Nicolas Ridley lives in London & Bath (UK) where he writes fiction, non-fiction, flash fiction, scripts and stage plays under different names. A prize-winner and twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, his short stories have been widely published in anthologies, literary magazines and journals in the UK, Ireland, Canada and the USA.
MOOSE-HEAD, DOE-EYES, SHREW
Clive Montague never liked me particularly. I certainly never liked him. Loud, boorish, with floppy fair hair, there was — there is — nothing to like about him. This gives rise to two questions:
First. Why, some twenty years ago, did I receive an invitation to the house-party he was hosting at his parents’ country residence in Dorset?
Second. Why did I go?
The second question isn’t difficult to answer. Curiosity. Plain and simple. Clive and his public school ‘chums’ inhabited a universe I’d read about in Edwardian novels but thought had long since ceased to exist. It was a world I neither envied nor despised but one which I felt I should witness before its final expiry.
The first question will be answered in due course and I will add a third. I still dislike Clive. Meanwhile, in the years that have passed since that first invitation, Clive’s indifference to me has mutated into loathing. Why, then, are there several occasions every year when we find ourselves in each other’s company?
The house-party proved a cliché. There’s no need to dwell on the kedgeree and kidneys at breakfast, the pink champagne and vintage port at night, the afternoon tennis, the morning croquet, the games of charades and sardines or the drunken, naked séance in the library. It was so much what I had expected that it was impossible not to be disappointed and, very rapidly, bored. I might have gone home after the third game of sardines on Saturday night — my absence would not have been noticed by Clive or any of his braying, whinnying companions — had it not been for the late arrival of a charming house-guest: the doe-eyed girl.
At this distance in time I can’t recall exactly what passed between us but I can only suppose that there must have been some exchange of looks or words that led me to believe she might be my reward for staying the course until Monday morning. It has to be admitted that Araminta was — and she still is —disconcertingly lovely to look at. But let me take you back to where we were.
Sometimes things seem so obvious from the outset. You see so clearly what’s going to happen. You make it known to other people. You are ignored. You make it known again. You are ignored again. It duly happens. And, well … To appreciate the story — if so trivial an episode can be characterised as such — let me invite you to be me; to step into my shoes; to become, if you like, the protagonist.
On the first evening you notice that there is a loose wooden floorboard at the top of the main staircase. You notice this because, in the gloom, you trip over it and would have tumbled down onto the cold, grey, stone slabs of the hall floor if you hadn’t been quick enough to grab hold of the banister. Fortunately, you were which meant that you didn’t. But you resolve to say something in the morning.
A different, perhaps more dramatic incident occurs later that night. Returning from a journey to a distant bathroom with a towel round your waist — unlike your fellow guests you do not, at that time, possess a silk dressing-gown — you are surprised to find that the door to your bedroom is open. You are still more surprised to find a shadowy figure bending over the chair on which hang your trousers and jacket.
Confidence, cunning, effrontery. Are these the lessons that are learnt in the dormitories and cloisters of public schools?
—What the hell are you doing here? says the shadowy figure.
Is it because you are wearing a towel round your waist that it takes you a moment to realise that this should be your line? By the time you do and the question is on your lips, the shadowy figure has departed with a snort and a vigorous oath. A consequence of this is that you feel in future it may be prudent to lock your bedroom door. This prudence seems justified when, some time after the rest of house is still, you hear the door-handle turning. You switch on the dim bedside lamp and watch in fascination as the handle turns again. It turns once more, rattles briefly, then silence. You wait. Nothing happens. You switch off the lamp and sleep soundly for the rest of the night.
At breakfast, over the kidneys and kedgeree, you mention the floorboard to your host, Clive, who sits beside his younger brother, Rodney. Although you have not previously been introduced to Rodney, there is — you are almost certain — something very familiar about him.
—The loose floorboard at the top of the stairs, you say. Someone might trip over it.
You omit to add that you already have.
—I’ll have it fixed, Clive replies airily.
But, by the evening, he hasn’t.
Later, returning from the distant bathroom, you pass Rodney who, for reasons that will never be explained, is wearing a deerstalker hat and carrying a wooden tennis racquet.
—Last night, you say. Was it you who … ?
—That was my cousin, he says, and walks on.
Unlocking your bedroom door, you find that a sheet of paper has been slipped under it. The note, written in a bold but elegant hand, reads: ‘I have something of yours. You might like it back.’ You think about this for a moment before dismissing it as childish nonsense. There has been a great deal of childish nonsense throughout the day.
The next morning, on the croquet lawn, you mention it once more to Clive and Rodney.
—Is there a loose floorboard? says Rodney.
—Yes, you say. I told you about it yesterday. You said you were going to have it fixed.
—Well, that’s exactly what we’ll do, says Clive. No need to fret, old man.
But nothing is done.
Later that day, beside the tennis court, you are about to remind them again when, in chorus, Clive and Rodney forestall you.
—Are you still fussing about that floorboard?
They regard you with an expression of lofty tolerance, very similar to that worn by the moose whose head hangs on the wall at the top of the stairs. At this point you could easily become testy but you resist. You resist because the party has now been joined by the charming late-arriving house-guest — the doe-eyed girl — whose good opinion you wish to merit. You resolve to say nothing and the evening passes in raucous merriment, rowdy port-fuelled antics involving a one-legged teddy bear, a lacrosse stick and torrential tears in the library.
In the middle of the night, there is a toppling commotion and bedroom doors are thrown open. There, at the bottom of the stairs, is the charming house-guest in a most becoming arrangement of tangled nightclothes. Beside her rests the moose-head which she must have seized in an effort to slow her descent.
—What happened? ask those about her. Can you stand?
—No, she says. I’m afraid I can’t.
She has twisted her delightfully delicate ankle.
—I tripped, she says, apologetically.
There are outpourings of loud astonishment and sympathetic regret as she is helped to her feet.
—Ah, you say. The loose floorboard.
—The loose floorboard? What loose floorboard?
Everyone turns to look at you.
—There’s a floorboard, you say. It’s loose.
—There’s a loose floorboard and you knew about it? they say, their eyebrows raised.
They would like to add but don’t: ‘What a great pity you didn’t say anything before now. If you had, this calamity could have been avoided.’ Indeed, they might have wished to say a great deal more but they don’t because you are still, they suppose, a house-guest and must be treated civilly although it’s most unlikely that you will be invited again.
You start to say … But then you stop. There isn’t any point. Opinions have been formed. Conclusions reached. Judgements settled. The moose looks up at you with undisguised contempt, while in the eyes of the charming house-guest — who is trying to take a first tentative step — you see a blend of injury and disappointment playing in equal measure across her sweet features.
It is then that you find yourself being led away by a girl with an amused smile and green eyes who you haven’t quite noticed before.
—Come with me, she says. You need rescuing. I’ll look after you.
She leads you into your bedroom and closes the door behind her.
—Yours, she says, handing you a wallet.
It certainly looks like yours.
—My brother ‘borrows’ things, she says.
Your wallet now contains five twenty-pound notes which you’re sure weren’t there before.
—Interest, she says. Compensation. Don’t ask any questions.
—All right, you say.
She locks the door.
It will come as no surprise to learn that Clive and Rodney have nothing in common with their sister, Estelle. (Rodney, by the way, died some time ago from an overdose of heroin in a small hotel in Tangier.) Estelle is … No, now is not the time to tell you about my remarkable wife. It seems we’d met earlier that summer — I have no memory of it myself — and that it was she who had arranged my invitation to the house-party.
What has followed since then is another story altogether with little bearing on the present tale. But there are occasions — birthdays, christenings, confirmations and Rodney’s funeral — when we are obliged to assemble with the rest of the family in Dorset. Here I may sometimes exchange a word or two with Araminta, the doe-eyed girl, who, as I have said, is as lovely as ever. Clive, though, never speaks to me. I don’t know why but he seems to hold me somehow responsible for his falling head-over-heels in love with Araminta and — in a state of priapic infatuation — instantly marrying her. Did I say that Araminta is as lovely as ever? I think I did. She is. She is also — or so I am told — an unappeasable shrew who has made Clive’s life an utter misery.
The moose-head was restored long ago to its position at the top of the stairs. The loose wooden floorboard has yet to be fixed.
Adrian’s godfather, Benoît, lives by himself in an apartment in the sixième, not far from the Jardin du Luxembourg.
—You know, Adrian, he says. One should always marry a foreigner.
Adrian smiles. He has heard this from Benoît before.
—Find a woman whose first language is not English. In my case, naturally, her first language must not be French. This is the way to avoid misunderstandings.
Benoît speaks from experience. He has married, successively, a Greek, a Guatemalan and a Hungarian. Until recently he lived with a Texan. Their months together constituted an interlude of bliss, he says, and he and Mary-Beth barely understood one word the other said.
Fulham. Last night. Late.
Caroline stands by the bedroom door, holding her mug of hot chocolate. She normally wears Adrian’s blue towelling bathrobe; tonight she is wearing the pink padded dressing-gown which she knows he dislikes but it reminds her of childhood.
—You’re sure you won’t come? asks Adrian.
—Yes, she says. Quite sure.
Caroline watches him zip up the canvas bag.
—It’s for the best, says Caroline. You know it is.
For the best? Is it? Adrian wonders if he does know this.
Caroline stares at the chocolate in her mug.
—We were going nowhere, she says.
Where did Caroline want to go? Did she say? If she did, was he listening? It’s now too late to ask. It may have always been too late.
Adrian has an early morning Eurostar to catch. He lifts the bag off the bed and onto the floor.
Fulham. This morning. Early.
Caroline is standing by the kitchen door, holding her mug of tea.
—I’ll be back on Sunday, Adrian says. Late.
—I won’t be here, Adrian, says Caroline. I’ll be gone. To Battersea.
Adrian knows he should say something but he doesn’t know what. It must be something he hasn’t said before.
He picks up his bag.
He might put down his bag.
She might put down her mug.
Neither of them does.
—I’ll call you from Paris.
Most of Caroline’s impatience has drained away.
—I won’t be here, Adrian, she says. I’ll be in Battersea.
At St Pancras International.
—Hi. I’m Al.
He holds out his hand and takes the seat beside Adrian. Al is a man in his forties with an open smile, a trim brown beard and bright blue eyes.
—Before you ask, he says, I’m a Kiwi not an Aussie. I’m travelling to a conference in Seville. Ethnomathematics. Do you know Seville? My colleagues are flying out tomorrow. I prefer trains.
As it happens, Adrian has been to Seville and can suggest what Al should see. The Giralda, the Alcázar, the Torre del Oro. Although the highlight of his own visit, Adrian remembers very clearly, was a walk late at night along an avenue which took him past a succession of elegant pavilions built for the 1929 Iberoamericano Exhibition. Magical. But he has forgotten the name of the avenue. This is why he doesn’t mention it to Al.
—Yes, Ethnomathematics, says Al. Part anthropology, part mathematics. My own field of study is South Pacific navigation.
The master navigators of the South Pacific, Adrian learns, could cross thousands of miles of ocean without any kind of navigational equipment. Modern navigators require instruments and charts. They must know where they are to know where they are going. But the navigators of the South Pacific have no need to plot their position. Relying on the skills learnt during a twelve-year apprenticeship, they are guided by the motion of the stars, the formation of the clouds, the swell of the ocean and the colour of the water. They are, as it were, able to reach their destination without ever knowing precisely where they have been along the way.
—That’s the critical difference, says Al. He allows a pause. There are those who follow a map, and those who follow a course.
Adrian feels he has been told something significant. Something practical. Something somehow mystical. He would like to take time to absorb it, but Al has moved on.
He is talking about logs and charts, Greek periploi and Roman itineraria, narrative maps and mythological maps, grids and projections, errors and omissions … And while Al talks, Adrian wonders. A map or a course? Is he following one or being led by the other? Or neither one nor the other? Or both together? He would like to ask Al one or two questions. To clarify things. To check he has them straight. But the train is approaching the Gare du Nord.
—Do you know how I get to Gare Montparnasse? says Al.
Adrian consults his Métro plan.
—Take line 4 to Montparnasse Bienvenue, he says. Direction Porte d’Orléans.
They step off the train together, shake hands and then go separate ways.
At a bistro in the Rue du Cherche-Midi, Adrian is trying to explain — and Benoît is failing to grasp —the difference between following a map and following a course.
—A course? A map? says Benoît. How are they different? To me they seem the same.
I don’t have the right words to explain it, thinks Adrian. Either that or I haven’t understood enough myself.
Benoît is amused by his godson’s excursion into the abstract. It is not, he thinks, the usual Anglo-Saxon way. But he is sorry that Adrian has come without Caroline. He enjoyed her company last summer when, returning from Avignon, she and Adrian stayed two nights in his apartment. A charming girl. Her French was good. She dressed well and showed an intelligent interest in architecture.
—We were going nowhere, Adrian tells him. That’s what Caroline says.
—Where did she want to go?
—I’m not sure.
—Ah, says Benoît. A pity!
And he asks for the bill.
Adrian telephones Caroline. There’s no answer. He pictures the empty flat. Caroline’s suitcase no longer on top of the cupboard. Her dressing-gown gone from the hook on the bedroom door. He remembers her here in Benoît’s apartment. Caroline wearing the straw hat she bought in Avignon. Standing in the sunshine. Singing softly so that only he can hear her.
Sur le pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse, l’on y danse
—But it’s not a proper bridge, is it? she says.
—It stops in the middle of the river.
—It was a bridge once but it was washed away.
—And no one rebuilt it, says Caroline
—No, says Adrian. No one did.
He notices her brush her eyes with the back of her hand. Why tears? She had seemed so happy.
L’on y danse tout en rond …