside them at the same time. But it was an impossible task. And so he surrendered totally to the experience, knowing he would only be able to recall this momentous occasion in his life as a sensual blur.

‘You are in lust, my boy,’ Aldous was pleased to inform Edward at every opportunity.

‘No, it’s more than that.’

‘It is written all over your face.’

‘Then you’re misreading the signs.’

‘Nothing to be ashamed of. Lust will get you through the first six months of any relationship. I should know.’

Whether it was lust or love, what Edward did know was that he was fully in Macy’s control. Somehow he liked that, in an almost masochistic way, as he relied on her whim as to when she would or would not visit him. He allowed his life to become dependent on
these occasions, hardly ever going out for fear he might miss her. He had never felt this way before. So consumed by this surrender to someone, moving from moods of extreme despair to
overwhelming
happiness when finally she appeared at his door. He started smoking. He couldn’t concentrate on his studies. She gave him a book of Byron’s poetry with a lipstick imprint of her kiss on the flyleaf. She told him how much she enjoyed his taste, his smell, his touch. She said she could never have enough of him. And then she would disappear for days.

But on this gloriously hot summer’s day, he lay by her side on a blanket on a grassy embankment leading down to Regent’s Park lake just above the boathouse. One of several couples spread out across the slope. He had often been a passer-by along the water’s edge, looking enviously at these entwined bodies sprawled out on the grass, skirts hiked, shirts loose, faces merged. Now he was one of them. A satisfied member of the couples’ club. He raised himself up on one arm, looked to where his old single self might have stood. Out on the water there was a solitary rowboat powered by a large man in a turban while a boy passenger sat and watched from the prow. The weight of the Sikh as he pulled back on the stroke took the front of the boat out of the water so the boy skimmed along on air. The lad’s face bore a certain arrogance, like a young prince being ferried across the lakes of his kingdom. Beyond the boy and the pond, a mist had settled on the borders of the park above the Grand Union Canal. He turned over on his back and stared at the haze of the sky. Macy scraped her toes up and down the bare soles of his feet, tickling for his attention. Cool, wet blades of grass between his own toes. The air teeming thick with pollen, cut grass, swarms of flying insects. The heat of her limbs beside his. He felt a strong sense of contentment. And yet the moment he became aware of this sensation, it was gone. As though he could never be content with his own contentment. He leaned over, plucked the lit cigarette from between her fingers, sucked in greedily, then placed it between her lips.

‘Do you know what I like about you?’ she said on an exhale of smoke.

‘Tell me.’

‘Your acceptance of me. As a woman. And as an artist. Most men view women, especially independent, creative women, as a battleground. Something to be beaten into submission otherwise they feel compromised. Intimidated even. You’re not like that.’

‘You’ve got it wrong. I’m just being selfish. I’m prepared to put up with all your nonsense because I love what you bring to me.’

‘Like what?’

‘Little things.’

‘Go on.’

‘Putting flowers in my room.’

‘That’s it?’

‘Buying me a new toothbrush when you saw I needed one. Rather than just telling me to go out and get one myself.’

‘My God. You’re easy to please. Tell me more.’

There was so much more he wanted to tell her. Yet the words wouldn’t come, they were lumpen, not in his throat but in his stomach. Held down by a fear that stretched far back into his past. To the sudden flash of an image of a little boy, nine years old,
turning
up uninvited to the birthday party of a young girl in his class. Fiona, her name was. Fiona MacLeod – he would never forget that. Fiona wearing her fluffy pink cardigan and her chiffon party dress with its layers of petticoats. And as he stood there shaking on the front step, seeing all his classmates running around inside the house, the coloured balloons and the streamers, the little gift bags all lined up in the porch, it was Fiona’s mother who told him that he and his pitiful present – a well-thumbed comic – were not
welcome
. When he had returned home that day bewildered, rejected and feeling lonelier than he had ever done, he recalled how he had found solace in the discovery in his father’s pipe-box of the small sword, how he could decapitate the figure of the Oriental maiden engraved on the casing just by sliding the blade out of its sheath.

‘I’ve told you enough already,’ he said.

‘I’ll go then.’ She leaned over, kissed him on the cheek, then rose to her feet.

‘What’s the hurry?’

‘I want to do some work in the studio. While there’s still natural light. And remember. We’re having dinner with my father tonight.’

‘God, I had forgotten about that. When is it?’

‘Eight o’clock in Soho. Kettner’s in Romilly Street.’

‘Do I have to go?’

‘I don’t really care. It’s my father who wants to meet you.’

‘But he’s met me already.’

‘Well, he wants to meet you again. That’s what he does. He wants to take control of my life. The same way he did my mother’s.’

‘So why put up with it?’

‘He pays the bills, stupid.’

Edward wore his only suit – a blue worsted three-piece affair his father had bought him for his graduation – the jacket too tight now but passable if he kept it unbuttoned. He arrived ten minutes early but Macy and her father were already there, Macy in the cream silk blouse and black knee-length skirt she had worn for the king’s funeral. Jack Collingwood looking more film star than Yankee
diplomat
, with his elegant good looks and immaculate double-breasted suit. Skin shining. Like a star in the firmament of less confident, less attractive men. His host rose to shake his hand. The grip was tight, professional.

‘Edward. Glad you could make it.’

‘Thank you for the invitation, sir.’

Macy cast him a weak smile, warding off any inclination he had to kiss her. He sat down and Collingwood passed him a menu.

‘The calves’ liver with bacon is excellent.’

Edward looked at the elaborate script in its red leather folder, the rows of cutlery, the napkin in its silver ring. He could feel the thick nap of linen under his nervous fingertips. He had never been in such an expensive restaurant before. He took the recommendation. Macy ordered fish. Collingwood let the
maître
d
’ choose the wine.

‘So how are the studies doing?’

‘Classes are finished for the summer, sir. I still have a few written assignments for next term. Cultural comparisons that sort of thing. Japan and Great Britain.’

‘I spent a few years out there, you know. During the
Occupation
. I was a budding young lawyer then. Full of ideals.
Investigating
war crimes. Thankless task. Put me off the law for good. Drove me towards diplomacy.’

‘What exactly put you off, sir?’

‘What exactly put him off,’ Macy interrupted, ‘was that my mother didn’t approve of what he was doing. ‘Once she saw…’

‘Now, Macy,’ her father said.

‘Once she saw what her dear compatriots had done to Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she began to wonder who the real war criminals were. Or at least she didn’t think one side was in any
position
to take the moral high ground over the other. She wanted to come home immediately and…’

‘Macy. I said that’s enough.’

‘And that’s what she did. Without my father.’

‘Your mother came home because she was worried about you.’

Macy tore open the roll on her side plate, struggled to spread a cold pat of butter. ‘What Daddy means is that I was about to be expelled from boarding school for having an affair with my art teacher. That was what my mother gave as her excuse. But it wasn’t the real reason.’

Collingwood smiled indulgently at his daughter. ‘Have we
finished
our little scene? You don’t want to hear any of this, do you, Edward?’

Edward could easily imagine Collingwood now as the diplomat. Smiling and unflustered. Playing one party off the other. He didn’t want to be sucked into his game, this father-daughter dynamic, nor did he want to hear anything of affairs with art teachers either. He shrugged a reply to Collingwood, tried to smile at Macy but his lips contrived to betray him, contorting into what he was afraid emerged as a horrible smirk. He was saved by the waiter, who arrived flourishing a bottle of wine. Collingwood busied himself with the tasting while Macy sat tense in her seat, her front teeth cutting into her lower lip. The waiter filled his glass with the ruby liquid and Edward anticipated some sort of painful toast to break the silence but instead Collingwood said:

‘Macy says you are a writer as well.’

‘That’s very kind of her. But I’ve just had one short story published.’

‘He’s got potential,’ Macy said, her unaccustomed praise
surprising
him. ‘Naive. But good.’

‘I’m sure he is. I think it’s healthy to have a creative hobby. Macy paints, of course.’

‘It’s not a hobby, Daddy.’

‘Languages. That’s what I wanted her to do. She has a
natural
linguistic ability, did you know that? She should have gone to Rome. Improved her Italian. But no. She wanted to come here to London. Play around with her paints at my expense.’

‘You just can’t take me seriously, can you?’

‘Well, you surely don’t expect to make a career out of all that abstract stuff? All that random throwing of paint. I mean it’s just not art.’

Macy rose from her chair, threw down her napkin and walked off, just avoiding the waiter who had turned up with three plates balanced on his arms.

‘Gone to the powder room,’ Collingwood said, his gaze
following
his daughter’s direction, as he tucked in his napkin, sat back to let the waiter serve him. ‘So like her mother. Highly strung. Hope you have what it takes to keep her in check, Edward. Well, do you?’

Edward had cut off a nice piece of calves’ liver and was tempted to pop it in his mouth, try to chew himself out of a response. But politeness forced him to put down his fork. The dead eye of Macy’s unattended fish observed him accusingly.

‘I really like her work, sir.’

Collingwood grunted. ‘That’s not what I asked. Do you have what it takes?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Well, you’d better find out. Or she’ll run circles round you. Her mother was the same. Got to keep her on a tight leash. Keep her under control. Or you’ll be the one to suffer. Mark my words, boy. Just mark my words.’

This time Edward did let his fork complete its journey to his mouth, chomped down on the tender, juicy organ, praying that Macy would return. Which she did. Red-eyed and trembling. She remained standing, gulped down a glass of wine.

‘Come on, Eddie. We’re leaving.’

Collingwood cocked an eyebrow at him, as if to say: ‘Well, have you got what it takes?’

Edward stood up, tried but failed to button his jacket. ‘I’m sorry, sir. But I must leave. Thank you for…’

BOOK: An Exquisite Sense of What Is Beautiful
5.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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