Authors: Priscilla Masters
I recognised many original paintings that night, a Vermeer, a Titian, Picasso. I saw Sèvres porcelain, Chinese cabinets, a Chippendale table of the highest quality. The house was a perfect, soulless storehouse of the world’s treasures and as I watched Paul Wernier-King point out all that he owned I wondered what pleasure they really gave him and how he owned so much when he was still so young. A year or two younger than me, I supposed.
We must have spent an hour walking through the house on this guided tour, finally returning to the hall where the trim, black maid was standing.
‘This is Jemima,’ my employer said. ‘She will be your personal maid while you are here. She’ll do your laundry and your shopping. Wash your hair.’ He shrugged and
laughed again. ‘I don’t know. Anything you want she’ll sort you. Her room is next to yours so she’ll hear if you want anything in the night. We eat in a half-hour. I guess you’ll want to wash up.’
He waited, politely, in the hall, while Jemima led me up the stairs, turning right, along a long corridor, pushing open a door at the end.
It was an enormous bedroom; cream-carpeted, with tall windows which overlooked miles of garden – manicured lawns and maple trees and at the bottom, the sea.
‘You’re on the East Coast here,’ Jemima said. She was an attractive light-skinned Negress with sparkling, mischievous eyes and a pert figure. ‘It’s one of the prime positions on Long Island. East Hampton, ma’am.’ There was a touch of Southern twang in her accent.
I stared through the window.
Jemima slid open the wardrobe doors. ‘Your stuff is all unpacked, ma’am.’
‘Thank you, Jemima.’
She pulled open the top of the chest of drawers, looking nervous. ‘Is there anything else, ma’am? Would you like me to lay your dinner clothes out?’
I disliked the attention. ‘No. Thanks. I’ll just have a quick shower.’
‘I’ll come back for you then in twenty-five minutes. Mr Wernier-King doesn’t like to be kept waiting.’
The bathroom was as big as an entire floor of my cottage with a walk-in shower and a huge, roll-top bath
complete with taps in the shape of dolphins. The bath would have to wait. Tonight I opted for the shower. It was good to stand under the warm water and wash the day’s grime away. I felt much better, cleaner, spraying perfume on, scrubbing my teeth until they felt shiny again, putting on a short dress and brushing the tangles out of my hair. I applied some make-up and listened for the soft knock on the door. I would never find my way down to the dining room alone.
We ate in a small room somewhere along the miles of corridor and I saw, to my embarrassment, that Paul Wernier-King had dressed for dinner in a black dinner jacket.
Even then I sensed that some uncomfortable evenings lay ahead during my months at Tacoma then I reassured myself that I had just arrived. He was simply being polite. I would, in future, be eating alone.
Although Mr Wernier-King tried to put me at my ease it was a stilted evening. I was very tired and made little conversation and I knew that he was disappointed in me. He had expected someone with more scintillating conversation. More sparkle.
After an hour and a half of trying to make conversation he gave up. ‘It’s OK, Mrs Oliver,’ he said ruefully. ‘I guess you’re just tired. Get some sleep. We breakfast at eight-thirty and then I’ll show you my collection.’ He gave another of his wide, toothy grins. ‘I think I can promise you some surprises. You’ll just love them.’
I wished him goodnight. Jemima was standing outside the door. Without a word she led me back up the stairs and into my bedroom.
I was tired but I could not sleep straight away. Jet lag had caught up with me and now I felt more awake than during dinner. I pushed open one of the windows and stared up at the sky. I sometimes did this, tried to imagine that Richard was one of those stars and that if I only found the right one I would be able to communicate with him and he with me. On that night some of the stars were hidden by clouds but I sensed his presence, felt his arm around my shoulders, leant in towards him and cried out of sheer loneliness.
The next morning I felt different.
Jemima woke me with coffee, at seven-thirty. I had finally slept deeply without dreams in the four-poster draped with muslin curtains and for a moment I was confused and stared up at her.
‘Ma’am,’ she said, waited for me to sit up and handed me the coffee.
I had expected to wake up in my own bedroom in my aunt’s house but the sunshine pouring in through the windows seemed too bright, the room too large and opulent. I cradled the coffee cup in my hands and looked around me. Cream-coloured, thick-pile carpet, mahogany furniture, sparkling mirrors all the way around. Wide bay windows. Jemima was hooking back the long curtains.
I drank the coffee and carried on staring around me, at the room. Only now did I start to realise that everything here had been designed for my comfort. Coffee in hand I
stepped to the floor, slipped a wrap over my shoulders and walked around. New brushes were laid on the dressing table, boxes of lotions, still in their wrappers, set out neatly. A bottle of Chanel No 5 waiting, it seemed, for me to spray it on. A brand new box of cosmetics. Jemima watched me then handed me a white towel. ‘You want me to run you a bath?’
‘No. No. Thanks. I can manage myself.’
I had a shower and when I returned to the bedroom Jemima had laid out some clothes on the bed, a short, cream, linen skirt, a blue blouse and some sandals.
‘I hope that’s OK, ma’am,’ she said anxiously. ‘I wasn’t sure what you’d planned on wearing.’ I told her it was and dressed, sat at the dressing table and brushed my hair. I supposed then that it must have been coincidence that many of the cosmetics were my favourite brands – Clarins and L’Oréal, Estée Lauder and Clinique. The bathroom was the same – well stocked with shampoos and luxury bath oils, even a new toothbrush and toothpaste. It felt as though a great deal of preparation and thought had gone into my visit. I couldn’t imagine Paul Wernier-King doing the shopping himself so assumed it would have been the housekeeper.
‘It’s almost eight-thirty, ma’am.’ Jemima was prompting me.
As I descended the staircase I heard my employer shouting at someone.
‘The toast is burnt. Do it again.’
He was waiting for me at the breakfast table, no sign
of his ill humour. He looked very happy and as excited as a child on Christmas morning and greeted me with his wide grin. ‘Good morning, Susanna. I hope you slept well.’
‘I did, thank you.’ I didn’t know what to call him. ‘Sir’ would have seemed too deferential but ‘Mr Wernier-King’ too formal so I called him nothing. ‘The bed was very comfortable.’
He looked pleased. ‘Good. It’s a new one and I haven’t used that store before. Well,’ he said with another of his wide grins. ‘Today’s the day.’
I had my usual fruit and yoghurt, more coffee and some freshly squeezed orange juice, Mr Wernier-King watching my every move. Whenever I looked up his bright eyes were on me. The second I had drained my cup he stood up.
‘I’ve been so looking forward to showing you this.’
I knew he had. This was the truth.
He led me along the corridor into a room at the far corner of the house near the sitting room where I had first seen him watching cartoons. With a flourish he threw open a pair of double doors. I entered and was immediately in a different world. The room was beautiful, octagonal, cream-painted, with three long windows which overlooked the gardens. Between the windows were floor-to-ceiling, glazed cupboards and they were crammed with Staffordshire pottery. I gasped. I had expected figures but nothing like this. In my mind
I had hardly considered the pottery which would be here. Coming to Tacoma had merely been a device to escape.
I walked across to the first cabinet and opened the door, picking up the first piece to catch my eye.
‘Polito’s Menagerie,’ I said. ‘I have one of these at home.’
It was an Obadiah Sherratt figure, dating from around 1830, supported by four brown, rococo feet and swagged with colourful flowers. I cradled it in my hand and felt the first stirrings of a returning passion.
In the early nineteenth century Mr S Polito had owned a travelling menagerie.
‘Polito’s Menagerie of the Wonderfull Birds and beasts from Most Parts of the World, Lion and Giraffe.’
The figure was of circus performers, monkeys, a lion, a tiger and an elephant complete with a howdah on its back. It was one of the most famous and colourful Staffordshire figures ever made and one of the most collectable too. Everyone who collects Staffordshire aspires to own one of these but few do. They fetched thousands.
Crowned by the elephant, the title emblazoned across the top, queues of people in Regency dress, waiting to enter and see the wonderful spectacle, it was an excellent figure.
‘The one I sold,’ I said slowly, ‘had some restoration work on it. The monkeys were missing.’
I recalled spending hours talking to Steve and Jules about the exact size and colour of the monkeys. David
had finally produced a perfect museum specimen and we had taken moulds. I slid my fingers across the top and met Mr Wernier-King’s eyes. ‘Like this one.’
I replaced it on the shelf.
‘This is it, isn’t it? You bought it from me.’
He said nothing but gave me his awkward grin again.
I picked another figure from the shelf.
Years ago I had said to Richard that the reason that I loved these pieces was because all of humanity was represented. ‘Mazeppa,’ I said, turning around to speak to my host. ‘It’s one of my favourites.’
He looked pleased. ‘Mine too,’ he said and took the figure from me. ‘Great story.’
So here he was, this Polish Cossack commander, strapped to the back of a wild horse, his punishment for having an affair with a nobleman’s wife. I put Mazeppa down and picked up another – Victoria and Albert, and another – Romeo and Juliet.
‘My name is Paul,’ he said impatiently. ‘And I shall call you Susanna. You’re going to be in my house for a coupla months. We may as well get acquainted and drop the formality right now.’
‘Paul,’ I said, turning to him. ‘The pieces are beautiful. You must have haunted the salerooms,’ I caught his eye, ‘and antiques shops to buy them. It must have taken you years to amass such a collection.’
‘Three,’ he said. It was a clue to this young man’s ferocious energy for the things he wanted. He put a hand
on my shoulder. ‘I couldn’t wait for you to see them,’ he said. ‘I travelled all over the UK and the US. I wanted to have a very special collection for you to catalogue.’
I tried to pull away. What was he trying to say? I looked into his face. There was an intensity there that I could not understand. I moved back and his arm dropped. I should have asked many questions then – where exactly had he got my name from? How had he heard about me? What did he know about me? What was he up to?
I only know that I sensed some deep purpose in this man and eyed his face uncomfortably.
He moved back. ‘I want you to be happy here, Susanna,’ he said.
‘I’m sure I shall be,’ I answered crisply.
In the centre of the room was a large, round table covered with papers, a camera, pens, a typewriter. Also a telephone. I was ready to start.
‘I guessed you’d prefer a working lunch most days,’ he said slowly, ‘so I asked Jemima to bring you sandwiches at one. Anything else you want like coffee or something just pick up the house phone. I do want you to be comfortable in my home.’
I started to thank him for his courtesy and for all the extra comforts in my room but he brushed my thanks aside with an airy wave of his hand. ‘It’s OK,’ he said. ‘My pleasure.’ He stopped and I caught a sparkle in his eyes. ‘I enjoyed guessing what beauty products you’d use. I’m glad if I got it right.’
I was startled. Surely he had not bought the cosmetics himself?
He looked a bit anxious. ‘I was right, wasn’t I, about the Chanel?’
I nodded and he looked pleased.
‘We’ll have dinner together at eight and you can tell me how the day’s gone and if there are any problems. So for now, Susanna, I’ll leave you to it.’
I had imagined that he would lead his own life during my stay here, at Tacoma. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about sharing every single evening with him for the next three months.
However I smiled and he left.
I soon settled into a routine at Tacoma. Sometimes Paul and I would have breakfast. At other times he was missing. At one, on the dot, Jemima would bring lunch – sandwiches, cheese, fruit and as the weather grew warmer I frequently stopped for an hour or two in the afternoon to wander the gardens and walk down to the shore. A couple of days when the weather was very hot I even donned my bikini and swam in the pool. Then I would return to the octagonal room and work through until six, sometimes seven. I never saw Paul in the day but our evenings grew lively as we got to know one another and argued over the pieces. I found one or two reproductions which he agreed to dispose of. They would spoil the rest of the collection. There was also some poor restoration work which I offered to take back
to England to have my own ceramic restorers repair. I found great joy in discovering some pieces I had hitherto only seen in books and I became completely absorbed in the work. If I wasn’t happy I was at least content.
And Richard? Richard was beside me all my waking hours, his grey eyes watching me whenever I closed my own. Sometimes I breathed in his scent– a hint of cigars, and the indefinable scent of the old house, of seasoned oak and beeswax polish, of crystal and glass and dusty corners. In Tacoma, alone and unwatched during the days, I allowed myself to grieve for him because in prison he had never been there. Prison was a place Richard could not enter. He would not have belonged so I had not been able to conjure him up however hard I had tried through my lonely years’ sentence.
I had been at Tacoma for almost a month and sensed Paul Wernier-King was inching closer to me. He was always polite but there was something else – something deeper which he kept concealed. He would ask me personal questions about my home life. I was deliberately evasive but he did not back down until I confronted him and told him that my personal life was mine and mine alone.
One night we had drunk more good wine than usual. I was excited. I had found a beautiful model of Uncle Tom and Eva, the child putting a garland around Tom’s head. I liked it so much I had brought it in to dinner with me and read out the rhyme.
Eva gaily laughing was hanging a wreath of roses round Tom’s neck.
He stood up and moved behind me. I felt his hand touch my hair.
My hair was shorter now than it had been but still a little below my shoulders. I froze and did not move. I sensed an intent in him. I turned my head and his hand briefly brushed my lips then pulled away but I was nervous now and on my guard. I excused myself soon after, saying I was tired but it wasn’t that. I was uncomfortable and sat in my room for a long while, wondering how to deal with him.
Of all the people I have ever known in my life Paul Wernier-King had the most unfortunate sense of timing. A few days later it was a warm Wednesday late in June and the room felt hot, the figures warm to my touch. I had thrown open the tall French windows which overlooked the garden and was working my way through the second shelf of the middle cabinet.
When I felt a wash of grief. I had reached my hand out without seeing what it would grasp. I had picked up a figure of a small, grey rabbit daintily nibbling a piece of lettuce. It wasn’t the one I had bought at the country-house sale with Richard because I never had sold that piece. It was far too precious a memory and it lived at home with me, back in Horton Cottage. But it was a similar enough figure to conjure up his memory. I put it down on the table and felt the tears coursing down my cheeks, asking myself the tired, old question. Is it better
never to have loved than to have loved and lost in that way?
I sank down in the chair, overwhelmed, covering my face with my hands, still asking unanswerable questions. Did I wish I had never met him, never been to Hall o’th’Wood? Never fallen in love? At that time and through that pain I almost thought so. Life had no meaning for me without Richard and Hall o’th’Wood.
And then the door opened and Paul Wernier-King was standing right in front of me.
‘Hey, Susanna,’ he said. ‘What is it?’
I said nothing but tried to brush the tears from my cheeks but when I looked at my fingers they were black with mascara. I must have looked a wreck. His eyes rested on the figure of the rabbit and he seemed to understand. He picked it up and stared at it. ‘I came in to say,’ he spoke awkwardly, ‘that I have tickets for a concert tomorrow night. I’d be very glad if you would accompany me.’
I had not been out at all since my arrival. I had never been to America let alone to New York, that great, famous city. ‘Yes.’ I managed a smile. ‘Yes, Paul. I’d love to come. Thanks very much.’
He gave me a warm, friendly grin. ‘That’s settled then.’ He made no reference to my tears. ‘It’s in the city,’ he said. ‘I’ll drive us in. It’ll take an hour. Be ready for six. Formal dress.’
Then he was gone.
I stopped work early the next evening, washed my hair and ran a hot, steaming bath. I soaked for ages in some of the expensive oils left for my use. I sat in front of the dressing table and took extra care over my toilette, finishing with red lipstick, Jemima hovering around, nervously. Then I stepped into the gown I had bought in Majorca. I sprayed the perfume across my neck and shoulders and made my way downstairs. It was almost six. Paul was already standing in the hall, in a white dinner jacket and bow tie. He looked what he was, a playboy togged up for the night.
Yet, I thought as I descended the stairs, I had no evidence that he was a playboy apart from Tacoma. It struck me then that I was being unfair, making superficial judgements. He’d been nothing but courteous and polite. And his invitation to work with his pottery had been a welcome, helping hand. What else would I have done?
His eyes were fastened on me as I descended, staring admiringly without trying to hide it and I realised how close we were in age. I had always thought of him as much younger but, I realised now, I simply felt older because of my life experiences. And we were worlds apart. As I reached the bottom he put his hand on my waist, drew me slowly towards him and gave me a light kiss on my cheek. ‘You look,’ he said, ‘fantastic.’