The year is 1986. It’s been four years since Albert fell off the edge of the world; a world he wished would forget about him; forget he ever existed.
He hadn’t really existed though, had he? The School had sheltered him in an academic womb – its winner of a specially-created Nobel Prize, the Guggenheim Fellowship, seven Grammy Awards and two Pulitzers – hustled around the planet from concert stage to concert stage, seeing only fleeting glimpses of life from the back of stretch limousines and penthouse hotel rooms.
Then murder entered his life.
For six months after that, one hideous death led to another, like a string of blood-red pearls, trailing Albert to the edge of the abyss; forcing him out of the womb, naked and exposed. Finally, he’d fled to a place of safety, where even Death couldn’t find him.
But it did.
by David A. Crossman
London – 1986
ooooThe distinction between a mausoleum and a museum was too fine for Albert to grasp. To him, they were both places for storing dead things. Yet the people in charge of his life—those who picked him up at airports in limousines and took him to hotels, and made him meet people he didn’t want to meet, and talk to reporters he didn’t want to talk to, and gave him medals and ribbons for which he had no room in his life—always seemed to assume he had an insatiable need to see whatever museum was the pride and joy of their particular city. Albert knew what to do; stand in front of whatever work of art they were trying to get him excited about and tilt his head this way and that, and nod at it. Smile. Nod some more and say something like, ‘oh,’ or ‘ah’, to make it seem like he got it.
ooooBut Albert didn’t get it. In fact, apart from music, he didn’t get much of anything. The horrible events of recent memory had only made him realize how much he didn’t get. His ignorance of people—their motivations, their compulsion to do what, to him, were extraordinary things—turned out to be far more profound than he’d ever imagined; mostly because he’d never have imagined them if he tried, but partly because, when events finally forced themselves upon him, they were completely alien to him.
ooooAlien. From another planet, like Clark Kent—living in constant anxiety lest the Earthlings find him out. That was Albert. Of course, that was stretching the comparison. If push came to shove, Clark Kent could always turn into Superman and fly away, or melt something with his eyes.
ooooAt least Superman knew what planet he was from. Albert had been told, more than once, that he must be from another planet. Perhaps he was. But he hadn’t been told which one. His mother and sister were from Maine. He probably was, too. Maybe Maine was another planet. That would explain a lot.
ooooMaybe he shouldn’t tell people where he was from.
oooo“This is my favorite,” said the lady with hoops hanging from her ears who had been escorting him since lunch. Why she was escorting him, he didn’t know. Maybe there had been a drawing and she’d lost.
ooooThat was probably it.
ooooNo one had told him to follow her after the media event that afternoon at the BBC, everyone seemed to assume that he would, so he did.
ooooThey were very big hoops. Albert had seen something similar in a birdcage once, and wondered what the lady would look like with a parakeet hanging from each ear. That would make her more interesting to look at. She was holding a purse in both hands and kind of shaking it in the direction of a painting. “Jackson Pollack.”
ooooAlbert looked at the thing in the frame, beside which was a little black card that said, in white print, ‘Yellow Island.’ This time, he tilted his head in earnest, but tilt as he might he couldn’t find the naked lady, which is what most of the art in that particular museum was about. Nor, apart from obvious little mistakes in yellow, could he see an island.
ooooA Pollock was a fish. Maybe there was a fish in all that mess somewhere.
ooooHe tilted the other way. No. No fish.
oooo“One of your own, of course,” said the lady.
ooooWhy did people say things like that? She seemed to think he should know what she was talking about. What did it mean? One of his own what? Whatever it was, he didn’t have one, at least not as far as he knew. Especially if it was a naked lady.
ooooHe thought of Miss Bjork, the only real–live female – apart from his sister – he’d ever seen naked. Well, he hadn’t actually seen her. He’d been in her apartment once when she was naked—in the shower—while he was in the living room. But he could hear the water running, and he imagined what she must look like. What he imagined, actually, was the Venus de Milo in the rain, but with arms. That’s about as far as his experience of naked ladies extended. Not that there weren’t examples all around him; magazines and things, you know. He’d just never been interested. Naked ladies weren’t music.
ooooUntil Miss Bjork. He tingled unexpectedly.
ooooShe was dead now.
ooooAlbert stopped tingling and squinted at the picture. Once upon a time, before Mrs. Gibson arrived to take over housekeeping chores in his apartment, he might have had something like this—under a carpet, or lost among his laundry or wrapping something that was giving off an offensive odor—but he didn’t think so. In any case, if Mrs. Gibson had unearthed such a thing in her excavations, it wouldn’t have stood a chance.
oooo“American,” said the lady, who’s name was Lady something–or–other. That made it easy to remember. She was accompanied by a man who seemed to be dressed in something too tight whose name, like that of a lot of Englishmen, was Sir. That, too, was convenient. Albert had been called ‘sir’ during his recent sojourn in Tryon, South Carolina. He’d also been called ‘honey’, ‘sweetheart,’ ‘sugar,’ and ‘pissant,’ but he didn’t think any of those would apply to this man, who seemed happy with just the one name. Sir.
ooooSir didn’t say much. He nodded at paintings, too. And quite often looked at the silver watch that hung from a chain on his vest pocket.
ooooAlbert liked that watch and chain. If someone gave him one, he’d have to go to the vest store so he’d have something to hang it from.
oooo“Yes,” said Albert, recalling that Lady had asked if he was American. “From Maine.” He hadn’t meant to say that, now she’d know.
oooo“Maine?” said Lady. “I thought he was from Wyoming.”
ooooWho was she talking about? Albert didn’t know anyone from Wyoming, though he knew where it was, and that the capitol of Wyoming was Cheyenne. He’d never thought about the people who lived there. Someone must, else they wouldn’t need a capitol. Let her think what she wanted, he was off the hook. “Okay.”
ooooLady looked at him much the same way he’d looked at the picture and tilted her head. It was a Familiar Look.
ooooAlbert squirmed a little and pretended to study the painting. His sister had gotten into the cans of paints on the handyman’s workbench and done something much like it on the floor of the barn once and Mother had sent her to her room. He suspected a similar fate had befallen the person who did this. How it got into a frame and how the frame got into a museum, and why people would stop and look at it were all part of Life’s Great Mystery.
ooooLike everything else.
ooooUnless it was a Morality Tale. A kind of visual nursery rhyme. Albert could imagine mothers dragging their children to the Museum and—planting them in front of this painting—threatening them with whatever fate befell the perpetrator of this particular crime. Perhaps his had been a Famous Consequence that everyone but Albert knew about.
oooo“It almost makes me want to weep,” said Lady.
oooo“Yes,” said Albert, pleased, at last, to find something they could agree on. “Me, too.”
ooooSir—seeming to read something into Albert’s reply that escaped Lady—looked at him sideways and, making a kind of constricted giggle, if a man of such imposing Dignity could be said to giggle, at the back of his throat, and smiled. It was a nice smile. Albert liked him.
oooo“Did you say something, Lawrence?” said Lady, though her attention seemed fixed on whatever it was about the painting that made her want to weep.
oooo“Lawrence,” Albert said aloud. He couldn’t recall ever having said the word before.
oooo“Yes?” said Sir. Maybe that was his last name. Sir Lawrence.
ooooAlbert shook his head dismissively. “I was just listening to it.”
ooooIt was Sir’s turn to tilt his head. “Listening? To what?”
oooo“Lawrence,” said Albert, whose attention was drawn to an adjacent room by the sound of a man saying: “Ladies and gentlemen, the museum will close in five minutes.”
ooooTo Albert it was as if Satan had said, ladies and gentlemen, Hell is closing. You may make your way to the exit.
oooo“Please make your way to the entrance hall and be sure to collect your belongings,” said the disembodied voice.
ooooAlbert should have brought some belongings to collect. Nobody told him.
oooo“We have to go,” he said, hopefully, wondering why they were being directed to the entrance hall if they were supposed to be exiting, and wishing he’d brought Jeremy Ash with him to explain things like that.
ooooJeremy Ash knew everything Albert didn’t, primarily, as far as Albert could ascertain, from having spent much of his life locked in a closet under the stairs and watching television through a crack in the door. But Jeremy had had a bad afternoon and had to stay at the hotel. They’d had to amputate his other leg, too, and what was left hurt. He never said as much, but he made faces that made Albert think it probably did.
ooooAs far as Albert was concerned, the Good and Evil of legs pretty much balanced one another out; they were the Twin Judases who had brought him here, they were the Angels of Deliverance that would carry him away.
oooo“Oh, that’s not for us,” said Lady. “Lawrence is on the Board.”
ooooAlbert looked at Lawrence but couldn’t see a board. Maybe it was on his back, under his jacket, which would explain the way he was standing—and why his clothes seemed so tight.
oooo“For someone of Your Stature, the Museum is always open.”
ooooAlways open. Like hell. Albert felt the urge to run for the exit, but what if he got there and the doors were nailed shut, or had disappeared altogether? He imagined eternity in the Museum, wandering from room to room while Sir cleared his throat and Lady wept and made Albert look at the paintings that seemed to scream “Don’t tell Mother I did this!” He choked back the panic the rose to his throat.
ooooHe looked toward the adjoining room. There were pictures of people in there. Real people with one eye on either side of their nose, and buttons, and hats and fluffy white collars. “What’s in there?” he said, trying to sound casual, but wishing desperately to escape the vortex of swirls in Lady’s Favorite Painting that seemed to be trying to suck him in to that haunted dimension in which such swirls made sense.
oooo“Ah!” said Lady, detaching her retinas from the vortex. “The Masters!” She chortled, but the subject of the chortle was, apparently, personal and secret. Sir didn’t ask. Neither did Albert.
ooooAlbert had recently heard, or read, or seen the phrase “she swept from the room.” The image that came to mind at the time was, quite naturally, of a woman, broom in hand, sweeping her way toward the door. But, for some reason, the term applied to what Lady was doing at the moment, and it had nothing to do with a broom. Probably it was a metaphor, which was another thing Albert never got, unless this was one, in which case he did. Lady was sweeping from the Room of Meaningless Dribbles, toward the Room of Discernible Faces and he and Sir were being dragged along like puppies on invisible leashes.
ooooAlbert was glad to go. He cast a quick backward glance to make sure the Vortex wasn’t following. In Hell, you could never be sure. That’s why they called it Hell.
ooooLady was speaking. “That’s Reubens on the far wall. So is that,” she said, pointing to the portrait of a lady whose head seemed to be trying to escape from a giant cupcake wrapper.
ooooThey were both Reuben’s? Did that mean they were brother and sister? One was clearly a man—though he seemed to have been dressed by someone who wasn’t sure; he had a beard anyway—and the cupcake picture was clearly a lady; all the bumps and things. Or did they both belong to Reubens? Or did they possess some inner quality that made them Reubens? Like a ham sandwich which, whatever kind of bread it was made with, was always a ham sandwich.
ooooWhich reminded Albert that he was hungry.
oooo“And this portrait will, of course, be of especial interest to you.”
ooooWhy ‘of course?’ People were always saying that. What did it mean? Albert flushed. He hated flushing. He hated not knowing what everyone else knew—even if what they knew had nothing to do with music or Miss Bjork and, therefore, didn’t really matter.
ooooWhy ‘of course?’ Was looking at this painting of a man, apparently in his pajamas—blue pajamas—supposed to remind him of something? Was he supposed to know something about him? Recognize him? Albert didn’t know any Englishmen that he could recall. That is, he’d shaken hands with a few thousand English men and women who stood in line in the rain—which was the only weather they had in England—for the purpose of looking at him in that strange way people looked at him, perhaps guessing that he was an alien, and telling them how much they’d loved his music.
ooooThe Queen said the same thing when he went to her house and played for her. He’d met her husband, too, and wondered why he was only a Prince and not a King. He’d met Princelings, and Princelettes and Lords and Dames, but he didn’t know them like he’d know a picture of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, and looking at the picture, none came to mind.
ooooMaybe he should have paid attention.
ooooWhy ‘of course’?
oooo“Lord Tiptoft” said Lady. “On loan from Oxburgh Hall. That’s where you’re staying the weekend, to rest up after your engagement.”
ooooThe mention rang a bell. Something Huffy, his agent at William Morris, had said when discussing the itinerary for the European Tour. “Oxburgh, yes,” Albert echoed in the way that made people think he was listening. “Near King’s Lynn.” He wanted to be convivial, and place–names touched upon one of his only areas of knowledge apart from music– geography; maps had always held a particular fascination for him, and he knew where Norfolk, England was without even looking. “And will he be there,” he said, nodding at the painting with a different nod than the one he’d employed looking at the painting in the other room.
ooooSir made that ruptured giggle noise again, and smiled in a friendly way. “He’ll, ah, well, not exactly. This portrait was painted long ago by a chap name of Lossburgh.” He waggled the stem of his pipe at a smudge in the corner of the painting. “The man in the painting is Lord Robert Tiptoft. Long dead now, of course.”
ooooThere it was again. How was Albert to know Lord Robert Tiptoft, much less that he was dead? Nobody told him. Or, if they did, he hadn’t been listening. He didn’t read newspapers.
ooooPresident Lincoln was dead, of course, and John Kennedy was dead, and his brother, what’s-his-name. And Martin Luther King. Probably there had been others. And now Lord Robert Tiptoft.
oooo“I’m sorry,” said Albert with as much sincerity as he could muster. That’s what you said when somebody told you that somebody else had died, and he wondered what the friends of the man had called him when he was a boy. ‘Lord?’ Probably Lordy. Kids abbreviate names. He remembered having been called ‘Al,’ but not by anyone who knew he played the piano. It made a difference, apparently. Huffy called him Al sometimes. But no one else. Jeremy Ash called him ‘A’. That would be difficult to abbreviate.
oooo“Great mystery about this painting,” said Sir, who seemed to infer from noises his wife had made that he had permission to speak. “About a treasure of some kind.”
oooo“Treasure?” said Albert, to whom treasures were things that were buried. Tewksbury would be interested. He was an archaeologist and they enjoyed digging things up, and a treasure at the bottom of a hole might make such a tiresome chore seem worthwhile.
ooooBut Tewksbury was dead, too. A treasure himself, waiting to be dug up.
oooo“And murder,” said Sir.
ooooAlbert turned his gaze from the portrait and stood looking at Sir as if he’d been cudgeled on the back of the skull.
oooo“I say,” said Sir. “Are you quite all right?”
ooooOf all the terms that could be used to describe Albert at that moment, ‘all right,’ was not among them. A cavernous void was rushing at him from all directions. He was dizzy, spiraling downward, nauseous and groping for the edge of the well into which he was falling.
ooooMurder had found him again.
ooooEveryone has an opinion of England’s National Health Service. Every two–year old on the street who was brought into the world at government expense. Every pensioner who lives in the hope that the System’s bankruptcy and his demise will be concurrent events. Every Hyde Park anarchist, every dole–recipient of dubious national extraction, every member of the privileged class who is able to afford “real doctors rather than NHS pill–pushers,” no doubt the Queen and would–be kings in descending order all had an opinion. Whatever those opinions might be, however varied, one thing was unanimously agreed, the Sisters, which—for reasons Albert couldn’t ascertain—is what they call their nurses, were generally efficient, terse, and expected to be obeyed without question.
ooooThis particular nurse, who was currently doing things of a highly personal nature to Albert, exemplified each of these characteristics without compromising the other. Albert watched her with interest and listened to the lilt of her accent as she talked, which she did without ceasing as if her next breath depended upon it. Most of the monologue was addressed to the various electronic or mechanical components that monitored or supported his person in some way and her observations and remarks were not always flattering. In the course of several minutes she had condemned the manufacturer of the IV bag to an untimely demise, preferably ‘by drowning after having been hung, eviscerated, and drawn–and–quartered.” This opprobrium was delivered with some emphasis as she slammed the second of two faulty plastic bags into a bedside bin. By the time she got around to asking a question to which he might be expected to respond, Albert had mentally traced her accent to the Lake District.
ooooAccents were the second and terminating item on the list of Albert’s extra–musical interests. They involved sound and, to him, that meant they more–or–less belonged under the same heading as music. He could parse their vibrations as easily as a food critic from a prominent newspaper could enumerate the ingredients in the most famous dish of a trembling chef, and upon whose verdict hung the receipt or deletion of a coveted Michelin Star.
ooooThe Sister bustled, and while she bustled, Albert studied her – practicing those skills of observation that unwonted experience of recent memory had awakened in him.
ooooA white plastic tab on her chest proved helpful insofar as it stated her name: Sister Edna. Information beyond that it was reticent to divulge. So, her name was Edna and she was from the Lake District which meant that, like himself, she was not native to London. What else? She was about his height which meant that, when he stood up, he would have someone with whom he could see eye–to–eye.
ooooHe snickered. Albert had made a private joke. At forty–three he had lost his comical virginity.
oooo“You alright, then love?” said the Sister in response.
ooooShe did some other things to him in areas that seemed, in his untrained medical opinion, to have little to do with the fainting spell that, as far as he knew, had landed him in her care. Her hands were cold. That was something Albert had observed about nurses and he wondered if they kept their hands in ice until they were needed. Probably something to do with freezing blood flow.
ooooShe was plumpish, he supposed, with a bit more than necessary of everything that made her female. Her blue dress was crisp. Though it might be a kind of green. Or olive. Or beige. Albert wasn’t sure about colors. He knew that if you shined light on them in a certain way, they changed, and there was a point at which one color became another. Apparently no one else minded, so he generally ignored subtle distinctions. Now though, with time on his hands, he decided to pursue the problem. Perhaps he could come to a conclusion through the process of elimination. The dress wasn’t yellow, he was sure of that. Reasonably certain. He was equally sure, after some consideration, it wasn’t white, or black, or red, or orange.
ooooThat left the possibility that it might be some color he’d seen in the ocean once. Or maybe the picture of an ocean. Or the sky. Or the little round disc at the bottom of the urinal.
ooooWell, he’d narrow it down some more later.
ooooHe learned, in the course of her commentary, that she had a brother, Benny, who had ‘gone to Hell with the IRA.’ Albert pictured a male version of Edna in the Museum, staring eternally at the wall of blotches and swirls. His plastic name tag read: Poor Benny.
oooo“So, you’re a piano player,” said Edna. That was a question he could answer.
oooo“My Aunt Mimi played piano at my wedding. Come Thou Font of Every Blessing. Lovely, that.”
ooooAlbert was willing to be conversational. “Is that a song?”
ooooEdna shot him a skeptical glance, as if ignorance of the song cast doubt upon both his claim to be a piano player and his theology. “‘course it is.” She’d stopped arranging him for a moment and gave him a quick visual examination. “American,” she said.
ooooAlbert, unable to determine by the tone in which it was delivered whether the diagnosis was a question, an observation, or condemnation, bobbled his head about in a non–committal way. Whatever he guessed would be wrong, so non–committal was the best way to go in situations like this.
oooo“Ah, well,” she said, and began to fold a sheet that she seemed to have summoned from thin air. “Aunt Mimi was a real piano player.” The implication was clear, though lost on Albert. “Church music, My Wild Irish Rose, Jenny O’ the Islands, The Charleston. You name it, she could play it. Even Rhapsody in Blue.” She started to hum something that could be part of any of these, for all he knew—titles were as obtuse to him as the Dorabella Cipher—and danced around his bed with a pillow tucked under her chin as she struggled to wrestle it into a pillowcase.
ooooThere were very few musical pieces Albert knew by name. He’d had occasion to learn The Volga Boatmen and My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, recently. Beyond that, his memory for song titles was a bit iffy.
ooooMore than a bit.
ooooAlmost completely iffy.
ooooIf Iffy were the name of a song, he might know it. But probably not.
ooooTitles were like your appendix, something that could be removed without anyone really noticing. His sister had had her appendix out and he had watched carefully to see if she looked different, or walked oddly, or leaked, or did anything that she didn’t normally do, but she didn’t. Not that he noticed. Of course, she was always doing odd things, but they were ordinary odd things. She was a female.
ooooWhy titles, anyway? Why not just hum a bar or two? Humming was a language that made sense, and from which he could extrapolate the composition in question.
ooooTitles were for books.
ooooMiss Bjork would laugh to hear him say things like that. He wasn’t sure why. But that was okay. He’d liked the sound of her laugh, especially if he’d been the one to make her do it.
ooooThat was music.
ooooSome people could to that on purpose. Make people laugh. He’d seen them in the teacher’s lounge at the School. Someone would say something, and everyone else would laugh. This baffled Albert. He had pretty good hearing. Exceptional, in fact. He could hear every single syllable that came out of the mouth of whoever was telling the joke, but could never hear whatever it was about whatever was said that made it funny. Somewhere in the sounds was a Hidden Meaning. That’s what he didn’t get.
ooooHe’d wished he could have made Miss Bjork laugh on purpose. She’d have laughed at that one about seeing eye–to–eye with Edna. But that wasn’t something funny Albert had thought of. It just came to him from somewhere, as if he’d managed to read it on a bubblegum wrapper as it blew by in the street.
ooooHe wished she wasn’t dead. He wished that so hard that his heart bled.
ooooDead. Death. Murder. That’s why he was here. Someone had said something about murder, and everything had just gone blank. It was Sir, talking about the man in the blue pajamas. Lord Something or Other. Had someone murdered him? He looked healthy enough in the picture, but it was probably painted before he was killed.
ooooFor most of his life, Albert had been kept in a bubble because, he was told, he was special. He was nine when some people convinced his mother he was so special that he should go to Julliard which is where he met Rudolf Firkušný, the only person who had ever seemed to understand him, or at least to understand that he couldn’t be understood. After three weeks, he’d called Albert’s mother and told her to come collect him. Albert had found the letter explaining the whole bizarre episode on his mother’s nightstand the night she and his sister had brought him home from South Station in Boston.
ooooDated Monday, October 17th, 1949, it began politely with her first and last name, then, without preamble, addressed The Problem. ‘In all my experience, ma’am,’ it said, ‘and among all the gifted people I have known, Albert stands alone. Unique’
ooooAlbert had looked up the word. It was just another way of saying ‘special.’ He might have known. People had always called him that. The same way they described Marky Lingus who came to church in a wheelchair. Whose head bobbed and dropped and rolled as he played an imaginary instrument in the air, and laughed and guffawed at all the wrong times, and drooled on the bib he wore around his neck. Marky, who Albert wanted to heal with an embrace, as Christ would have.
ooooHe knew then what people thought of him, of both he and Marky. They were special. Except Marky was happy. He possessed some deep knowledge that eluded Albert.
ooooMaybe it was Albert who needed healing.
oooo‘I have known many gifted composers and performers, Madam.’ Albert could hear the professor’s gravelly voice, his thick Czech accent. ‘Your son’s gift is beyond any of these. It is supernatural. I have sat on the bench beside him for hours on end as music poured fourth. Music? Not just music – the language of Heaven, Ma’am! Those who know me best would say I am not given to hyperbole. Quite the opposite. But sitting there at his elbow, watching his tiny fingers coax music from those keys – the same keys I play, to such sad effect, I realize now. I weep. I sob like a baby! But I watch his face, and there is nothing there. Utterly expressionless, he plays on, as if his hands – those marvelous little machines – are wired to the Mind of God, and he merely watches what miracles they perform, as if they’re of no interest to him.
oooo‘How can he be so unaware, so flawlessly mechanical while this fluid of genius flows with such tender expression? How can he be so detached?
oooo‘Albert is a void, ma’am. A void in command of a raw creative energy that cannot, must not, be disciplined by instruction or confined by education, here at Julliard, or anywhere else.
oooo‘Were I not a practical man, madam, I might suspect you, like Mary, of having been overshadowed by Providence, for I cannot think of any other union that would have produced such prodigy. Forgive me. I overstep myself.
oooo‘Yet, there it is. I am frightened to think what continued residence here would do to him, what intercourse with this world might do to him. I cannot imagine he will fare well, but he is better with you who knows him, than here with us. What is to become of him, I cannot say, but I cannot bear the burden of his gift.
oooo‘Truth be told, those of us of long experience have come to feel like hypocrites calling ourselves pianists when the conceit is humbled in his presence.
oooo‘I have no suggestion, ma’am, beyond that you let him play. Let him write, and let the world make of the results what it will.
oooo“Albert is not an ordinary mortal.
ooooYours with humblest respect,
ooooReading those words, at nine years old, Albert read ‘special,’ like Marky. ‘A void’ – a hole with nothing in it, he’d looked that up, too, just to be sure. ‘Unnatural,’ ‘not ordinary.’
ooooHe needed no definition for that one.
ooooNo wonder they’d sent him back home. No wonder his Mother bought the farm, way out in the country, where she could keep her little freak out of sight. Still, at the urging of experts whom she trusted, she had shipped him off from time to time. To Vienna, to Moscow, to Milan, but always he came back. Always those appointed to instruct him expressed their inability to do anything with him.
oooo‘He is an idiot,’ said Francisco Ferimi of (italian music school), ‘in all things but music. A savant. Brilliant but utterly unteachable. I have nothing for him.’
oooo‘Nothing for him here.’ Or there. Or there.
ooooMeantime, his reputation among those at the highest levels of the professional concert community grew to almost legendary proportions. ‘He’s an old man compared to Mozart,’ was a common comment. Nevertheless, it was Mozart he was compared to.
ooooSuch notoriety among the cognizenti couldn’t elude the pariahs for long, and soon an agent showed up on the porch of the farm, and presented Albert’s mother with the Solution to The Problem. A world tour. All the best care, of course. All the best hotels. Limousines. First–class airfare. A private tutor. ‘Like van Cliburn! Only the best. Plenty of veggies and fish. What? Allergic to shellfish. Well, certainly, no shellfish! and we’ll have a certified English nanny with him twenty–four hours a day. Every day.’
ooooNot clearly mentioned in the contract was that Albert would be driven to exhaustion by the agent’s hunger to squeeze every possible penny from him while he was still young enough to be a marketable curiosity, and not just another teenage prodigy. They were a dime a dozen.
ooooOn one promise the agent had made good, though. He had catapulted Albert to the heights of international fame and, to the extent that he could, shielded him from the press and the public; though this was more a marketing tactic than arising from genuine concern. The mystique generated interest. ‘Albert does not grant interviews,’ got more press than fifty interviews. And press sold tickets.
ooooThe Nanny’s name was Jane. She called Albert ‘Pinhead,’ and ‘Big Chief Little Fingers,’ and she didn’t like him because he was stupid and she didn’t like ‘his kind of music.’ She preferred Atom Ant and Ziggy Stardust and other names she apparently made up from some fairytale menagerie in her head.
ooooIn public, though, she was the model Nanny, and always had a wonderful smile for the press, and would walk demurely behind Albert with her hands protectively on his shoulders on the way into and out of theaters, auditoriums, and studios. She had an uncanny instinct for the cameras and could always tell when they were on or off.
When they were off, she’d cuff him on the back of the head and ask him what made him think he was so wonderful.
ooooAlbert had never thought of himself as wonderful. He only thought of himself as special. A void. Unnatural.
ooooJane refused to bathe him, ‘he’s too old for that, even if he is an idiot’ for which he was most grateful, not grateful that he was an idiot, that couldn’t be helped, but that she at least allowed him privacy of the bath. But Jane wasn’t remiss in her professional duties. She saw that he was well fed – though was often exasperated by his unwillingness to declare what he liked. It was only food. He needed it to stay alive. What did he care what form it took?
ooooShe took care of his clothes and dressed him whatever way she thought would reflect best on her if they went out for dinner or to ‘diddle royalty’ as the agent put it. It was he, the agent, who determined how Albert would dress for concerts. A pint–sized tuxedo with a Davy Crockett t–shirt was one of his favorite combinations. ‘Keep him young as long as we can,’ had been his motto.
ooooThen the collapse, and Albert found himself in a hospital, much like the one he was in now and for much the same reason – fainting.
ooooAnother bubble. And so he’d gone, from bubble to bubble, ending up in the bubble of the Ultimate Enabler, academia; Trophy Genius of a small college in western Massachusetts that guarded him jealously and allowed his eccentricities broad scope and, truth be told, subtly publicized examples of their expression.
ooooHaving an athletic department whose only claim to fame was a third–place LaCrosse trophy from 1926, the Alumni loved throwing money at a genuine Genius of international renown. Especially one who was as much a mystery to the world as the world was to Albert.
ooooThe thing about bubbles, Albert had learned when his had been burst by the sudden, tragic deaths of people close to him, was that, being self–contained ecosystems, they had not prepared him to live and breath the air of the Real World, a world of expected responses and unspoken meanings in which he was a Stranger.
oooo“There’s a boy wants to see you when visitors are allowed,” said Edna, intruding upon Albert’s bittersweet reverie.
ooooAlbert’s heart skipped a beat. “Does he have legs?”
oooo“Legs?” said Edna, as if someone had given a mighty and unexpected upward tug to her underwear. “Well, now that your mention it, I can’t say as I know. He’s in a wheelchair with a blanket over his knees.”
oooo“That’s Jeremy Ash,” Albert declared. “Will you show him in, please?”
oooo“Can’t, love” said Edna, looking meaningfully from her watch to the clock on the wall above Albert’s bed. “Not for seven minutes.”
oooo“What’s happening in seven minutes?” Albert asked, suspecting that she’d tell him he should know.
oooo“Visiting hours start at 5:00.”
oooo“What’s happening between now and then?”
oooo“What do you mean?”
oooo“Why can’t he come in now?”
oooo“I already told you. Weren’t you listening? Visiting hours start at 5:00 sharp.”
oooo“It makes a difference?”
oooo“Of course it does,” said Edna, who seemed to be getting flustered, but was not forthcoming with an explanation.
ooooEdna tapped her watch with her finger and the floor with her toe – in an irregular syncopation. “Five o–clock. Is it five o’clock yet?” she asked, holding the watch so close to his nose that Albert couldn’t focus. He wasn’t sure, but probably seven minutes hadn’t passed.
oooo“No. That’s right. I’m glad we’ve got that sorted in our tiny little brain.”
ooooAlbert decided to wait for seven minutes.
oooo“Well, look at you!” said Jeremy, when he came wheeling in at 4:58. “I’ve seen you look a lot worst than this.”
oooo“You can’t come in here,” Edna objected. She attempted to interpose herself between her patient and the Intruder – he wouldn’t be a Visitor for two minutes yet.
oooo“That’s Jeremy Ash,” said Albert proudly, by way of explanation.
oooo“I didn’t think it was Dudley Moore,” said the nurse, as if Albert would know who that was. “He still can’t come in for,” once more she consulted her watch and the clock, which nodded in agreement, “two minutes.”
oooo“Are you finished in here, lady?” said Jeremy.
oooo“Well, yes, but…”
oooo“Then clear out before I run over your toes.” Jeremy pivoted threateningly.
ooooAnd Edna left the room and their lives with a lower opinion of Americans than she had theretofore entertained, and that was saying something.
ooooAlbert wanted to hug the boy; his Rock and Foundation, his Interpreter of the World, his Guardian, his Only Friend. But one was enough; another would be surplus blessing. There was no situation, or individual Jeremy Ash couldn’t handle, whether Albert’s housekeeper, the formidable Mrs. Gibson, or the formidable Sister Edna. They were putty in his hands. He’d have been able to sort out all that business in Tryon, South Carolina, with his eyes closed. Even without legs.
ooooBring it on, thought Albert on behalf of Jeremy Ash, but not in so many words.
oooo“Passed out, huh?” said Jeremy Ash, wheeling close to the bed and looking around to see if there was anything to eat. There wasn’t, but, no stranger to disappointment, he took it in stride.
oooo“Those two you were with, they’re outside.”
oooo“Don’t ‘oh,’” said the boy. “They want to see you. Make sure you’re still in one piece.”
oooo“Tell them I’m okay.”
oooo“I’m not doing your dirty work for you,” said Jeremy Ash. “You want ‘em to buzz off, tell ‘em yourself.”
oooo“Yeah, sure you will,” said Jeremy Ash, and then, as always, wheeled away to do his master’s bidding. “Just this one time.”
ooooAlbert loved Jeremy Ash just a little bit more, and thought he’d like some toast, but couldn’t find the button to beckon Edna. Not that he was sure she’d give him toast if she was up to her neck in it.
ooooWas that another joke? He smiled, just in case.
oooo“They want to come back in an hour or so,” said Jeremy Ash as he wheeled back in the room, going much too fast and coming to an abrupt stop just short of the bed frame. He made a sound like brakes squealing. “They said they want to move you to a Proper Hospital,” he said, sticking his nose in the air and mimicking BBC English on the last two words. And pretty well.
oooo“What’s wrong with this one?” said Albert, looking at the plastic band on his wrist. “University College Hospital,” he read.
ooooJeremy Ash shrugged. “Who knows? They said you need to be in private care. I guess you’re only here because it was the nearest place to the Museum where you passed out.”
oooo“I think I’m okay now. I don’t think I need to be in any hospital. Let’s go back to the hotel.”
oooo“Fine by me,” said the boy. “But they’re gonna piss nails they see you walkin’ out.
ooooOf course, Jeremy Ash and Albert had long–ago mastered the art of Leaving Hospitals Unseen.
oooo“Huffy’s not gonna be happy with you,” said Jeremy Ash over his shoulder as Albert wheeled him across the Graftson Street intersection onto Tottenham Court Road, still wearing his paper hospital slippers. They were comfortable.
ooooHuffy was rarely happy with Albert. He was always wanting him to be somewhere he wasn’t, or didn’t want to be, wanting him to do something he didn’t want to do for people he neither knew nor cared about. “Huffy,” Albert’s mother had said, “is your cross to bear, Albert. A necessary evil. Some endure ulcers, or boils, like Job. You must endure Huffy.”
oooo“Sounds like a disease, don’t it?” Jeremy Ash had said after meeting Huffy for the first time. “I got a horrible case of Huffy.”
ooooAlbert had gotten that, and he had laughed, despite the fact that’s just what he had, and, apparently, there was no remedy.
ooooHuffy, however, was – in the School’s eyes – a vast improvement over his previous agent, the one who had made him famous and, according to the School in the lawsuit it filed on Albert’s behalf, proceeded to turn most of the Albert’s share of the proceeds to his own advantage, thereby usurping the School’s prerogative, apparently. Albert didn’t care. He’d always had enough for cigarettes and Dunkin’ Donuts. Still, the School had insisted.
ooooThe result, lawyers for the School informed him gleefully, was that he was a millionaire several times over.
ooooAlbert—having little use for folding money, since it was useless in cigarette machines, and he had no room for it in his apartment—told the School to keep it. Which they were happy to do, in the form of a tax–free endowment in his name.
ooooThe School loved Albert very much, and if he was eccentric, well, love is blind.
ooooThey split the interest on the endowment 60/40 – in the School’s favor – and, for the last few years, had paid his portion to Mrs. Bridges at the Bank who made sure he always had quarters for cigarette machines and had set up some sort of magical arrangement with stores in town where he could get anything he wanted, and all he had to do was autograph a piece of paper!
ooooMrs. Bridges loomed large in Albert’s life. She was one of those people who Knew Everything and could Do Anything. The anti–Albert. He wished she was in London to do it now. Fortunately, Jeremy Ash was here.
oooo“So,” said Jeremy Ash, when Albert didn’t seem eager to talk about Huffy; not that he was ever very eager to talk about anything, but some things he was more prepared to pretend to be listening to than others. Jeremy Ash, one of those people who couldn’t let silence go unmolested, had developed the habit of fishing ‘til he caught something, “what did you faint about?”
ooooThe question took Albert by surprise and the response brought laserlike focus to his cognitive apparatus. Consequently, he brought the wheelchair to a halt in the middle of a pedestrian crossing; a maneuver that didn’t go unnoticed by drivers to either side. “Murder,” he said.
oooo“Cool!” said Jeremy Ash. “Whose?”
ooooAt the subconscious level, Albert became aware that nearby horns were tuning up for a recital. “I don’t know. I think a man in a picture.”
oooo“In the museum?” said Jeremy, who was enjoying sitting still in the middle of the crosswalk and causing the Great Disturbance of London, 1986.
oooo“Yes. I think somebody killed him a long time ago.”
oooo“I don’t know. There was a treasure.” The ambient noise finally reached the critical mass necessary to breach Albert’s consciousness. He looked at the faces behind the wheels to the right and left, all of which seemed prepared for battle of some kind. He thought it best to get Jeremy out of harm’s way and wheeled him to the little park across the street.
oooo“What kind of treasure?”
ooooAlbert had, very early in their relationship, resigned himself to the fact that Jeremy’s conversation dealt almost exclusively with questions for which he, Albert, had no answer. This was merely the latest in a long line.
oooo“Why did you faint?”
oooo“Something to do with blood rushing to my head,” said Albert indefinitely as he swung the wheelchair into the pedestrian stream.
oooo“But why would it rush to your head when someone says something about murder?”
oooo“I don’t know,” said Albert. This was the answer Jeremy got to most of his questions in spite of which he seemed to come up with the right answer eventually. This time, though, Albert had an inspiration. “Could hate make blood rush to your head?”
oooo“Why not? Fear can. Too much exercise can. Love can.”
ooooLove could make you faint? Why hadn’t Albert fainted when he was with Miss Bjork? He’d been so sure he’d loved her. But he had nothing to compare that emotion to. He would have sworn it was love.
ooooStill, he hadn’t fainted.
ooooJeremy Ash was talking – which, to Albert, was much like saying ‘the air is full of oxygen.’
oooo“Why did you say that about hate? Did you hate the guy in the painting?”
Something heavy squatted at the juncture of Albert’s eyebrows and twiddled its thumbs while waiting for him to make sense of what he was hearing. “I don’t know the man in the painting.”
oooo“Then who are you talking about?”
ooooGood question. Albert turned quickly to avoid a paperboy who was waving a newspaper at them and shouting the same thing over–and–over again. “Macca cleared of paternity charges! Get your Sun today!”
ooooThen he remembered. “Murder. That’s what I hate.”
ooooJeremy Ash – more aware than perhaps anyone of the trail of murders that had recently intruded on Albert’s hermit–like existence, most especially that of Melissa Bjork, the public defender who had died in his arms – understood.
oooo“Then yes. I’d say hate could make you faint.”
oooo“Let’s talk about something else.”
oooo“Suits me. Shoot.”
ooooAlbert realized that he should have been more specific. What he meant to suggest was that they stop talking altogether. “My lips are tired.”
ooooLondon cabbies are required to know all the streets in London by name and location. In consequence of which, they are reputed to have prodigious memories. Albert didn’t know this when, his mind occupied with trying not to think about the murder of the man in the blue pajamas, he stepped off the curb and onto the zebra crossing with Jeremy Ash foremost. At that moment, a cab bearing two Canadian tourists was approaching the crossing at considerable speed. Upon seeing a legless boy thrust into his path, the cabby whipped the wheel sharply to the left and swerved, mostly on two wheels, down one of the tiny little alleys that his prodigious memory must have suddenly reminded him was there.
ooooJeremy Ash, only momentarily at a loss for words, had discovered something else that could cause the blood to flow to the head: imminent demise. He looked around to see if Albert had fainted.
ooooAlbert, only dimly aware of unfolding events, nevertheless, was propelled forward by a nebulous impetus to be elsewhere. The cabby had ground his vehicle to an abrupt stop – seemingly not willing that the Doppler Effect should diminish the impact as he delivered himself of his feelings with a vocabulary every bit the equal of his memory. Upon this verbal tide, which reminded him of something out of Shakespeare, though he couldn’t remember exactly what, never having read Shakespeare, Albert and Jeremy Ash were washed to the far side of the intersection.
ooooAs the sound and fury retreated behind them, Jeremy Ash regained mastery of his tongue. “You’ve gotta be more careful, A. You could’ve got me killed.”
ooooAlbert was sorry for that. The boy was right. Mental note: henceforth, do not step off the curb without looking both ways to make sure no one was coming.
ooooHe knew better.
ooooHe knew that he knew better.
ooooIt’s just, you have to think about this kind of thing all the time. Even when your brain was busy with something else.
oooo“I’m sorry,” he said, and meant it. “Are you all right?”
oooo“I’m thankful I don’t have any legs,” said Jeremy Ash.
ooooThis struck Albert as a novel comment. “Why?”
oooo“Because if I’d had ‘em, I’d’ve just lost ‘em.” The boy laughed but Albert, feeling that it was probably a private laugh, since he couldn’t see anything funny in it, didn’t.
oooo“That man was very angry.”
oooo“Scared is all.”
ooooScared? Albert, in a quick backward glance, had seen the face of the cabby. It hadn’t seemed scared at all. It had been like the face of Mongol Hordes descending on a small unprotected village of widows and orphans. However, the two Canadians in the back seat – identified as such by their maple leaf T–shirts – seemed genuinely terrified. “You think so?”
oooo“Sure. He was startled. When that happens, your adrenaline kicks in and it’s gotta have somewhere to go, so you do and say things you wouldn’t normally. It’s like an emotional fart; noisy and unpleasant but it goes away pretty quick. Can’t say as I blame him. I’d’ve had something to say, too, but it ain’t polite to talk with your mouth full – and mine was.” He was referring to his heart, which Albert might have picked up on had he been listening.
oooo“People do things when they’re startled,” Albert repeated. This was one of those revelations that Jeremy Ash dispensed at irregular intervals, like a legless little Indian guru. Sometimes they were big revelations, sometimes small. But revelations nevertheless. This was probably a big one. Time would tell.
ooooDid people really go ‘round ready to erupt at any time like that? Were people nothing but balloons, ranging the earth with all that emotional gas trapped inside, just waiting for some sharp remark or unanticipated incident to poke a hole in them?
ooooThat would make the world a scary place.
ooooAlbert resolved that, in addition to not pushing Jeremy Ash into traffic any more, he would examine his words for sharp edges before he spoke them. The thought of people blowing up to the right and left was unsettling.
oooo“So, anyway,” said Jeremy Ash, “Murder’s been going on since Cain. You can’t go fainting every time you hear the word, else you’ll be up and down like one of them punchy dolls.”
ooooIt was curious, Albert thought, how he seldom understood what Jeremy Ash was saying, but always knew what he meant. The image that sprang to mind at the mention of ‘punchy dolls’ required a bit of head–shaking to dispel, and while he was doing that, Jeremy Ash continued speaking. “It’s got nothing to do with you, this time,” he said comfortingly. “Some guy in a painting. Everyone in paintings is dead. That’s why they get painted, so family won’t forget ‘em.”
ooooAlbert spotted a flaw. “They must have been alive when they were painted.”
ooooJeremy Ash amended his theory on the fly. “Of course they were, but the reason they got painted is ‘cause they’re afraid family will forget ‘em when they’re dead. They want something for prosterity.”
oooo“Prosterity,” Albert echoed. That was a new word to him. He’d have to remember it; then find out what it meant. The fellow in the painting hadn’t looked particularly old or unhealthy, as Albert recalled. Perhaps he knew he was going to be murdered and wanted to make sure his portrait was done in time.
ooooThere was something else strange about that man, besides that he was wearing sky- blue pajamas. His body was turned to his left, but his neck was turned to the right. His eyes seemed to be looking at something over the viewer’s left shoulder.
ooooMaybe he was looking at his murderer.
ooooPainters. Who knew? Some of them seemed to object to reality, maybe the fellow who painted the picture of the man in his pajamas was one of those. Maybe the man hadn’t really been in his pajamas at all. Maybe the painter just did that as a joke.
ooooIt wouldn’t have mattered to the man in the pajamas; he’d be dead pretty soon.
ooooA red, double–decker bus pulled noisily to the curb not three feet away, reminding Albert that he’d best keep his mind on negotiating Jeremy Ash safely across the upcoming intersection where he would turn from Mortimer Street onto Regent Street, which was busy with shoppers.
oooo“We should hail a cab,” said Jeremy.
ooooThat would never have occurred to Albert any more than to hail a space shuttle. “I’ve never done that.”
oooo“You just step out in front of one and hold your hand up.”
ooooA series of miracles that would have strained the resources of even the most ingenious and adaptable Guardian Angel, found Albert and Jeremy Ash ultimately deposited in the lobby of the Cadogan, in time for afternoon tea. People who drove on the wrong side of the road, and went the wrong way, and taxi drivers who seemed not to comprehend the art of hailing as described by Jeremy Ash, Albert didn’t understand. He didn’t understand blood pudding or spotted Dick. He didn’t understand Guinness stout, his only sip of which had made him think his mouth had died. He didn’t understand bubble and squeak, potted rabbit, or eel pie – all delicacies Huffy had thought it imperative to inflict upon his Client in the interest of ‘making you a bit more cosmopolitan, Albert.’
ooooHuffy was English. More specifically, he was from the East End of London, where these abominations were heart and soul of the dinner table, and probably accounted for the fact he was nearly unintelligible; his tongue must be in constant rebellion.
ooooThe gastronomic appraisal of someone like Albert whose meals – prior to sitting at Miss Grandy’s table in Tryon, South Carolina, and Mrs. Gibson’s ‘home–cookin’ that’ll hold you down in a stiff breeze, you Popsicle stick’ – often consisted of sardines dipped in peanut butter, Twinkies, and frozen corn, straight from the box, rang hollow with Huffy.
ooooAfternoon tea at the Cadogan, was one of the few traditions the world had to offer that made sense to Albert. You sat in a comfortable seat in a quiet room where nondescript music played like the surf in the background and young people in uniforms brought you sandwiches and tall trays of pastries and tea and coffee without even being asked!
ooooIt was a custom to which Albert had been introduced on his first European tour, and the one that had made the Cadogan his home–away–from–home ever since. The doorman, concierge, and desk clerk all knew him by name, and it was they whom Albert and Jeremy Ash left behind in a little knot of consternation dealing with the cabbie, two bobbies, and a small cross section of British pedestrians as they wheeled toward the Drawing Room, which is what they called the place they served tea. Why they didn’t call it the Tea Room, Albert couldn’t fathom. But they called Magdelane College Maudlin, and Worchestershire Woostersheer, so who knew.
ooooSomeone should teach them English.
oooo“Everybody’s lookin’ at us,” said Jeremy.
Albert became conscious of his hospital slippers.
ooooFlies were not permitted on the walls of the Cadogan – nor in any of its precincts. If, however, one had managed to evade expulsion over the years, and grown to a ripe old age, it would have stories to tell about the night Oscar Wilde was arrested in his rooms, or the midnight visitations to the rooms of Lily Langtry by Bertie, Prince of Wales and, no doubt, a list of scandals and mini–scandals such as the privileged despise among the common population, but themselves practice with brio.
ooooEven the fly in question, however, would find it difficult to maintain his ennui at the sight of the world’s foremost concert pianist – even more disheveled than was his custom, sporting, as he did, fragments of hospital attire, paper slippers, considerably the worse for wear, and a plastic wrist band – bouncing the wheelchair of his legless and voluble teenage companion noisily from one to the other of the many padded chairs and linen–draped tables of the hotel’s sanctum sanctorum, like a pinball.
ooooAlbert, as a rule, didn’t like to be stared at, and couldn’t imagine why people spent so much time doing it. Often they would point, as well, making him feel they expected him to say or something, or break into song. But what do you say or do to someone who’s pointing at you? As for singing, that was something he’d never done. He wondered what his voice would sound like if he tried and, in following that train of thought was soon oblivious to the watching eyes.
oooo“I think we went the wrong way down that street,” Jeremy said, when he was situated at the table.
ooooThat would explain a lot, thought Albert. All those little arrows painted on the pavement saying ‘Look Left’ were helpful to an extent, but they needed clarification.
oooo“Good afternoon, Maestro,” said the girl with Spanish eyebrows. Albert didn’t know why he thought she had Spanish eyebrows, he just did. The concierge had said she would be taking personal care of you and Mr. Ash, sir and that’s what she did. “Mr. Ash,” she said, giving a kind of curtsey to Jeremy which, for some reason, made Albert happy. “Usual today, gentlemen?”
ooooAlbert nodded. “Yes, please.”
oooo“You got them biscuit things?” Jeremy wanted to know.
oooo“Scones. Yes, sir. I think we might have just one or two left,” said the girl with a smile.
oooo“Grab ‘em, will ya? With some’ve that strawberry jam.”
oooo“Consider it done,” said the girl and she made a small, unobtrusive gesture to some uniformed subordinates at the far end of the room and the wheels were set in motion. “Could you be tempted to add some fresh Devon double–cream?”
ooooAnd so it went and Albert settled into the deep cushions of his chair and closed his eyes, and breathed deeply and slowly, and lit a cigarette, and waited.
oooo“What do you think of that girl?” Jeremy asked.
oooo“She has Spanish eyebrows,” said Albert. He rested his elbows on the arms of the chair and knitted his fingers on the stomach that would soon be full of funny little sandwiches and cakes.
ooooThe remark got nothing more than a queer expression from Jeremy, which went unnoticed by Albert, who had his eyes closed. “She’s pretty.”
ooooAlbert supposed she was, but not so much that it overwhelmed the impression that she had Spanish eyebrows.
ooooUnable to generate conversation on that tack, Jeremy Ash, undeterred, chose another. “What kind of treasure was in that painting?”
ooooAlbert had developed the ability to extract from recent memory the subject to which Jeremy Ash was referring at those times he seemed to be referring to nothing in the present. “I don’t remember. Sir and Lady just said something about a treasure.”
oooo“Probably crown jewels,” said Jeremy, eyeing the approaching tower of comestibles as if they were the jewels in question. “That’s what it is in all the movies.”
ooooJewelry didn’t interest Albert so he devoted his attention to buttering his scones and sugar–and–creaming his coffee as Jeremy Ash dipped deeply into his catalog of trivia and came up with numerous examples of people wishing to make off with the crown jewels.
oooo“He didn’t have a crown,” said Albert with his mouth full when Jeremy lapsed into silence necessitated by eating and drinking.
ooooJeremy Ash asked ‘who are you talking about?’ with his eyes.
oooo“That man in the picture. He didn’t have a crown.” Hence, Albert deduced, no crown jewels. Simple deduction.
ooooThis observation drew a shrug from the boy. He cleared his throat with a sip of tea. “Well, there are lots of kinds of treasure. Gold, money – even secrets.”
ooooAlbert’s ears thought this was an important remark, and nudged his brain to pay attention. He mentally replayed the statement. “Secrets? You mean like blackmail?”
oooo“I knew someone who did that.”
oooo“I know,” said the boy, to whom Albert had – over the years – related in dribs and drabs all his experience in Tryon, North Carolina, including incidents not mentioned in magazine and newspaper accounts. “Anyway. I’m just sayin’, treasure can be anything. Something you and me don’t think’s worth anything might be worth everything in the world to someone else.”
oooo“Maybe the painting is a treasure.”
ooooJeremy Ash tilted his head a little bit to let the comment sift in. “Somebody killed the man in the painting because the painting was a treasure? Nah. Paintings only get to be treasures when the guy who painted ‘em dies. Not the people in ‘em.”
oooo“Then, maybe the artist was murdered, so the painting would become a treasure.”
oooo“But you said the guy in the painting was the one who died.”
ooooSo he had. “Maybe they both died.”
oooo“Maybe it was a self–portrait.”
ooooJeremy Ash’s brain was a possibility machine that could go on conjecturing and ‘what–iffing’ long after Albert’s had decided to take a long, leisurely nap.
ooooThe voice was not that of Jeremy Ash, yet it was instantly, heart–stoppingly familiar. Albert’s eyes flew open and fixed upon a ghost of the recent past. “Heather?”
oooo“Angela,” the girl corrected. “Remember?”
ooooAlbert had known her by both names, back in Tryon, three years ago. He tried to get up, but the gravity of the plush chair wouldn’t release him, and he fell back.
oooo“Don’t get up,” she said.
ooooGood. He wasn’t sure his legs, startled as they were, could support him even if he did manage to get to his feet. “Angela,” he said.
ooooShe lightly touched the back of a vacant chair Albert hadn’t noticed before. “May I?”
ooooAlbert looked quickly at Jeremy Ash, as if the sight of him would restore reason. Jeremy returned a look that said ‘who the hell is this?’
oooo“Yes,” said Albert, and Angela sat. “This is Jeremy Ash.”
oooo“Hello, Jeremy,” said Angela, extending her hand.
ooooThe boy looked at it for a second, then took it, shook it a little sheepishly, and let it go. “Heather or Angela?”
oooo“Angela,” said Angela. “The Professor knew me as Heather, back in America.”
ooooJeremy Ash made the connection. “You’re the one who was drivin’ the car when…” he made a sweeping gesture illustrating a car going off a cliff.
oooo“Jeremy, don’t…” said Albert. but it was too late.
oooo“What? This ain’t her?”
ooooIt was. She had been driving and her best friend, Heather Antrim, whose car it was, had been in the passenger seat when it went over the cliff. She had managed to jump out at the last instant. Heather had not.
ooooSo much effort was spent trying to close doors on the past, but the mechanism that held them in place was so easily sprung. Jeremy Ash was an excellent springer.
oooo“Yes. It’s me,” said Angela, her eyes on her hands which had begun to strangle a napkin.
oooo“I thought you was in jail.”
oooo“Jeremy,” said Albert. He wanted to say ‘shut up,’ but his mother had raised him better. “Please don’t.”
oooo“It’s okay, Professor.” Angela turned to Jeremy Ash. “Yes. I was in prison – until about three months ago.”
oooo“Did you break out?” Jeremy cleared space on a higher shelf of his estimation.
oooo“No,” she said with a little smile. “My sentence was for five years. I was granted early release for good behavior.”
ooooAlbert wondered to what authority he could apply for early release from his prison, the one whose walls were defined by hurt, the gaping loss of Miss Bjork, who had died in his arms, and all the noise and confusion of a world in which he didn’t belong. Hadn’t he been well–behaved?
ooooThen he thought of Jeremy Ash, whose prison had been the worst of all, a tiny closet under the stairs with a little crack in the door through which he had watched television – his only companion for the first seven years of his life. The physical deprivation he had undergone during that time was still consuming him – most recently ingesting his remaining leg from the knee down. In all that time he had experienced nearly total abandonment.
ooooBut he’d learned more through that crack in the door than Albert had from the world through which he traveled from cocoon–to–cocoon.
oooo“I heard you were giving a concert. It’s in all the papers, of course. I decided to risk if you’d see me.”
ooooHow could he help it? She was there in front of him. His eyes were open.
ooooWhy would she want to see him? Why would anyone want to see him? “Why?”
oooo“I’m not sure. I guess . . . all the time I was in prison, I thought about you. Remember the night we sat on the porch and talked and – everything came out?”
ooooAlbert remembered. It was one of many things he’d tried to forget, and those were the things he remembered best.
ooooNot that he’d tried to forget her as a person. She was pleasant to listen to and much nicer to look at than those pictures in the museum, and she was alive, which made it better. But she was surrounded by a miasma of violent death and it had shattered her innocence, as his own had been shattered. Together, they were mismatched glasses, leaking sorrow.
ooooShe hesitated. “This is going to seem really strange,” she said at last.
ooooWhat didn’t? thought Albert, sitting in the Tea Room of the Cadogan in the shredded remains of his hospital slippers, across the table from legless Jeremy Ash and a woman who, until the night she’d been talking about, had assumed the identity of her dear, dead friend.
ooooJeremy Ash seemed about to say something, but this time he read ‘shut–up, Jeremy’ in Albert’s eyes and, for the first time in over three years of companionship, he did.
oooo“In prison, you have a lot of time to think,” Angela continued. “Sometimes you fixate on things, I guess. Like an anchor to hold on to. And that’s what I fixated on – that night, the time we spent together. I wondered what it was about you that made me open up to you like I did, when I’d worked so hard, so very hard, to be Heather.
oooo“I still don’t know what it was. But, over time, I realized that night was the closest I’ve ever been to anyone, apart from Heather. I guess I’ve come to think of you as a friend. A confidant. Family, in a way.”
ooooJeremy Ash arched a meaningful eyebrow or two in Albert’s direction. He started to make the space–ship sound that always preceded ‘beam me up, Scotty,’ one of several phrases he used often but Albert didn’t understand. Seeing it coming, Albert preempted him.
oooo“What about Heather’s family?”
ooooShe was genuinely startled. “The Antrims? I hardly think…”
oooo“That’d be too weird, A,” said Jeremy. “They don’t want to see the girl who was impersonating their dead daughter – who was drivin’ the car that …” he repeated the fatal gesture. “You gotta think.” He tapped his temple. “Think.”
ooooAlbert thought he had been thinking. Where had he gone wrong? Why did he always go wrong? “What do you want me to do, Angela?”
ooooThe girl hadn’t been prepared for his directness but, almost instantly, realized that she should have been. “I don’t know.”
oooo“You want him to adopt you?” said Jeremy, always happy to move things along. “You’re a little old for that.”
oooo“Well, no. Of course not.”
oooo“You want him to marry you?”
oooo“Jeremy!” said Albert at the same time Angela said, “Of course not!”
oooo“You want him to give you money?”
oooo“Jeremy!” said Albert again, wishing, painfully wishing, impotently wishing he would be inspired by that magic combination of words that would render the boy mute. Temporarily, at least.
ooooAngela smiled. “I hadn’t even thought of that.”
ooooJeremy Ash looked at her slyly. “I bet if you give her some money, A, she’ll go away.”
oooo“I will go away if you want me to, Professor,” said Angela. “All you have to do is say the word and I’ll never darken your door,” she flashed an angry glance at Jeremy Ash. “No money involved.” She turned back to Albert. “I was just hoping, I guess I was hoping we could be friends.”
ooooAlbert already had a friend. Were two allowed? He looked at Jeremy Ash, who looked back and, after a moment, shrugged. It was a gesture Albert could interpret any number of ways, so he picked one.
oooo“You were lonely in prison?”
ooooThe girl shuddered visibly. “You do one of two things in prison, Professor; you either fight every day to remember who you are, to be true to yourself, or you become someone else. Something else. I was lonely, yes. Because I want to be good. Good through and through. Clean. Free from this . . . this tremendous guilt I feel. And I could only do that by separating myself from all the other women.”
oooo“Sounds like you want Jesus,” said Jeremy, who had seen more than his share of Sunday morning sermons through the crack in his door. “He comes in to your heart.”
ooooThat must be why so many people wrote music for Him, Albert thought. It made sense that you’d want to make music for someone who lived in your heart. At that moment he had an idea; he would create something for the resident of his heart; Symphony for Miss Bjork.
oooo“Perhaps I do,” said Angela, intruding on Albert’s Idea.
oooo“Do what?” he asked, hoping the answer would remind him where he was, who he was with, why he was there, and what he was supposed to be doing.
ooooAngela played with the hem of the tablecloth. “Need Jesus in my heart.” She smiled as if she meant it. “That’s not a English concept. I would have laughed at the notion before Tryon. Going to church with Miss Grady and all the folks at her house just seemed a quaint custom, so I joined in. Then I realized it wasn’t a custom, it was real to them, all that talk about Christ’s atonement for our sin – bridging the bottomless chasm between ourselves and God with the cross. I began to wonder if it applied to me.”
oooo“That’s why He died,” said Jeremy, matter–of–factly, “That’s what Miz Gibson says. So you wouldn’t have to carry all that around with you. ‘Far as the east is from the west,’ “ he said, mimicking one of those Sunday morning preachers. He held his hands as wide apart as he could reach. “That’s how far away He puts your sin, so far He can’t even see it no more. Which must be pretty far, ‘cause He’s God.”
oooo“Then He can do what three years in prison couldn’t,” said Angela.
oooo“‘course, He might have to stretch some in your case.”
ooooAlbert had been thinking. “What about your sister?” He knew her only living relative, an older sister, had raised her when their parents had died.
oooo“She and her husband emigrated to New Zealand. He’s got some kind of job with the government there. I’m not sure what. She’s a stranger to me.”
The one thing that Albert knew, apart from music, was geography. So he knew that, much like the east and west to which Jeremy Ash had recently referred, New Zealand was about as far from wherever you were as it was possible to get. Angela’s sister might as well be in – well, New Zealand.
oooo“Christchurch,” she added.
ooooJust a little beyond as far away as it was possible to get. Sister was out of the picture. Albert would have to think of something else. Meantime, his mouth decided to talk. “Where are you living now?”
oooo“Oh, I’ve got a bedsit in Croydon. I share it with another girl, Gloria. She was released the same day as I and we decided to go halves with what little we had. Bit of a party girl, so I don’t see her much.”
oooo“Do you have a job?” Jeremy Ash wanted to know. The girl’s answer was accompanied by an expression Albert couldn’t interpret.
oooo“I busk.” She smiled. “I’m a busker.”
ooooAlbert’s eyebrows twisted into question marks.
oooo“She’s a hustler,” Jeremy interpreted.
oooo“Not a hustler,” Angie corrected. “A street performer.”
ooooJeremy made a noise that embodied his opinions on the merits of street performers. “Doing what?”
oooo“I play violin. Sing a bit.”
ooooFor Albert, this simple exchange presented novelty at several levels, the first of which was that he didn’t know Angela was a singer. Second, he didn’t know she played violin; nothing of his previous experience of her hinted at a musical side. The third novelty was the notion that those people caterwauling at passersby on street corners were making a living somehow. He began to voice these observations in sequence.
oooo“I trained for it once,” she said. “A long time ago. Now, I just like to play and sing a bit. It’s something to do until I can get a proper position. I quite enjoy it, really. There’s a kind of anonymity to it, which is nice – after prison. Most people go out of their way to ignore you.” She laughed a hollow laugh. “Once in a while someone will stop and listen and drop 50p in my cup.”
oooo“I’m so sorry, Maestro,” said Mr. Quiggly. The hand he placed on Angela’s shoulder seemed gentle, but it made her start up from her chair. “I didn’t see her come in. Come along, miss. We don’t want to bother Mr. . . . ”
oooo“I’m not bothering him,” said Angela, wilting beneath the stares from those around her. “Am I, Professor?”
ooooThe unexpected insertion of a fourth voice – that of the concierge – into the trio, had a jarring effect on Albert who cast an appeal at Jeremy Ash.
oooo“You want her to stay?” said the boy.
ooooAlbert looked from Quiggly, who seemed about to cast Angela into the outer darkness, to Angela, who had ceased her brief struggle against the firm restraint and was staring at the floor as if she’d been beaten, back to Quiggly. “This is Angela,” he said. “I think she’d like some tea.”
ooooQuiggly let his captive go immediately. “Of course. Of course. I’m so sorry, miss,” he said. He brushed the back of her chair and held it for her. She subsided slowly. “The Maestro’s privacy is very important to us here at the Cadogan. I was unaware that you were of his acquaintance. Please accept our apologies.”
oooo“Thank you,” said Angela. “Please don’t trouble yourself on my account.”
oooo“No trouble at all,” said Quiggly. “May I atone by persuading you to accept a late luncheon as our guest, miss? Perhaps some of chef’s excellent champignon au gratin and sandwiches?”
ooooQuiggly, as much a part of the Cadogan as the wallpaper in reception and the little crack in the lentil over the front door, was the voice of the place. In the ten or so years he had known him, Albert had always loved to listen to him talk, which he likened to music without notes. “May I atone by persuading you to accept luncheon as my guest, miss?” He repeated aloud. The words stuck to his tongue like salt water taffy. They tasted good.
ooooFor a moment, all eyes turned to him for some reason. “That would be nice,” he said. Quiggly bowed deeply and sincerely, and melted silently away. Albert had heard about someone who worked in mysterious ways his wonders to perform. They must have been talking about Quiggly.
oooo“How do you do that?” said Albert.
oooo“That busking thing.” Albert’s words scraped across his eardrums like sandpaper, and he winced their inadequacy. He envied Quiggly, whose every utterance seemed somehow premeditated; weighted with meaning and dipped in some kind of verbal oil so they slid easily into the auditory canal, diddling the cilium in a pleasant way.
“You just find an unoccupied spot at a well–traveled intersection, or in a park and,” she shrugged, “start playing. The tube, too. Wonderful acoustics down there, but the Bobbies are forever hassling you to move along.”
oooo‘Just start playing.’ The words were like magical spell, summoning a curious yearning in Albert; no limousines, no hotels, no posing for photographers, or interminable, squirm–inducing interviews with people whose eyes and whole attention were always fixed on the second hand of the studio clock and the little list of questions they seemed to pass among themselves around the world and across the years. “Just play,” he echoed.
oooo“Not too practical in your case, of course,” said Angela with her little laugh. “A piano’s not the kind of instrument that lends itself to busking.”
ooooAnd so Albert’s newly–forming career ambitions were throttled in the crib. He sighed a little requiem at their passing. “I’d like to hear you sometime.”
oooo“Oh, no. I couldn’t possibly play with you around. Much less sing.”
ooooWhy? Was there some little portable weather system that followed him around, sucking the oxygen from the atmosphere? Perhaps that’s why people behaved the way they did around him.
oooo“I’d be so self–conscious,” Angela continued. “However,” she added, “if you’re determined to subject yourself to the abuse, I’m booked for an exclusive engagement at the District Line turning of Sloane Square station in,” she held up her arm and looked at a watch that wasn’t there, “an hour?”
ooooAlbert looked from her to Jeremy Ash. “She wants us to go listen to her sing.”
oooo“In a tunnel in the ground,” said Albert, whose most recent experience of a tunnel – the one connecting the cellar of Judge Antrim’s home to that of Mrs. Grandy’s boarding house – had nearly ended in his immolation.
oooo“That’s where they keep ‘em,” said Jeremy Ash. Apart from whatever obligation Albert felt as the result of his previous relationship with the girl, he had never shown the slightest interest in any music other than his own, or in any other musician – from Bach to Beatles – and Jeremy, who made a pastime of studying Albert’s enigmatic, tortured thought processes, was curious to see what he would decide.
oooo“Do you know how to get there?”
oooo“We’ll figure it out, if that’s what you want to do.”
oooo“It’s not far,” said Angela, immediately realizing she sounded too enthusiastic. “It’d be a lark for you. Something different.”
ooooEverything was something different for Albert. He turned to Jeremy Ash. “When am I supposed to do the sound check?”
“That’s not ‘til Friday.”
oooo“Then we have time?”
ooooJeremy smiled. “Just over seventy–two hours. If we get lost, we’ll have plenty of time to get found.”
ooooAlbert nodded. “I don’t have anything else to do today?”
oooo“You’re supposed to have a press conference here at 4:00.”
ooooAlbert shuddered visibly.
oooo“But the concert’s been sold out for months, so there’s not really any point in it.” Jeremy pictured Huffy waiting and pacing and trying to suppress an uprising among an increasingly restive roomful of photographers and reporters. “Huffy will explain it to them.”
Angela caught the devil in Jeremy’s eyes when he winked at her.
oooo“Only if you’re sure,” she said, unsurely.
ooooAlbert was sure. At least he was sure he’d be happy for any excuse to miss the press conference. Huffy always did all the talking at them anyway, so as long as he was there . . . “I’m sure.”
ooooQuiggly brought comestibles and Albert, Jeremy, and Angela ate and thought, and if their thoughts magically took on flesh and dressed in lime–green leisure suits, none would recognize the other. Fifteen minutes later, with a final assurance that they would attend the subterranean performance, Angela left the Cadogan and Albert and Jeremy went to their respective rooms.
ooooAlbert looked in both the wardrobes, but couldn’t find any shoes other than the ones that went with the tuxedo he wore to perform in. As he slipped them on he wondered, not for the first time, why they made him wear the tuxedo for his concerts. Although he’d been assured the costume had been made especially to his measurements, it was uncomfortable and tight and smelled like chemicals and made him feel like his legs were developing creases. And these shoes . . . to the best of his knowledge, they had never been outside.
ooooThe wonderful thing about the Cadogan, it occurred to Albert when he arrived in the lobby half an hour later, was that there were people there who did things. One of the things they did was Jeremy Ash. There he was in his wheelchair, waiting by Quiggly’s little podium with its ‘Concierge’ sign. Apart from his hair, which always looked to Albert as if it had been caught in the act of trying to escape his head, he looked like he’d been polished. Albert felt a momentary flush of something or other when he recalled that he had told the boy he’d come to his room and collect him, but here he was, so that was okay. At the Cadogan, if you forgot to do something like collect Jeremy Ash, there was always someone else who would do it. As he strode across the reception area, he wondered why whoever ran the Cadogan didn’t run the rest of the world.
ooooThe notion evaporated at Jeremy’s greeting. “Hey, A. Ready for the freak show?” He spun his wheelchair toward the door.
oooo“We’re going to hear Angela sing,” Albert corrected as his hands found the familiar grips of the chair’s handles.
oooo“Different words, same meaning,” said Jeremy. “Let’s see if we can get where we’re going without one of us gettin’ killed this time, okay?”
oooo“Okay,” said Albert, reminding himself that, henceforth, caution was to be his watchword.
ooooQuiggly cleared his throat which meant that he was about to say something, usually something he didn’t want anyone else to hear except the person he was clearing his throat at. This time it was Jeremy Ash, so Albert was eavesdropping.
oooo“Oh, yeah,” said the boy. “He wants me to tell you there have been people looking for you.”
ooooPeople often looked for Albert, and he wondered why. It must be some kind of hobby, like going to the freak shows Jeremy mentioned, or those races where people ran into each other’s cars. Of course, some people listened to music. “Who?” said Albert, not really interested, whoever it was, he didn’t want to see them.
oooo“Two policemen,” said Jeremy, “not the same ones that chased us here before. A couple of reporters, somebody from the hospital, and those two you went to the museum with.”
oooo“Lord and Lady Crawly,” said Quiggly. “They were most solicitous of your health. I informed them that you were well, but indisposed. I trust I didn’t overstep my bounds.”
oooo“They went away?” said Albert.
oooo“Yes, sir, with my assurances as to your well–being ringing in their ears.”
oooo“Then that’s good.”
ooooAlbert turned Jeremy’s wheelchair toward the door, but was unable to make his escape before Quiggly cleared his throat again, this time at Albert, who stopped.
oooo“There is one other gentleman who wishes a word with you.”
oooo“Did he go away?”
oooo“Well, no, sir. He . . . he’s someone of my acquaintance and, being that he’s in your line of work, more–or–less, I thought you might not mind a minute or two with him.”
oooo“Where is he?”
ooooQuiggly had been ready to answer ‘who is it?’, so was required to clear his throat again while modifying his reply. “You’ll find him in the smoking room, sir. He’s alone.”
ooooThe smoking room, that was another thing Albert loved about the Cadogan, it had a whole room dedicated to his favorite pastime. He knew where it was and, without further small talk, guided his footsteps and, therefore, Jeremy’s wheelchair, to it.
ooooThere was a man seated by the fire reading a paper. He was about Albert’s age and height, with dark hair and brows, like Albert and, Albert noticed, clothes of some kind. But, unlike Albert, his parts all seemed comfortable together. There was something vaguely familiar about him, but Albert couldn’t place it. The man rose, tossed his cigarette casually into the fire, smiled, and held out his hand.
ooooAs they shook, Albert’s eyes were on the cigarette butt, smoldering on the hot coals. That was an amazing thing, to him, the way this man had just flung it from him with a little flick of the fingers, and it had landed right there in the fireplace, where it wouldn’t burn the carpet, which is what would have happened if Albert had tried that. And he’d done it so casually, without even looking, as if he didn’t have to think about it, or aim, and all the while he was holding out his hand and smiling and looking somehow familiar. The cigarette butt burst into flame.
oooo“Whoosh!” said Albert.
oooo“I know you,” said Jeremy Ash. “You’re what’s–his–name. Ringo!”
oooo“Close,” said the man. “I’m the bloke on his right. Paul.”
ooooAlbert’s brow bent. How were Ringo and Paul close? They didn’t rhyme. They didn’t have the same number of letters. In fact, the names didn’t share any letters. Yet this man and Jeremy Ash shared some secret knowledge. No matter how long he lived, Albert found life full of secrets no one had told him about.
oooo“That’s right!” said Jeremy. “I prefer the Stones, myself.”
oooo“Everybody does,” said Paul.
ooooHad it not been already bent to its nadir, Albert’s brow would have bent some more.
oooo“I’m Paul McCartney,” said the man, who seemed oddly bemused, as if he didn’t often have to introduce himself.
oooo“I’m Albert . . .”
oooo“Oh, I know who you are, mate. I know,” said the man. “I’m a big fan.”
ooooAlbert was expecting the man to produce a piece of paper and ask for an autograph, so he began looking around for something to write with. With a quick scan of the room, his eyes lighted on the clock. “I’ve got to go to a concert.”
oooo“A concert? This time of day?” said the man. “Who’s playing?”
oooo“Heather,” said Albert.
oooo“Angela,” Jeremy Ash corrected.
oooo“Angela,” said Albert. “Yes. Angela. This is Jeremy Ash.” He shook the wheel chair in the man’s direction.
oooo“Pleased to meet you young Jeremy,” said the man. “Even if you prefer the Stones.”
oooo“Not really,” said Jeremy. “I was just wanting to get a rise out of you.”
oooo“Well, you did that, me lad. I’m seethin’ inside.” He turned to Albert. “Mind if I tag along? I’d love to see whoever it is. I’d heard you weren’t the concert–going type. She must be amazing.”
oooo“She must be,” said Albert. “She plays violin in a tunnel.”
oooo“The Tube,” said Jeremy Ash.
oooo“She’s a busker?” said the Beatle as he fell in beside Albert as they wheeled and walked across the reception area. Quiggly, perceiving the trio approaching, was discreet as always, arranging an impromptu announcement to direct elsewhere the attention of those mulling about the lobby and, at the same time, summoning the Girl with the Spanish Eyebrows to usher Jeremy and company to the door. There, unnoticed by anyone but the doorman, they slipped out of the hotel into a side street.
oooo“I’ve got a driver,” said Paul as, after looking carefully in both directions, Albert struck off across the zebra crossing.
ooooStrange the announcements people made. His mother lived half the year in Florida and, in their monthly phone calls, she sometimes referred to a driver she played golf with. What the connection was Albert had never expended the energy to imagine. Usually his mother talked and he pretended to listen until she said, “Albert, my dear, are you listening? I want you to concentrate on what I’m saying. This is important.” Then she would talk some more and he would try, he really would, but her’s was the voice that had sung him to sleep as a child. It still had that effect.
oooo“So does my mother,” Albert said, attempting to be conversational.
ooooIt was the McCartney’s turn to crinkle his eyebrows, which he did at Jeremy, who was enjoying the entertainment. He produced a well–worn cloth cap and a pair of sunglasses from his pockets and, for the remainder of their stroll to Sloane Square station, it was Jeremy Ash who commanded most of the attention as people went out of their way to avoid seeming to look at him.
oooo“I’ve got to get me one of these,” said the Beatle to the maestro. He jerked his head toward Jeremy Ash. “I don’t remember the last time I walked this far without someone stopping me for me autograph. Wouldn’t loan him to me for a bit, I don’t suppose?”
ooooAlbert was brought up short. “People ask you for autographs?”
oooo“Now and again.”
ooooAlbert would have to think about this. He had always assumed the reason people asked him for his autograph had something to do with his piano playing. He tilted the wheelchair back so the front wheels were on the sidewalk then, with a practiced lift and thrust, was among the foot traffic. “Do you play piano?”
oooo“Well, yes and no,” said Paul. “Compared to someone who doesn’t play at all, I’ve got a knack. Compared to you? Not much.”
ooooHappening to look up at that moment, Albert caught sight of himself and his companions in a shop window and, somehow, there were piano keys in the reflection. Only after a blink or two and a subtle shake of the head did he realize the window belonged to a store that sold musical instruments, and that the keys were on the other side of the window. He stopped and looked. It wasn’t a piano. It was just the piano keys.
oooo“What is that?” He looked at Jeremy Ash, who knew everything.
oooo“Synthesizer?” Albert repeated, looking at the object. He felt like he was lisping. “Synthesizer,” he repeated. “What does it do?”
oooo“It’s a lovely little instrument, really,” said Paul. “It plays like a piano, but the sounds are produced electronically, and can mimic almost anything – violins, guitars, trombones, trumpets . . . dog barks.”
ooooAlbert had abandoned his companions on the sidewalk by the time McCartney finished speaking.
oooo“Anything I can help you with, at all?” said a person whose hair had been twisted and, apparently shellacked, into tall purple spikes atop their head. It might have been a male, it might have been a female. Fortunately, Albert didn’t care.
oooo“I’d like to play that,” he said, pointing simultaneously at the keyboard and Paul McCartney who was on the other side of the window, holding Jeremy’s wheelchair and trying very hard to look like someone else.
oooo“Of course. It’s a Roland D454 with weighted keys,” said the person as they covered the few steps separating them from the device. “MIDI in and out, of course. Quarter–inch jack for sustain and speaker out. Eighth–inch jack for stereo headphones. Operates on both mains and batteries.”
ooooThe person turned it on. Nothing happened. “Dead quiet, too.”
oooo“Can I . . .?” said Albert, moving into intimate contact with the instrument.
oooo“Of course, here old fellow, let me help,” said the clerk, and pulled out the stool. “Now, this little wheely thing here selects the voice.”
oooo“The kind of sound. Violins, for instance,” the individual twiddled the dial, “are here. Number twelve.” He played a C–chord and the sound of violins issued from the little speakers. Not good sounding violins, but violins. Albert was amazed. “Bass guitar is, let me see,” said the clerk, “fifteen, I think. There.” The machine made a flute sound. “Oops, wrong one.” Another twiddle. “Here, try this.” Another twiddle, still no bass, but a pretty decent Wurlitzer.
oooo“I like that one,” said Albert, before the person with purple hair could twist any more knobs. He sat down.
oooo“We offer lessons,” said the androgynous individual. “Five pounds the half–hour, and . . .”
ooooThat was the last thing he said for quite a while. Albert had begun to play. Within a minute someone had turned off the record that had been littering the background, and the room had fallen silent. ooooA small crowd began to gather, and one of them pointed at a poster on the wall – announcing Albert’s upcoming concert at the Albert Hall. Then whispers began to spread. Very quite whispers. Someone unwittingly helped the Beatle in his disguise negotiate Jeremy Ash in his wheelchair into the store.
ooooMale or female, purple hair or not, the clerk was a capitalist. As whispers swept out onto the pavement, and people started oozing in, crowding the aisles, he, she, or it, very quietly plugged one end of a chord into the jack on the back of the keyboard, and the other end into a speaker that was affixed outside for occasions such as this.
ooooOf course, there had never been an occasion like this.
ooooSome time later, as the last note rang out, a tear slipped quietly from the pierced nose of a girl with unnaturally red hair and black lips.
ooooBefore he he looked up and became aware that he’d become the center of attention, Albert said. “I’ll take it.”
ooooFor a moment nothing happened. The clerk discretely coiled the cords and tucked the instrument in a zippered case, which he handed to Albert, who laid it in Jeremy’s lap. “I’ll pay you for it some day,” said Albert and, at the moment, that was his sincere intention. The clerk, knowing the store had just been gifted with several thousand pounds worth of free publicity, was not concerned.
ooooThe crowd parted as the mismatched threesome made their way to the door. No one approached them. No one followed. No one recognized the Beatle. Not one of the dog–collared punkers, derby–hatted bankers, or under–dressed ingenues nudged another at the sight of the legless boy. The oil with which they had been anointed was too thick a substance for so feeble a thing as human expression to swim through.
ooooEventually, each shuffled his or her own way encased in a small, tight cocoon in which questions they’d long ago stopped asking, bubbled and roiled to the surface, demanding attention.
ooooMcCartney studied Albert, whose full attention seemed to be on negotiating the wheelchair through foot traffic and he realized there was no hope of fulfilling the mission he’d set out to accomplish, which was to persuade the famously eccentric maestro to play on the album he was working on. It had been a long shot; a lark, really, but one he’d felt worth taking. However, as it had already been a remarkable afternoon, and he had the feeling it was about to become more–so, he decided to tag along. So it was he who led them to Sloane Square station, through the turnstile, and through the maze of corridors until, echoing from the distance, they heard the strains of a violin concerto.
ooooAngela smiled as they rounded the corner. “You’ve come!” she said, lowering her instrument. Albert and Jeremy Ash and the Beatle in disguise stutter–stepped toward her across the river of people too hurried to notice the event that was spontaneously taking shape. “And you’ve brought my biggest fan.’ She lowered a glance at Jeremy Ash. “And a keyboard?” She flashed hopeful eyes at Albert. “Are you going to jam with me?”
ooooAlbert supposed he was. No press. No interviews. No advance publicity. Just unpack the piano and play. Music unbound. “This is called a synthesizer,” he said, unzipping the case on Jeremy’s lap. He studied it for a moment. “It makes different noises.”
Toooohe girl looked frantically around for something she knew wasn’t there. “I’m afraid there’s no place to plug it in.”
oooo“It’s got batteries!” said Albert, pushing the button as the store clerk had shown him. The little screen lit up.
oooo“This is fantastic!” said Angela. “But how can you play? There’s no stool.”
ooooAlbert hunkered down on his haunches and, adjusting the piano on Jeremy’s lap, stretched his fingers and pressed a C chord to make sure the device was functioning properly. It was set on ‘flute’. He twiddled the dial as he had seen the store clerk do and, after producing a library of sounds from violins to bird chirps, finally landed on Grand Piano.
oooo“What do you want to play?” said Angela.
oooo“Whatever you want.”
oooo“I wish I’d known . . . we could have rehearsed something.”
oooo“I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” said McCartney. “He seems to pick things up fairly quickly.”
ooooAngela’s attention had been so focused on Albert and Jeremy and the unexpected unfolding of events, that she’d been only peripherally aware of the third member of the party, who seemed to have taken over the task of driving Jeremy. “Who’s your friend?”
ooooBefore Albert could remember the name, Jeremy Ash spoke up. “Mr. Stone.”
oooo“Well, welcome to the show, Mr. Stone.”
ooooMr. Stone gave Jeremy Ash a playful poke in the back, at which the boy smiled. “Pleased to meet you, miss.”
oooo“Angela,” said Angela, extending her free hand.
oooo“Rock on,” said Mr. Stone.
oooo“Well, I’ve been practicing Sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D Minor, but I’m not sure a piano will . . .”
oooo“Just play,” said Mr. Stone, in anticipation of something remarkable. “Before his knees give out.”
ooooAngela was unconvinced. She looked at Albert, who was fiddling with the volume control. “Do you know the piece?”
oooo“Probably,” said Albert. He didn’t know music my title or my composer, only by sound. He was blessed/cursed with what some doctor in his past had called a musical photographic memory: having heard a piece once, he could replicate it note–for–note on the piano. A human tape recorder.
ooooIf he had ever heard the piece, it would come to mind again when he’d heard the first few notes. Which proved to be the case; by the time Angela had reached the end of the second measure, Albert’s hands, if not his heart, were accompanying her as if they’d been rehearsing for months. Angela, it turned out, was a reasonably good instrumentalist, so he left the melody to her while adding countermelody, harmonies in 3rds, 5ths, 7ths and 9ths, and their respective inversions, weaving previously unknown threads through the fabric of the score in a way that gave it new and unexpected texture.
ooooMr. Stone was tingling from head–to–foot, as were the bystanders who seem to have entered a puddle of aural treacle that arrested them in their tracks. Many trains were missed. Then someone recognized Albert. And someone else recognized Paul McCartney.
oooo“This is fantastic, Albert!” said Huffy in Albert’s ear. “This is what I been tryin’ to get you to do along. You and Paul Mc-freakin’-Cartney in the Tube. Who’s idea was that!? Brilliant! That crowd! I heard nobody’d leave the Tube ‘til you finished playin’! Man, I wish I’d been there. Why didn’t you tell me? I’d’ve had a TV crew there. Reporters. The works. Oh, well, nevermind. You’re the talk of London. Hell, you’re the talk of England. What a stunt! Brilliant!”
ooooAlbert’s practice with Huffy, especially on the phone like this, was to let him talk and rant and curse and carry on to his heart’s content, because that’s what Necessary Evils did. It wasn’t unheard of for Albert to put the phone down, very carefully, and go make some tea, which usually took about five minutes. Which meant Huffy still had about three minutes of air left in him by the time Albert came back to the phone and made a listening noise.
oooo“I could book another two months on this, Albert. Hell, three months! How’d you pull it off? How’d you get Paul Mc–Freakin’–Cartney to come listen to you play with that broad in the subway!? Hidden depths, Al. Hidden depths.”
oooo“He was at the Cadogan and just came along.”
oooo“Just came along. I love it! Paul Mc–freakin’–Cartney just comes along! To the Tube. To listen to some broad play a violin.”
oooo“Angela,” said Albert. “She’s a girl.”
oooo“Yeah, yeah. Right. Listen, you think there’s any chance he’d do it again? Her, too. I mean, could we set it up again and this time I could have a TV crew there, and . . .”
oooo“No? What, no? You haven’t heard me out.”
“It wasn’t like that,” said Albert, searching his fingers for an unbitten cuticle. “Angela wanted me to hear her play, and when we were on the way we found a piano in a store, and –” which reminded him. “You need to pay that man for the piano.”
oooo“Sure, sure thing. No problem. Just tell me the name of the store and where it’s located, and I’ll tell Bridges to care of it.”
oooo‘No problem’, to Huffy was apparently something different than it was to Albert. He knew there was a person with purple hair at the store. But remembering the name and address of the establishment was a task for some huge government spy agency. Or . . .
oooo“Jeremy Ash will tell you,” said Albert.
oooo“Great, great. But listen, if you could get McCartney to . . .”
ooooHuffy had been a manager of talent for many, many years. To him, ‘No,’ meant, ‘What a wonderful idea. Please tell me more!’
oooo“But he’s Paul Mc–Freakin’–Cartney, Al! He’s a Beatle!”
ooooAlbert’s eyebrows went to war with one another as his brain tried to sift sense from what he’d heard. He’d thought the man’s name was just Paul McCartney. Not that it would have made any difference if he’d known it was Paul Mc–Freakin’–Cartney, he didn’t know either gentleman. But he was sure of one thing, the man was not a beetle. He was a man. Maybe Huffy had been spending too much time at his favorite pub, which was any pub nearby, and in London, there was one on every corner.
oooo“He’s not a beetle. I don’t know what you mean by that.”
oooo“Not a beetle as in bug, Albert. Beatle as in John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Come on!” He hummed a few impromptu bars of Yesterday.
oooo“I’ve heard that tune,” said Albert. At last, Huffy was speaking his language. This could be a turning point in their relationship. A Necessary Evil that could sing!
oooo“Of course you do. Everybody does. He wrote it. Paul McCartney.”
oooo“Mc–Freakin’–Cartney,” Albert corrected. Once he got a thing in his head, he got it.
ooooHuffy laughed for some reason. “That’s right, Al. Paul Mc–Freakin’–Cartney!”
ooooSo it wasn’t just piano players who had to sign autographs. Songwriters did, too. And all they did was make music. Imagine the demand for autographs on people who did important things, like build houses and fix toilets!
ooooHe’d have to remember to pray for them.
oooo“Well, anyway, it was a hell of a stunt,” said Huffy. “Wish I’d thought of it. You’re sure you’re all right now, with that hospital business. They say it was just hypertension. That’s like too much stress. You stressed, Al?”
ooooHe wouldn’t be as soon as he could get off the phone. “No,” he lied, but it was a lie in service of the Greater Good, which was getting Huffy to say ‘good–bye’.
oooo“You should’ve stayed in the hospital, though. There’d’ve been hell to pay if anything had happened to you.”
ooooHell would have to wait. “Nothing did.” Albert thought Huffy was not the person in whom to confide the fact that he’d nearly gotten Jeremy Ash run over. Perhaps a priest. Some day.
oooo“Mention of murder did it, Jeremy tells me.”
ooooAlbert didn’t want to talk about it.
oooo“Yeah, well, you’ve had enough of that to last a lifetime. Just you stay at the Cadogan. Let ‘em tend out on you. You need anything, just ring Quiggs and he’ll see to it, even to ‘alf ‘is kingdom’, as the bloke says. Don’t forget your sound check Friday. ‘Til then, you’re free as a bird.”
oooo“What’d he have to say?” said Jeremy Ash from his chair beside the window.
oooo“He wanted us to do it again.”
oooo“The impromptu concert.”
oooo“He wants to plan an impromptu concert?” said McCartney, who caught the tail end of the conversation as he emerged from the bathroom. “Sounds like Epstein. Nice bloke, as managers go, but . . .”
Jeremy and Albert stared out the window.
oooo“Yeah,” said McCartney. “Well, it’s been fun, but Linda’s going to be expecting me home in a few.”
ooooAlbert turned and escorted him to the door. It was the least he could do for a fellow musician. “I like your song.”
ooooAlbert hummed a little of the tune, the title of which had already eluded him.
oooo“I heard it today,” said Albert, not wishing a misunderstanding to arise.
ooooMcCartney chuckled to himself, and a little bit to Jeremy Ash, but it was a nice chuckle. “Yesterday’s the name of the tune.”
oooo“Oh,” said Albert. “It’s nice to have a song about that.” He wondered what his music was about, and if he should be inventing names for it. That would be hard.
ooooJeremy Ash could do it.
oooo“Well, cheers, Albert. Thanks much. I’ll have to see if I can crank out another one, one of these days.” He winked at Jeremy Ash, who smiled.
oooo“Good,” said Albert, packing the word with as much encouragement as four letters would allow. “But I hope people leave you alone.”
ooooAnd, with that enigmatic comment, they parted company. It seemed unlikely they would ever meet again; though the McCartneys were among those standing in ovation at the conclusion of the Albert Hall concert two nights later.
ooooAlbert didn’t notice. By the time the applause subsided, he was in a park across the street, sitting on the lip of a granite ledge that surrounded the statue of a large man smoking a cigarette. Jeremy Ash was beside him. The fact that the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles, Princess Diana and a glittering host of bejeweled and beribboned British aristocracy done up like Christmas crackers were, even now, waiting in vain for him to be presented to them, did not occupy his thoughts. ooooThey were Huffy’s problem.
ooooThat individual was presently behaving as if he was deeply embarrassed, strolling up and down the line of notable well–wishers being as obsequious as possible, explaining that ‘the maestro is often unwell after a performance. His passion, as you may happreciate, takes its toll.’ Secretly, though, he loved it when his client snubbed the great and near–great. He was from the East End, after all, and hated the aristocracy (but loved the Queen, ‘Go’bless’er’), so any chance to rub their collective nose in it held greater appeal than jarred hare. And, of course, the anomaly of someone like Albert in a world gone mad with folks licking their way through the droppings for their fifteen minute suckle on the elusive teat of fame, simply added to the mystique already surrounding ‘the Maestro’ as a result of his eccentricities – as did the aura of murder and mayhem that inexplicably followed him of late.
ooooAlbert was a self–marketing commodity. ‘The Oddity Commodity,’ Huffy called him privately.
oooo“You did good tonight,” said Jeremy Ash.
ooooAlbert took a deep drag on his cigarette. He was thinking that, when he finished it, he would try flicking it away, using his thumb and forefinger as Paul Mc–Freakin’–Cartney had done. Which led to consideration of the possibilities of what might happen when it didn’t work. Which it wouldn’t. Somehow a burning coal would end up in the cuff of his tuxedo pants, or amid the folds of the blanket in Jeremy Ash’s lap, or among the dry leaves in the flower bed surrounding the statue of the large man and everything, and everyone, would go up in flames.
ooooEarlier in their career together, Huffy had insisted on taking Albert on a tour of London and, in considering the likelihood of such a conflagration, he was reminded of a plaque on a monument he had read at the time indicating that London had experienced a Great Fire, in 1666.
ooooThey’d need another plaque.
ooooHe dropped the butt and ground it out with the heel of his shiny black shoe, as always. Better safe.
oooo“The chauffeur’s gonna be waitin’ to take us to that castle.”
ooooAlbert had forgotten he was going to go Norfolk. He’d been ready to wheel Jeremy Ash back to the Cadogan and had imagined going to the Drawing Room and staring at the fire for a while and waiting while Quiggly had the girl with Spanish eyebrows bring him an American beer. Cold.
ooooMention of the alternate arrangements shattered that brief, blissful dream.
ooooAlbert knew that at some time in his personal past, he had done something terrible and the Universe, which had been watching at the time, was determined to make him miserable as a consequence, so it had people always interfering in his life and hauling him off to Places he Didn’t Want to Go. But it never occurred to him to say no.
oooo“Oxburgh Hall,” he said. He wondered what number Earl would be hosting him. If they were up to twelve ‘several hundred years ago,’ as Sir had said, there would probably have been thousands by now.
ooooHad all of them had their pictures made? he wondered. He imagined thousands of men in their pajamas staring at him from huge golden frames littering the walls of the halls of Oxburgh Hall.
ooooWould they all be looking the wrong way?
ooooHe took the handles of the wheelchair and pushed Jeremy Ash toward the parking lot. “I wonder what that man wanted.”
ooooJeremy shrugged. “He lost a friend a while ago. Maybe he’s looking for a new one.”
ooooThat’s one of the reasons it was important to have Jeremy Ash nearby, he thought of things off the top of his head that wouldn’t have occurred to Albert in a billion years. “He wants me to be his friend?”
ooooThough he saw it coming, and he tried to block it out, he could hear what his mother would say if he’d lost a friend. She had some very crisp opinions about people who lost things. He remembered the time he came home with just one mitten.
ooooHow do you lose a whole friend?
ooooIt made Albert glad he didn’t have any, present company excepted. At that very moment, for the first time, he realized how important the boy had become to him. He certainly didn’t want to lose him. He didn’t even want to think about it. He gripped the handles a little more firmly and looked both ways before crossing the street.
ooooNeither Jeremy nor Albert had any first–hand acquaintance with castles though, of the two, the one who had grown up in a tiny darkened wedge under a set of stairs probably had the fuller picture. Palaces and Castles were familiar backdrops in the television programs he would watch through a crack in the door. Into those vast expanses of mahogany, marble, and shimmering surfaces his searching soul would expand to the very fringes of his imagination.
ooooEven so, the sheer immensity of Oxburgh Hall presented vistas even Jeremy’s imagination had never plumbed.
ooooAlbert, however, was architecturally neutral. The edges of his awareness took in the fact that there were walls and floors and very likely a ceiling that were presumably held in place by brown, the predominant color. Beyond that, his surroundings passed unnoticed; rendering unrequited the vision, the love, the determination to impress, the boundless expenditure in pounds sterling and sheer man–hours lavished upon them by generation upon generation of Bedingfelds, the family that had called the castle home since it came into being in 1482 .
ooooAlbert was no more uncomfortable in Oxburgh Hall than he was everywhere else, apart from his apartment or Dunkin’ Donuts – where most surfaces were speckled with powdered sugar, a practical contribution to the decor he could appreciate on the moistened end of his finger, and the air was redolent with the heady nectar of coffee and cigarette smoke in concert.
ooooHis appreciation for his surroundings diminished by this perpetual cloud of unknowing, the limousine took him across the moat, through the massive gates, into the inner courtyard, and deposited him and Jeremy Ash at the entrance, where they were greeted by a woman who introduced herself as Dierdre Ponsenby–Blythe–Hamilton, the housekeeper, a preface she delivered, to Albert’s amazement, without misplacing the dentures that were a bit too large for her mouth.
ooooHe thought she must have a very strong jawbone.
oooo“I’m Albert,” said Albert, holding out his hand – at which she stared for a moment as if he’d just produced a white rabbit from his sleeve. She cast a quick, nervous–seeming glance at an assortment of uniformed people, all but three of whom were women, who had appeared on either side of the short flight of wide stairs leading to the front door and, giving his fingers a limp little shake, conducted them into the house.
ooooThe sturdiest of the men flanking the stairs carried Jeremy Ash–complete with wheelchair–up the steps. Another man, who seemed as old and gray as the castle itself, watched attentively, as if there were nothing in the world he’d rather do than be of help in the situation, but was prevented due to the fact his bones had, for some time, been in the early stages of decomposition, no doubt anticipating the day – not long now – when they would be blissfully horizontal in perpetuity.
oooo“I regret to inform you that Lord and Lady Bedingfeld have been called to the continent ,” said the Housekeeper as they ascended the steps. She inclined herself slightly in his direction. “He’s in banking,” she said. Apparently it was something she didn’t want anyone to know.
ooooAlbert had been at Oxburgh Hall less than a minute and already he knew a secret.
ooooMrs. Bridges was a banker, too, but she didn’t seem especially embarrassed by it. Albert was reminded of Mrs. Bridge’s bras which – admittedly only on the evidence of a single accidental sighting – seemed to be identified by the names of weekdays embroidered on one of the sections that held the lady bits in place. He’d read the word ‘Tuesday’ on the one she was wearing the day she leaned over the counter to tell him he had too much money in the bank. On the same counter, nearby, a calendar verified that it was, in fact, Tuesday.
ooooHe’d meant to see if they made briefs with days on them, and thought that would be useful. It was always unpleasant to have to smell underwear when he picked it off the floor to see if it was wearable. Days of the week, clearly printed in English, would help.
ooooThis is what Albert was thinking while the Housekeeper was explaining something. He was confident that Jeremy Ash was listening, and would tell him about it later if any of it was important.
“They’ll be in Switzerland for, well, there’s no telling really. You know how it is with all this international finance.”
ooooAlbert had no clue how it was with international finance, but he knew it was all about money and, in his world, that meant Mrs. Bridges would handle it. Maybe he should tell the denture–lady about Mrs. Bridges, and she could tell the Bedingfelds so they wouldn’t have to go to Switzerland.
oooo“Well, we can go back to the Cadogan,” he offered. He didn’t like the idea of taking up residence in someone’s house when they weren’t there. Of course, it wasn’t as bad as if they had been. There, as Mrs. Gibson frequently reminded him, was always a bright side.
oooo“Oh, my goodness, no! I didn’t for a moment mean to suggest . . . no. Please, the Hall is at your disposal entirely.”
ooooAlbert looked around. It was a big hall. He wondered what they expected him to do with it, but but before he could raise the point, Jeremy Ash piped up. “We get the whole place?”
ooooThe woman smiled, revealing previously concealed vistas of unnaturally white enamel. “Well, all but the east wing, of course. That’s the Bedingfeld’s private residence. Otherwise, yes, it’s all yours.”
ooooAlbert didn’t want it. He preferred small spaces where everything was in easy reach; cigarettes, beer, the piano, a refreshing box of Quik. Nothing in the hall was within easy reach, which is probably why the Bedingfelds needed all those people; to help them find things.
“You know,” said Jeremy Ash, who had been looking at the Himalayan sweep of the semi–circular staircase, “if some of those guys in the monkey suits could put a coupl’ve mattresses right there,” he indicated the broad expanse of marble–tiled space at the foot of the stairs, “that bannister would make a wicked slide!”
ooooA pained expression swept briefly across the Housekeeper’s face, as if her dentures had shifted suddenly. “I hardly think the Bedingfelds would countenance . . .”
oooo“Is there a piano anywhere?” Albert asked, because he wanted to know.
ooooAs if they had never existed, the Housekeeper abandoned the Bedingfelds and what they would or would not countenance. “Two, actually. A Steinway grand in the conservat’ry – through there,” she unfurled a graceful hand toward the darkened recesses to her left, Albert’s right. “Last door but one on the north side.”
ooooAlbert was going to need a compass.
oooo“The other, a spinet, is in your room. That is, the King’s Chamber. It was brought in especially for your visit, and has been professionally tuned, of course.”
ooooThere it was again. “‘Of course’”, Albert echoed, meaning none of what the Housekeeper inferred.
oooo“I’m sure you will find it most satisfactory,” said the woman. She gestured slightly at one of the uncomfortably–dressed men in black and white who were standing at attention near the door by which they had entered. “This is Balfour,” she declared as the man descended upon them. “Your gentleman’s gentleman. He’ll be attending you during your stay.”
ooooOddly enough, Albert knew about gentleman’s gentleman. His mother had been a fan of a writer whose name he couldn’t recall who wrote about a man whose name he couldn’t remember who had a gentleman’s gentleman whose name he couldn’t recollect, but he gathered, from some things he overheard his mother telling his sister about the two of them, that he was like a butler whose job was to make toast, and pour drinks, and to keep his master out of trouble. Like Jeremy Ash, but with legs and a suit with creases so sharp they could slice cheese.
ooooAlbert imagined this craggy individual with his expressionless face standing over his bed at night, watching him, staring; waiting blankly until the need for toast or tea should arise. A shiver chased the thought up his spine.
ooooHe turned to his companion. “You can have him.”
ooooJeremy had other plans. “Nuh–uh. I’d rather have one’ve those,” he said, jerking a thumb at three parlor maids in a row. “Better a plum than a prune.”
ooooAlbert had noticed, over time, how the mind of Jeremy Ash had seemed to a Tewsburyian turn relative to the female sex. He was reminded of a similar obsession among classmates at various schools he’d attended. He’d never really understood until Miss Bjork came into his life. He doubted his feelings had been quite the same, but he understood.
ooooThe Housekeeper made a noise into the back of her hand that, despite its brevity and lack of any discernible vowels or consonants, was both an eloquent commentary on Jeremy’s suggestion, and an unarguable termination of that particular hope. Albert wondered if there was some combination of notes on a piano – one he’d never found or heard – that could convey so much complexity with such stark economy.
oooo“Hello,” he said, feeling he should say something.
oooo“A great pleasure, sir,” said Balfour. “Allow me to say, it is an honor to serve you. An honor indeed.”
ooooWas he waiting for permission? “Okay,” said Albert.
ooooIf the butler was in the least non–plussed, he didn’t show it. That won him points in Jeremy’s book. “This is Hicks, Mr. Ash,” said Balfour, referring to the man who had materialized behind Jeremy’s wheelchair. “He will attend the young gentleman, if that is acceptable. He’s a sturdy young fellow from one of the farms on the estate who assists us here at the house from time–to–time. He’ll have no trouble carrying you up and down the stairs,” he continued, addressing himself to Jeremy. “If you permit.”
ooooJeremy scanned Hicks quickly and had no doubt as to the young man’s ability to carry him up the stairs, or to throw him twenty yards in any direction, for that matter. “Sure,” he said, holding out his hand. Hicks gave a quick look of appeal at Balfour who nodded almost imperceptibly. Permission being granted, the country lad pumped Jeremy’s hand heartily, nearly lifting him clear of his chair one on or two of the upwards tugs.
oooo“I think Master Ash is sufficiently shaken,” said Balfour, with a light touch on Hick’s shoulder. “Hicks is mute, Master Ash, but he hears perfectly and comprehends well. Please, this way, gentlemen.”
ooooIn less than five minutes on the premises, Albert had come into possession of four things he didn’t want: the hall, a gentleman’s gentleman, the secret about Mr. Bedingfeld being in banking, and a mute.
ooooHe turned to take his leave of the Housekeeper, but she was no longer among those present. Balfour, Hicks/Jeremy, and a young woman who was, at the moment, nameless and had folded Jeremy’s wheelchair as quickly and skillfully as if she did it every day of her life, were ascending the stairs. With another backward glance at the now–empty hall, Albert fell in behind them.
ooooThe stairs were long and Albert counted the steps unconsciously. Thirty–four. At each of these the hips of the young woman in front of him swung in a particular way – despite the awkwardness of her burden – that reminded Albert of a metronome. Tick, tock, tick, tock. He’d never thought of a metronome as having male or female characteristics. This one was definitely female. Tick, tock, tick, tock. Thirty–four steps. Albert was so transfixed by the metronome that he was, at some level, disappointed to reach the second floor landing, just as a tune was beginning to develop to the rhythm.
ooooIt evaporated at the sound of Balfour’s voice as the little parade came to a stop at a large wooden door. “The King’s bedchamber,” he said, opening the door. “I trust you’ll find it to your liking.” Albert was about to ask if the King would mind when Balfour, as if reading his thoughts, added, “It’s so–called because King Henry the Seventh and his queen, Elizabeth of York, visited the Hall on at least two occasions, in 1487 and 1503.”
oooo“A long time ago,” said Albert, stepping tentatively over the threshold and taking in the room. It, too, had walls, a ceiling, and a floor. Also a bed and some other pieces of furniture, as well as a spinet piano, as the Housekeeper had said, and a little box with a handle about which there was something familiar.
oooo“A very long time, sir,” said Balfour.
ooooThe maid had unfolded the wheelchair and popped all the mechanisms into place. Hicks lowered Jeremy Ash into it as gently as if he were made of glass.
oooo“Who needs legs?” said the invalid. “I could get used to this. You never carry me anywhere.”
oooo“I’ve taken the liberty of asking Cook to provide a plate of cold comestibles,” said Balfour, pointing to a silver tray, laden with food, that resided on a small table by the fire.
oooo“Comestibles,” said Albert. “We call that food.”
oooo“To be sure, sir,” said Balfour with a slight inclination of the head. “As you say, food. I hope you will find something there that commends itself to you.”
oooo“Do I get one, too?” said Jeremy Ash, who suddenly realized how hungry he was.
oooo“Of course, sir. In your room, just across the hall.”
oooo“Let me guess, the Queen’s room?”
oooo“In honor of her majesty’s visit, yes, but in no way pejorative of subsequent residents.”
oooo“You hear that, A? I’m Queen for a Day.” Albert was wandering toward the sandwiches. “He’s not listening. Let’s go see what the Queen’s up to.” Jeremy expertly spun the wheels of his chair and the shrinking retinue followed him across the hall and deposited him by the fire, where he immediately tucked into a plate of watercress and cheese sandwiches. Balfour, Hicks, and the girl watched him for a moment. He looked at the plate, which held enough small pastries and sandwiches to feed an invading army, then at the staff. “Help yourself,” he said, thrusting the plate toward them. “No way I’m gonna get through ‘em.”
ooooHicks eyed the plate hungrily, as did the girl.
oooo“Oh, I’m afraid we must decline the offer,” said Balfour. “The mistress would frown upon . . .”
oooo“That’s the one in Switzerland?”
oooo“Yes, sir, but…”
oooo“Then who’s gonna tell ‘er? Dig in.”
oooo“But, Ms. Ponsenby–Blythe–Hamilton.”
oooo“Another missing person. You gonna tell her, Hicks?”
ooooHicks shook his head vigorously.
oooo“You, miss . . . miss . . .”
oooo“Blake,” said the girl, with an attractive curtsey. “Brigit Blake.”
oooo“You gonna tell, Brigit?”
ooooBrigit, too, shook her head.
oooo“There you go, Mr. Gentleman.”
oooo“Balfour,” Balfour corrected.
oooo“Balfour,” said Jeremy Ash, raise his eye brows and talking through his nose. “Get this straight right away, me and the Maestro are Americans. We’re not your Dukes and Dukettes.”
oooo“Duchesses,” said Balfour into the back of his gloved hand.
oooo“Whatever. We’re just company is all. You feel you gotta bow and scrape when we’re around that lady downstairs, that’s fine, but here,” he said, gesturing around his room, “let’s just be friends. Now, take a load off and dig in.”
ooooBalfour, it seemed, was much too stiffened by long experience to sit in the presence of a guest, but he did condescend to take a little sandwich. Hicks and Brigit, however, adopted democracy with a will and arranged themselves around the little table, she on the floor and Hicks on the arm of Jeremy’s chair.
oooo“So, a place like this must be pretty old,” said Jeremy with his mouth full of something that tasted like vegetables. He stopped chewing and swallowed. It was either that or spit it out, and that didn’t seem polite. He was more discriminating with his next selection which he supposed to be, from the smell, something fishy. Better. Not peanut butter, but better.
oooo“The Hall was completed in 1482, by Sir Edmund Bedingfeld, Master Ash,” said Balfour, not without a trace of pride, “and the family has been in residence ever since.”
oooo“That’s a long time,” said Jeremy instead of what he was thinking, which was ‘have you been with them the whole time?’
oooo“Even before America was discovered,” said Jeremy, taking a thoughtful bite of shrimp and cream cheese sandwich, which is what it was. “That was 1492 when Columbus sailed ocean blue.”
oooo“That rhymes!” said Brigit. “Two and blue!”
ooooHicks nodded approvingly, his cheeks bulging happily.
oooo“Mm,” said Jeremy, trying to squelch an uncharitable thought relative to his suspicions about Brigit’s intellect. At least she was pretty. “Any ghosts in the place?”
oooo“Oh, aye!” said Brigit, her eyes wide enough to fall into.
oooo“Miss Blake,” Balfour said – the weight of his tone sufficient to crush her momentary enthusiasm.
oooo“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”
oooo“Sorry about what?” Jeremy wanted to know. “What were you gonna say? There is a ghost?”
ooooHicks nodded and chewed at the same time, nearly choking himself.
oooo“Any house as old as the Hall,” Balfour said, “has many idiosyncrasies – sounds that occur as the result of changing temperatures and seasonal settlings – that may, to the over–active mind, suggest phantasmagoria. I, myself, have seen very little out of the ordinary.”
oooo“Very little?” said Jeremy Ash, who had forgotten to chew.
oooo“Tell him about Anna Maria!” ooooThoughtlessly Brigit put her hand on Jeremy’s knee, and removed it at once when he winced. “Oh, sorry, sir. So sorry!” she said, jumping up and brushing crumbs off herself. “Oh, sorry, Mr. Balf’r, sir. Sorry!” She collapsed to her knees and began sweeping the crumbs – which were largely imaginary – into her hand. Hicks held out a hand and helped her to her feet. “Tell him about Anna Maria.”
ooooJeremy’s eyes begged to be told, but his ears were unsure.
oooo“Anna Maria is the sobriquet – nickname, if you will – of a kind of smudge that has been seen, from time to time, floating about the Hall. I have told the staff, and not once, I might add, that it is merely a miasma arising from the moat in certain seasons, but . . .”
oooo“Oh, go on, Mr. Balf’er. You seen ‘er yerself. You said so.”
ooooBalfour stood to his full height and swaddled himself in butlery dignity. “I said,” he said, “that I saw the smudge. . .”
oooo“Ghost, you called it then. Din’t he Hicks? Ghost you said!”
oooo“Apparition,” said Balfour, “and I said I could understand how, given indistinct light, and certain contortions in the motion of the air, it could be mistaken, by those of a susceptible turn of mind, as seeming not unlike a woman of Latin descent.”
ooooJeremy Ash swallowed hard. He’d only asked about the ghost conversationally. He didn’t for a moment expect an answer in the affirmative. He swallowed again. “How could you tell she was Spanish?”
oooo“Latin, Master Ash,” said Balfour. “I said Latin.”
oooo“Latin,” said Jeremy Ash, not altogether sure what that meant.
oooo“Certain elements of the smudge,” said Balfour, “tuned this way and that in the moonlight, in a darkened hallway, suggest accoutrements peculiar to Spanish women.”
oooo“Latin,” Jeremy corrected.
oooo“Latin. Yes. That is what I had meant to say.”
ooooJeremy didn’t want to know the answer to the next question. “Just . . . just where, exactly has this smudge been seen?”
ooooBridgit was inhaling to answer when Balfour cut her short. “Really, Master Ash, you needn’t trouble yourself about it. There is no ghost. The phenomena is readily susceptible of rational explanation and . . .”
oooo“Right here in this room, we seen her!” said Brigit. “Din’t we Hicksy?”
ooooHicks read Balfour more keenly. His head, which was bowed already, bowed some more and he seemed to be focusing his attention on his sandwich.
oooo“We did, even if he won’t say so.”
oooo“Here?” said Jeremy Ash weakly, squeezing the air out of the remains of the sandwich he held in his hands.
oooo“Master Ash, I assure you . . . “
oooo“Right there, by the wardrobe!” said Brigit, pointing at the oak monstrosity looming in the corner on the opposite side of the room.
ooooIf ever a piece of furniture was created to house the undead, Jeremy thought – trying not to think it – that was it.
oooo“Miss Blake!” Balfour said sharply. “You best go back about your duties at once. I shall wish to speak with you before you retire.”
oooo“Yes, sir,” said Brigit. “Sorry sir. I only thought as he should know how me an’ Hicks seen ‘er come out’ve the closet and walk, real slow and airy like . . .” She mimicked the ghost of the late Latin femme, tip–toeing in place and crooking her wrists as if she were about to strangle someone.
oooo“Miss Blake. That is quite enough. Can’t you see you’re upsetting our guest? I really must apologize, Master Ash. There is simply no excuse . . .” As he spoke, he was shuttling the maid from the room. Once in the hall he could be heard whispering to her sharply and, a moment later, she burst into tears and fled down the stairs.
ooooBalfour returned. “Young ladies, as you are no doubt aware, are not disinclined to let their fancy get the better of them,” he said. “I’m afraid Miss Blake is very much a case in point. Last week she imagined she saw someone hanging in the barn and once, not long after she came to us, averred that she heard a horse and carriage on the gravel drive in the middle of the night.
oooo“Now, may I suggest we talk no more of . . . of the supernatural? You are no doubt fatigued after your journey up from London, and Hicks and I have much to do before we retire so . . .”
ooooHe gestured at Hicks who hovered for a moment during which he seemed wracked with indecision as to whether he should eat the rest of the sandwich on which he’d made a good start, or return it to the plate.
ooooBalfour made a meaningful noise in the back of his throat and Hicks stuffed the remainder of the sandwich in his mouth and, nodding several times in the process, made his way to the door and down the hall. Balfour stopped on the threshold. “I don’t wish to intrude in matters of an intimate nature, sir, but do you require . . . that is . . .?”
oooo“Oh, no,” said Jeremy, who was trying mightily to keep his eyes from drifting toward the hulking wardrobe. “The Maestro and me got it down to a science.”
oooo“Very good,” Balfour replied, placing a gloved hand on the doorknob. The sound of relief in his voice was evident, and Jeremy didn’t blame him. “Should you require anything, please just give the bell a pull,” said Balfour, with a nod toward the rope–and–tassel arrangement hanging near the pillow on the newly–made bed.
oooo“I’ve seen Upstairs, Downstairs,” said Jeremy, with a good deal more airiness than he was feeling at the moment.
ooooBalfour smiled. “Very good, sir. Breakfast is served at 9:30.”
oooo“You don’t eat ‘til nine!” Jeremy exclaimed, the Spanish ghost, for the moment, a distant abstraction.
oooo“9:30, sir. The family and house guests come down for breakfast at nine-thirty. The staff, of course, eat much earlier. Six thirty or seven.”
ooooJeremy Ash was relieved. “That’s where I’ll be. Him, too, probably,” he said with a jerk of his thumb in the direction of Albert’s room. “He starts practice at nine.”
ooooBalfour’s attention meandered dreamily across the hall. “One doesn’t think of an artist of his gifting as having to practice, does one? Of course, he must. How fortunate you are to be able to listen to him, day after day.”
oooo“Yeah. Right. We’ll talk again when he’s been at it for three or four hours. Then he’ll start to write. That’s when me and Mizz Gibson go shopping; even if we don’t need anything. ‘Weather be damned,’ she says.
ooooJeremy knocked on the door. Albert knew Jeremy’s knock; always three quick raps followed by a silent beat, then a last tap. He didn’t say ‘come in’, because Jeremy would come in anyway, and he did.
oooo“Did you know there’s a ghost in this place?” said the boy, shoving aside the door with his left hand and propelling his chair forward with the other. “A dead Spanish lady.”
ooooGhosts held no particular fascination for Albert. Jeremy may as well have announced that a saxophonist or an encyclopedia salesman wandered Oxburgh Hall at odd hours. His mind, for some reason – as he transferred clothes from his suitcase to the bureau that loomed beside his bed – was fixated upon the painting of the man in his pajamas – a painting that had once hung on one of the walls in this very building.
ooooWhy was the man looking the wrong way? Even if the subject persisted in looking that way, why would the painter not have had him looking at the viewer anyway? The painting came from an era when the world was all about appearance, conformity, and order. The eyes were an aberration.
ooooIt was as if a composer had inserted a jazz riff in a requiem.
ooooIt didn’t fit.
ooooMost important, thought Albert, why should his brain care? Why did it insist on returning to the same subject over and over and over again? It had music to write. Why, now, was it exercising a mind of its own? The man in the pajamas was a long time ago. He was dead. So, too, was the painter. And everyone else who had been on the planet at the time.
ooooLike Melissa Bjork.
oooo“These are yours,” he said, throwing a pair of one–legged jeans at Jeremy.
oooo“How’d they get in there?” Jeremy wondered aloud, holding up the jeans and turning them this way and that. “The maid at the Cadogan packed for me, the girl with the ring in her nose. She must’ve seen the leg and figured they were yours. Mizz Gibson must’ve missed these when she was cuttin’ up my pants after the operation.
oooo“What’re you doing?”
oooo“Hm?” said Albert distractedly.
oooo“You’ve taken those shorts out three times, and put ‘em back three times. What’s on your mind?”
oooo“The man in his pajamas,” said Albert, taking the shorts out again.
oooo“What about him?” said Jeremy, who was not really interested in the man in the painting, and would much rather have worked himself into a delicious fright over the ghost of the Spanish – or Latin – lady. He wheeled across the room and took charge of unpacking Albert’s suitcase as if he’d been asked to.
ooooAlbert sat on the edge of the huge bed and leaned on one of the twisted wooden pillars that sprouted from each corner, forming a forest to support the heavy–looking hand–sewn canopy that had once looked down upon the father of Henry the Eighth, and would soon look down upon Albert the Piano Player. His eyes entertained themselves watching Jeremy take things from the suitcase and wheel them to the bureau or the wardrobe and fold or hang them neatly away, but conveyed nothing of the domestic exercise to his conscious brain, which was – as Jeremy discerned – otherwise occupied. Recent mention of ghosts brought an analogy to mind. “He’s haunting me.”
oooo“The man in the pajamas.”
ooooWhy? Wasn’t that a question to ask the haunter rather than the hauntee? “I can’t stop thinking about him. Why was he looking the wrong way?”
oooo“Who says he was?”
ooooAlbert had an answer for this. In fact, he had two. “No one in the other pictures was looking the wrong way and,” he said, as Jeremy was inhaling to reply, “it doesn’t feel right.”
ooooJeremy had no answer for that. “That painting came from here, right?”
oooo“That’s what Lady said.”
oooo“Then maybe that woman with the stiff lips knows.”
ooooSomehow Albert knew he was referring to Dierdre Ponsenby-Blythe-Hamilton. She did seem to have stiff lips. In fact, she seemed stiff in general, as if her clothes were made of cardboard. His experience of women was that they had soft parts, both physically and emotionally – sometimes one or the other in great abundance. Not so the housekeeper. He imagined her crinkling as she walked. She didn’t, he was pretty sure, but it wasn’t hard to imagine. Perhaps, rather than going to bed at night, one of the servants hung her up in a closet – as Jeremy Ash was doing now to Albert’s shirts – so as not to crease the cardboard.
oooo“You can ask her in the morning.”
oooo“Yes. I will. Or maybe you can.”
oooo“I’m gonna ask her about the Spanish ghost. You can ask her about the guy in his pajamas.”
ooooOne of the things that drove Jeremy crazy about Albert was that he couldn’t take a hint. Nothing would induce the boy to come right out and say he was scared to go back to his bedroom, where he knew he’d sit staring at the wardrobe, waiting for the Spanish Lady to come out and suck his brains out through his nose or whatever dead Spanish – Latin – ladies did, but he hurled hint after hint at the battlements surrounding Albert’s awareness, becoming increasingly frustrated as each splintered into dust and sifted into the moat that separated Albert from the world.
ooooAlbert’s brain was completely in the thrall of the man in the blue pajamas.
ooooMechanically, in a routine that had become a not unwelcome habit, Albert tended to Jeremy’s needs and put him to bed. He had sat a while at his bedside, at Jeremy’s request, to talk – which meant to listen – for a while. Then he had rung for tea. Then he had gotten water. Then he had helped him to the bathroom again. Then he had checked the wardrobe ‘to make sure nobody left nothin’ in there.’
ooooNone of the hints made it through. ooooFinally Jeremy gave up, which he knew he might as well have done much earlier. “G’night, A.”
oooo“Good-night,” said Albert, and he left the room.
ooooOutside, in the hall, an immense silence seemed to congeal around Albert, stopping him in his tracks. He listened. A brisk wind had risen and was pressing against the brittle windows which complained in creaks and groans. The water in the moat, so placid a few hours earlier, was lapping at the castle walls, as if trying to gain entry like the peasants of old at the threat of some Protestant invasion. The ticking of a clock somewhere in the deep, deep darkness carved regular little slices off the night. Albert’s brain left off obsessing for a moment, and, returning to its customary occupation, began to compose a melody for the rhythm of the seconds.
ooooHis fingers needed a piano. Not the one in his bedroom, that would wake people up.
ooooHe went downstairs and waded into the narcoleptic little halo of light cast by an electric sconce the sole purpose of which seemed to be to conserve energy. He felt his way along the wall toward ‘the last door but one on the north side.’
ooooNorth. Was he coming from the east, or the west? It would make a difference. He recollected, from a brief sojourn with the Cub Scouts when he was seven or eight, that moss grew on the north side of trees, which was a handy way to find your way around in a forest. The principle apparently didn’t apply to woodwork in general, as there was no moss in evidence. Perhaps there had been some on the massive, twisted posts on his bed, but he hadn’t noticed. He could go see, but even if there were, he’d have gotten all turned around by the time he got back down the winding stairs, so he’d still be where he was, wondering which way was north.
ooooWhat he needed was one of those ‘you are here’ signs he’d seen at the train station.
ooooHe stood completely still, perhaps he would hear something that suggested north. What sound did north make? There were the northern lights, he’d seen them once, but they didn’t make any sound, and they were probably only in Maine anyway. Oxburgh Hall was a long way from Maine.
ooooEverything was a long way from Maine.
ooooThe wind eddied and swirled from all directions, prompting a lot of inanimate objects to tell it to pipe down.
ooooWhich way did wind come from? That would he a Helpful Thing to Know.
oooo“I thought I heard someone afoot,” said a voice behind him. Albert turned into a beam of light that nearly blinded him. He threw up his hands to cover his eyes. “Oh, sorry, sir,” said Balfour, for that’s who it was. He pointed the light at the floor. “Is there anything I can help you with?”
oooo“I was looking for the, for the . . .” He’d forgotten what Dierdre Ponsenby-Blythe-Hamilton, whose name he remembered for some inexplicable reason – had called the room. He mimed playing the piano.
oooo“Ah! The conservat’ry! You wish to play the piano!” Balfour had, in fact, been one of Albert’s most devoted fans since he’d first heard one of his pieces on the BBC, though he was doing everything in his power to maintain a decorum in their relationship that was suitable to his profession and their relative social standing. Nevertheless, he was intimately conversant with all the literature on the subject of the Maestro and fully aware of his eccentricities and what was regarded in the popular press as his unique perspective on and tenuous relationship with the world around him.
There were also those critics, he was aware, who had interviewed Albert at length and concluded – after much frustration – that they were not in the presence of genius, but of a musical apparatus, like a pipe organ, an intellectual cipher whose atoms were constituted in such a way as to resonate to some otherworldly vibration; the way, he had read, that some people pick up radio stations with their fillings, and that he had no more awareness of the music that flowed through him than a jukebox did of Willie Nelson or Bo Didley. He had been called retarded and an idiot savant with a brain too leaden to appreciate the gold that his fingers spun so effortlessly. This was not an opinion to which Balfour subscribed. He had heard the Maestro play, and not merely the notes, but the soul within them.
oooo“This way, sir,” said Balfour, leading the way with his flashlight. He pulled to a stop in front of a massive double pocket door, half of which he pulled aside revealing a dome of darkness at the outer boarders of which were windows or mirrors or some kind of glass that reflected the light from the torch.
ooooBalfour reached behind a large potted aspidistra on his left and flipped a switch. A couple of soft lights awoke from their slumber and blinked at the darkness as if to say, ‘huh?’
ooooAlbert didn’t notice. All he saw was the Steinway concert grand in the middle of the room; not so much an instrument as a musical landscape of highly polished rock maple, the underside of its yawning top a mirror that, even in the subdued lighting, reflected row upon row of golden strings, cork mallets, and red velvet mute pads.
oooo“Marvelous, isn’t it?” said Balfour. “The Mistress had it imported from Vienna, especially for you.”
oooo“It’s nice,” said Albert, situating himself on the bench. “Do you mind if I play?”
oooo“Mind, sir!? I should be . . . I . . .” Balfour’s ears were watering. “No, sir. I shouldn’t mind at all.”
ooooAlbert played a light arpeggio under the butler’s watchful eye. That’s all he did, touch a couple of keys – an augmented chord – in an off-handed way that suggested he was trying out the tone. But as the notes left the strings, they seemed somehow to wrap themselves around one another in a way that suggested the opening notes of Quasi una fantasia, a portent, a prelude to something . . .
oooo“Thank you, Balfour,” said Albert without looking up from the keyboard. “You can go back to bed now.”
oooo“Yes, but . . .”
ooooAlbert raised his eyes. “Thank you.”
oooo“Yes, sir. Of course, sir. I shall see that you’re not disturbed.” Balfour backed from the room. “There’s no one in this wing of the house, so play as long and as . . . as enthusiastically . . . as you wish.” And, with a broken heart, he closed the door quietly. Which is not to say he left. For a long time, he stood in the corridor, his forehead resting against the door, and listened, until something strange happened. His sponge was full, and his ears could hold no more.
ooooSlowly he walked toward the pathetic little island of light cast by the wall sconce in the entrance hall and up the stairs to his room, aware that something in his emotional entrails had been pierced. The wound would be fatal to something, just what remained to be seen.
ooooAlbert wouldn’t have disagreed with those critics whose appraisals Balfour had silenced. He often felt like plumbing, his fingers mechanically responding to something that emptied through him from somewhere else. But to sit in the presence of whatever that was, with his hands finding the keys to translate that hidden language, that was good. It was healing. And if he was plumbing, that was fine, he would strive to be plumbing without blockage. He would practice and practice and practice so that his ability would be equal to that creative impulse whenever it chose to pull his tap.
ooooNow, as he played, he thought about the man in the blue pajamas. About the eyes that looked the wrong way. Sad eyes. Eyes now long dead. Long, long dead, like Melissa Bjork, and Tewksbury, and the people in the apartment building that Professor Strickland had set afire, and Judge Antrim, and everyone from the past, and . . .
ooooSo many dead and, for an hour or so, he played for them.
ooooSlowly he became aware that there was someone else in the room. He looked up, expecting that Balfour had returned, probably to tell him to quiet down. But it was a woman, barely visible, wrapped in shadow and staring at him with soft, dark eyes.
oooo“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t think anyone could hear me.”
oooo“I could,” said the woman.
ooooAlbert detected an odd accent in the two simple words, one he couldn’t quite identify and, at the same time, a curious perfume. Crushed flowers?
oooo“Did I wake you.”
oooo“Yes” said the woman, so softly he strained to hear. ‘Joo did’, she said. She was Spanish.
ooooAlbert, as far as he knew, had never seen a ghost before, which is what he suspected this was, given what Jeremy had said earlier. He was unsure what came next. “You’re the ghost,” he said. Best to begin with the obvious.
oooo“Am I?” said the woman. “I thought you were.”
ooooAlbert was not inclined to argue, he’d probably lose.
oooo“That music,” said the woman, gently tracing the nether reaches of the piano with her fingers, “it is like blood.”
ooooAlbert had never thought of music as blood but, inasmuch as it was life, she was right. “Yes.”
oooo“One would not think it to look at you,” she said enigmatically.
oooo“What I’m thinking. The thoughts your music brings to mind.”
ooooAlbert let his expression beg the question, but no answer was forthcoming. They looked at one another for a full half-minute, almost motionless, then she turned and dissipated into the shadows.
ooooSo that’s a ghost, Albert thought.
ooooHe decided it was time to go to bed. Who knew what else his playing might disturb?
oooo“The man in the blue pajamas?” said Dierdre Ponsenby-Blythe-Hamilton as she cleared a space on the sideboard for the coffee urn, which was being carried in by a girl Albert hadn’t seen before; at least hadn’t noticed. He made an effort to notice her now. She was female, that much his initial instincts had gotten right. He couldn’t decide if she was tall or short; so much depended on what you compared her to. She was taller than the aspidistra, but shorter than the ceiling.
ooooAlbert’s eyes drifted toward the ceiling. Who knew how high that was. Fifteen feet? A hundred? How tall was he? If he knew that, he might be able to imagine how many of him, stacked one atop the other, it would take to reach the ceiling.
oooo“How tall would you say I am?” he asked, without directing the question at either of the other three inhabitants of the room – Jeremy Ash, Dierdre Ponsenby-Blythe-Hamilton, or the serving girl – by name.
oooo“You’re five-foot ten and a-half,” said Jeremy Ash with a mouthful of kippered herring, for which he’d acquired a taste since his arrival in England. “It’s on your passport.”
ooooAlbert hadn’t taken his eyes off the ceiling. “About five of me, then,” he estimated aloud.
ooooDierdre Ponsenby-Blythe-Hamilton leveled a bemused look at Jeremy Ash. Jeremy shrugged, shook his head and resumed eating. “Don’t even try,” he advised.
ooooFive Alberts would be five times five-feet ten and a-half inches.
ooooLike almost everything else, math was not one of Albert’s strong suits, but it helped to reduce everything to musical terms, in this case, inches to whole notes. There were twelve whole notes in a foot, and each inch added to that was another whole note. Five feet would have sixty whole notes. Ten and a half more would make seventy whole notes and a half note. Times five of him, would make – whatever seventy times five is plus five more half notes.
ooooHe’d need a pencil.
ooooWhy was he thinking how high the ceiling was? Something had nudged him onto this train of thought, but he couldn’t remember what it was. Anyway – knowledge being a good thing – it was nice to know the height of the ceiling.
oooo“He’s talking about that painting we saw in the National Gallery, the one that came from here.”
oooo“Oh, yes,” said the housekeeper, straightening the jam. “Annabella’s Whimsy.”
oooo“Who’s that?” said Jeremy, only half-way curious. His attention had, for several seconds, been inclined to linger on the serving girl, about whom there were several things to commend as an object of observation, not least of which was the little smile she flashed at him whenever their eyes met.
ooooAlbert was reminded that he was the one who had asked the question that precipitated the housekeeper’s comment. He waited to hear how she would respond to Jeremy, it might help him to remember what he’d asked.
oooo“Lady Annabella Scrope Howe – she had it made.” The housekeeper made either a laughing or disapproving sound. “It is, ostensibly, of Robert Tiptoft, founder of her family fortune. But he had been dead and gone several centuries by the time she had the painting made and, as there is no known contemporary likeness of that gentleman, the artist was told to paint himself.”
ooooAlbert wanted to make sure he understood what Dierdre Ponsenby-Blythe-Hamilton had just told him. “So, the man in the pajamas is supposed to be Robert . . .”
oooo“Sir Robert Tiptoft,” said the housekeeper. “Yes.”
oooo“Who was dead when the picture was made?”
“Yes,” she said, as her fingers busied themselves with some recalcitrant flowers. “For the better part of three centuries.”
ooooThen what, thought Albert, had prompted Lady Annabella to have the painting – of a man who wasn’t Robert Tiptoft – painted? Without being aware of it, he had voiced the thought aloud, and was a little surprised when Dierdre Ponsenby-Blythe-Hamilton replied. He wondered, for a fleeting moment, if she’d been reading his mind.
oooo“Nobody knows, for sure, sir. It’s one of those little mysteries that gather ‘round ancient families like the Scropes and the Bedingfelds, and places like this. Not unlike dust.” Her eyes briefly toured the room. “Makes one feel a part of it all, just by being here, don’t you find?”
ooooAlbert was reminded what Lady had said in the museum, about the man in the picture. “But the real man – the artist – died?”
ooooDierdre Ponsenby-Blythe-Hamilton stopped what she was doing and looked at Albert in surprise. “Why, yes. As a matter of fact, he did. Harvest Lossburgh, a local fellow. One of those names you never forget. Painted mostly prize bulls and horses for the gentry, legend has it. He was murdered.”
ooooAll of a sudden Jeremy was attentive, fearing that mention of the dreaded word would send Albert off again into a faint. Albert showed not the least sign of inner turmoil. His brow had wrinkled slightly, forcing his horn-rimmed glasses down his nose a quarter-inch or so, but otherwise he seemed completely in control of whatever emotions the wretched subject elicited. In fact, he seemed almost thoughtful. Why was that? Jeremy wondered. A few days earlier the word had sent him to the hospital.
ooooThe housekeeper continued. “The very day the portrait was completed, as a matter-of-fact. The story goes that he was found on the floor in front of his easel with a knife in the back of his neck, and a paintbrush clutched in his hand.” She clutched her hand as if it held the paintbrush.
oooo“Dead,” said Albert.
oooo“Dead,” Dierdre Ponsenby-Blythe-Hamilton affirmed.
oooo“Who killed him?” Jeremy demanded, stabbing the air with an imaginary knife.
ooooThe housekeeper lifted the silver lid of a warming plate on the sideboard and rearranged the bacon in an orderly regiment. “Another of those little mysteries.”
ooooAlbert didn’t think murder a little mystery. Especially not for the victim; even if he did paint cows. For one horrible moment he imagined a bovine canvas wandering the countryside festooned with the blotches to which he’d been subjected in the museum.
ooooIt would have to put it down.
oooo“What if he killed himself?” Jeremy Ash wondered.
oooo“Would someone stab themselves in the back of the neck?” This seemed, to Albert, an uncomfortable way to go about an already gruesome task.
ooooJeremy demonstrated that it was physically possible. Which it was, still, such a feat of mild contortion in the face of death would, at the very least, make Harvest Lossburgh a very original thinker. Perhaps an artist has a lot of time to think while he’s painting cows.
The Manor House, Castle Combe, England. 1662
oooo“You’ve captured yourself to perfection, Mr. Lossburgh!”
ooooLossburgh stepped back from his canvas, his gaze bouncing back and forth between the self portrait and the image of himself in the mirror positioned awkwardly against the wall to the right, where his patroness had directed it should be placed.
oooo“Thank you, your ladyship,” said the painter, his voice tinged with hesitance. “I still don’t understand why . . .”
oooo“Let us refrain from further comment upon the subject, shall we?”
ooooLady Annabella’s voluminous skirts, as she maneuvered through the little forest of artist’s paraphernalia, rustled like a murder of crows coming to roost on the branches of a dead tree. She stood behind him, studying the portrait over his shoulder.
He felt her warm breath on his neck.
oooo“Really quite remarkable,” she said. “You have missed your calling, Mr. Lossburgh.” Her words, barely above a whisper, were spoken directly into his ear and made his blood rise and his forehead suddenly bead with perspiration. She may be six months gone–it seemed she was always, to some extent, with child–but her feminine allure was, if anything, augmented by the glow of her milky skin, the fullness of her breasts, signs of fecundity that overflowed the borders of his senses.
oooo“Have you ever painted a woman, Mr. Lossburgh?” she continued. Her fingers rested lightly on the edges of his ruff.
ooooLossburgh swallowed deeply and tipped his brush toward the still-fresh canvas. “Beyond simple sketches, this is my first attempt at a human of either sex, ma’am. You will recall I mentioned the fact when you commissioned me.”
“And what do you think of your effort?”
“Well, not wishing to be falsely modest, I must say I surprise myself.” The ruff seemed to be tightening around his neck, the whole ridiculous costume of druid-blue silk embraced him in sweat.
oooo“Are you familiar with Reubens?” said Lady Annabella, speaking now in his left ear, her voice wet with a sensual conspiracy that stirred feelings completely foreign to him. He turned slightly to look at her, but she had already returned to his opposite side.
oooo“Yes, I know of him. He is . . . that is, his work is . . . excessive.” That wasn’t the word he was looking for, but it was the only one that came to mind.
ooooThe woman giggled. “‘Excessive?’ Really? I’d have said he was a voluptuary, Mr. Lossburgh. His portrait of Venus at the Mirror, for instance. . . “
Looooossburgh was scandalized. The painting to which she referred was, no doubt, the talk of fashionable salons in London–hotbeds of debauchery that they were–but to hear mention of it from the lips of a lady! He flushed an even deeper shade of crimson and began occupying himself with cleaning his brush. “Really, your ladyship, it is beyond my station, to say nothing of common etiquette, for me to so much as allude to such a, such a work, in the presence of a lady.”
ooooHe was bending toward the little bouquet of brushes that protruded from a well in his paintbox. Lady Annabella leaned against him, allowing the full weight of her body to press upon his back and buttocks. He staggered slightly, stunned by the action but, at the same time, found her surprisingly light for one in such an advanced state. The little knoll of the next Lord Scrope laid its foot in the hollow of his back and gave a kick.
oooo“Seeing you have managed so singular a debut,” she whispered, her lips nearly brushing his trembling earlobe that seemed, of its own volition, to stretch toward them like a flower toward the sun, “I am almost persuaded to have you make a similar portrait of me. Lady Annabella Scrope, Venus of Wlitshire!”
ooooThe suggestion shocked the painter bolt upright with such force that his female burden was flung from him toward the wall, from contact with which she was preserved by a last-minute grasp at a curtain framing the tapestry with which the wall was hung. Rather than flying at him in a fury, as he half-expected, she laughed merrily as she collected herself from near-catastrophe and sorted her skirts, an act that had her bent slightly toward him, daring him to divert his eyes from the private vista thus presented. His instinct was to offer her his hand and draw her out of the shadows to the accompaniment of his apologies, but he was constrained by the fear that such a gesture, however well-meant, might be construed as a liberty. She was clearly alright and did not require his assistance.
oooo“I beg your pardon, your ladyship! I was . . . I do not know what came over me . . . Please, please forgive me.”
oooo“I rather think I came over you,” said Lady Scrope. She stepped toward him, placed her hands on his sides, and looked up at him, her eyes sparkling with mischief. oooo“You find the prospect repugnant, Mr. Lossburgh?”
oooo“Your ladyship,” said Lossburgh, who had begun sweating profusely, much to the lady’s delight, “if someone should discover us . . .”
oooo“The door is locked,” said Annabella, her eyes searching his in a dance prescient with peril.
ooooLossburgh felt his Adam’s apple proclaim his discomfit as he swallowed again. Suddenly all the intimations, insinuations, and gossip he’d heard–and attempted to ignore–concerning his patroness tumbled over one another in his brain with cries of warning. Who else but the vixen she was reputed to be could have made such a suggestion? Who but a woman of indifferent morals would have placed herself in such a compromising position, or have so expertly drawn from his body its present response, completely overwhelming his will, mocking his determination to mute his own biology?
ooooShe was, he knew, the illegitimate daughter of the Earl of Sunderland and his kitchen maid, Martha Janes, but she had married Sir John Howe, a Baronet and, whatever she had been, she was now his wife. A lady!
ooooThis, he decided, was a momentary aberration; an atavistic impulse born of her maternal heritage erupting briefly through the veneer. Even the noblest of women in her condition were, he knew from personal experience–his wife had borne him seven live children–susceptible to emotional outbursts, to exhibitions of their feminine frailties and felt, sometimes desperately, the need for affirmation that impending motherhood had not robbed them of their desirability.
ooooBut how did any of that account for her determination to have him paint such an oddly-positioned portrait, to paint across himself, as it were, his body and head turned one way, and his eyes another; forever staring at the mirror she had placed against the wall?
As gracefully as possible, he extracted himself from her and, somewhat distractedly, was regarding his blushing visage in that curious mirror when the point of a thin, sharp object emerged unexpectedly from his throat, accompanied by an electric pain at the base of his neck. A curious place for a hairpin, he thought. His Adam’s apple suddenly ceased its animation.
ooooLord Scrope stood abruptly as the door to his wife’s bedchamber opened and, after what seemed hours, the doctor emerged. His lordship had inhaled to speak, but the physician held up his hand. “She’s sleeping now. That’s the best thing.”
ooooHis associate – Witheridge the barber – closed the door quietly and sidestepped into the shadows to await his master’s summons. “I’ve sedated her with lemon balm; my man here has bled her, of course,” the doctor continued. “She’s pale. Deathly pale. And nearly breathless with shock, but I have no doubt a good sleep will be a mighty palliative.
oooo“Yes,” Lord Scrope agreed. He had returned from an unsuccessful hunt to find his home in an uproar. From fragments of testimony sobbed out by his overwrought female staff – there were no men at home at the time, worse luck – he was able to assemble a narrative of events in which, though failing to satisfy logic in every particular, nevertheless presented a skeleton of facts: a burglar had gained access to the house in and, attempting to abscond with a sack of family silver, had found it necessary–presumably to avoid detection– to secret himself behind a drapery in the drawing room. From this position he had bounded when his nerve could stretch no further and had stabbed Lossberg in the neck before flying out the window toward the terrace and gardens.
Lossberg had died on the spot – he was found clutching at his throat, a look of stark surprise frozen in his eyes – Lady Scrope had fainted, collapsing in the pool of the artist’s blood, where she was discovered by her maid not long thereafter.
ooooA sack of silver and other portable items – indifferently selected from nearby shelves and cabinets – had been found on the threshold letting onto the terrace.
ooooApart from the burglar, nothing was missing.
ooooA servant had brought a bowl of water, in which the physician was dipping his fingers. “That portrait, your lordship; have you seen it?”
ooooThe look with which he responded left no doubt that he had.
oooo“Mm,” said the doctor. “Unusual.”
ooooLord Scrope agreed. “Emphatically.”
oooo“It is of himself. The artist?”
ooooThe doctor dried his hands. “Mm.”
oooo“He’s meant to be an ancestor of her ladyship’s, I understand. Robert Tiptoft, founder of her family’s fortune. No one knows what the fellow looked like.”
“So, she had Lossberg paint himself as a stand-in for this ancestor?” He handed the towel to the bloodletter.
oooo“So it would seem. I could never make sense of the project. But Lady Annabella is a woman of – a woman of decided – a determined…”
ooooThe doctor had attended Lady Scrope in times of extreme. Once, in his youth, he had sailed to America and, about mid-Atlantic, encountered a hurricane of such force that it stripped all but the mainmast from the deck and nearly capsized the vessel.
ooooThe experiences were not above comparison.
oooo“Yes,” he said.
ooooHis lordship nodded.
oooo“The pose is – unconventional. Her idea?” It certainly hadn’t been the brainchild of the pedantic, unimaginative painter of cows.
oooo“No doubt. I never saw it ‘til just now,” said Lord Scrope. “She wouldn’t let me. Said it was for her grandchildren.”
ooooThe comment raised the doctor’s eyebrows. “Grandchildren? That’s still a few years away!”
ooooHis lordship shrugged, a patented response to many of his wife’s activities. “Her fortune is her own, so she can with it as she pleases.” He walked the doctor to the door, Witheridge following close behind. “Can’t imagine the old man would have been caught dead in that outfit.” He chuckled. “Still, she’ll be alright, you say?”
oooo“I have every reason to be confident of her full recovery, your lordship. Good day.”
ooooFor Albert, walking was a way to convey his fingers from one piano to the next. His response, therefore, to Dierdre Ponsenby-Blythe-Hamilton’s suggestion during breakfast that he take a stroll around the grounds, was: “Stroll?”
oooo“A nice leisurely walk. The lawns and gardens really are quite lovely. Meanwhile, I’ll see if I can’t turn up a genealogy or family history that might help you appreciate the place. I know Americans aren’t typically interested in the past – always rushing forward, aren’t you? Still, you might find it entertaining.”
ooooAlbert didn’t know that Americans weren’t interested in the past. Maybe that’s because it was full of dead people.
ooooAnd so, later that morning, at forty-six years of age, Albert took his first on-purpose stroll. It was Jeremy’s first stroll, as well, if being pushed along a path in a wheelchair could be called a stroll. Much to their mutual surprise, they were both enjoying it. So much so that, for several minutes, Jeremy hadn’t said a word. “This is nice,” he said at last, inhaling deeply. “You smell those flowers?”
ooooThey had just past a row of bushes bursting with large yellow and pink blooms. Albert sniffed and a church full of elderly women came to mind. He said so.
ooooJeremy shook his head silently. “If you say so. I wonder what kind they are.”
ooooThere was more than one kind of woman?
oooo“Maybe they’re magnolias. I heard magnolias smell pretty strong. Or hydrangeas. You ever hear of a hydrangea?”
ooooJeremy was talking about the flowers. “Yes,” said Albert. His mother had hydrangeas on the farm in Maine. Miss Bjork had died in the shadow of one. “That’s not what these are.”
oooo“Then what are they?”
oooo“Yellow,” said Albert. “And pink.” That was an unequivocal statement for someone to whom colors never seemed quite static enough identify with absolute certainty.
ooooJeremy was willing to accept that. “That’s what they smell like,” he said. “Yellow and pink.”
ooooThey strolled a little further and drew to a stop at the edge of a lake. Or pond. Or river.
ooooThere were no seagulls, so it wasn’t the ocean.
ooooThere was a little island in the middle of the water, with a few trees on it. Weeping willows. That was Albert’s favorite tree. It was also the only one he knew for certain. That and apple trees. And pear trees. He knew those if it was the right time of year and they had fruit on them.
oooo“I like strolling,” said Jeremy.
ooooAlbert liked it, too.
ooooThe peace was stabbed by a sudden intake of breath. Albert could feel Jeremy Ash wincing. He patted his shoulder.
oooo“How can somethin’ hurt that ain’t even there anymore?” Jeremy Ash demanded rhetorically. “I wish I had it back, just so I could scratch it.”
ooooThe twinge or pang or whatever it was would pass in a minute or two. It always did. Albert waited; patted Jeremy Ash on the taut muscles of his shoulders some more and waited. Before long the boy relaxed, the tension drained from his aura and the air abandoned his lungs with a sigh.
ooooAlbert sat down on the little slope of soft grass at Jeremy’s feet. “What do you think he was looking at,” he said when a little time had passed, “the man in the painting?”
oooo“That’s a swan,” said Jeremy Ash.
ooooThis wasn’t the response Albert was expecting; not that he was sure what he was expecting, but that wasn’t it. He looked up and saw Jeremy pointing at something on the lake. Albert was not surprised to find that it was a swan.
ooooThere were swans on the lake in Boston Common. Some were made into boats you could get in and ride. This was smaller than that.
oooo“Swans have teeth?”
oooo“Did you ever get pinched by a swan?”
ooooSuddenly Albert wasn’t sure. He had been chased by a large bird once, but maybe it was a goose. It wasn’t an ostrich or a turkey. Probably a goose. Maybe swans don’t pinch.
oooo“I think it was a goose.”
oooo“They pinch!” said Jeremy Ash.
oooo“Then that’s probably what it was,” said Albert. “A goose.”
Jeremy Ash nodded toward the animal on the lake. “That’s a swan.”
oooo“It must have been something she wanted him to look at.”
oooo“Lady Annabella,” Jeremy Ash affirmed. “If she had him paint the picture, she must have wanted him to look like that.”
oooo“What do you think it was?”
ooooJeremy Ash shrugged. “Who knows?”
ooooAlbert was looking at the swan, because his eyes found interesting the way it bobbed and nodded its head, dipping his bill in the water and splashing itself with droplets that, caught by the sun, turned momentarily into diamonds, but he was thinking about the painting. “If we could find the room where it was painted, we could see what he was looking at.”
ooooJeremy Ash didn’t think that likely. “That was about a billion years ago, A. Those old castles and things are all ruins now. Like the pyramids. Did you know they used to be white?”
oooo“The pyramids?” said Albert who had found, over the years, that conversation with Jeremy Ash was like a roller coaster ride – or what he imagined a roller coaster ride must be like. A kind of mental seatbelt was advisable and a well-timed question now and then could fix you, more or less, in space and time; at least until the next turning; which always took you the opposite of whichever way you were leaning.
oooo“Yea. White plaster all over, with a little gold tip at the very top, shining in the sun.” He, too, was looking at the swan – which now and then flapped its wings and rose up until only the webbing of its feet danced lightly on the water – but his mind’s eye was upon those massive, blindingly-white walls rising from the parched desert into the bright blue sky, conjoining in those golden apexes as they startled to life at the sun’s first rays, reflecting brief, luminous fingers at their corresponding stars on Orion’s belt. Home.
ooooAll Albert knew about the pyramids was that they were in Egypt, and they were very old. “They must have used a lot of paint.” He shuddered to think what Jackson Pollack would have perpetrated with so vast a canvas. “Painting,” he said, reminding himself what they had been talking about. “It wasn’t painted here. The background is all different.”
ooooJeremy Ash didn’t find this a convincing argument. “Artists don’t always paint what they see with their eyes,” he said.
ooooAlbert’s expression said, ‘They don’t?’
ooooThe boy tapped his forehead. “Sometimes they paint what they see in their mind.”
ooooIf that was the case, Albert thought, the paintings at the museum in London were troubling in the extreme.
oooo“Maybe he just made it up.”
ooooThat may be with a someone like Jackson Pollack, but Albert didn’t think it held true for Harvest Lossberg. “He was a cow painter. Why would cow-painters need to make things up? There’s a cow, you paint it.”
ooooJeremy thought about that. Cow painters might fall into a special category of artist. He didn’t say anything.
oooo“I bet he was painting exactly what he was looking at,” said Albert. “I bet he was wearing those blue pajamas and that cupcake paper, and he was looking in the wrong direction like that, because that’s where Arabella wanted him to look.”
oooo“Annabella,” said Albert, consciously attempting to wedge the name in the Teflon folds of his brain. “Annabella.
oooo“If we could find that room . . .” Jeremy inhaled to reiterate his argument, but Albert plowed ahead. “if it still exists, then we could find out what he was looking at?”
oooo“Why does it matter, A? That was so long ago. Who cares what he was looking at?”
ooooGood question. Why did Albert care what Harvest Lossberg was looking at while he was painting himself pretending to be Robert Tiptoft? But he did. He cared mightily, and he had no idea why. The world was full of other things to think about. He had another concert in a week or two. He should think about that. He could think about Jeremy Ash, or Dierdre Ponsenby-Blythe-Hamilton, or lunch, or whatever war was going on. There probably was one somewhere. Or that swan, preening and cavorting and celebrating its life. Or he could think about the swelling host of dead littering his own.
ooooBut he didn’t want to think about them.
ooooMaybe that was why he was curious about that strange painting. ooooIt was a harmless curiosity; a puzzle that had nothing to do with him. Whatever secrets his search might disinter, none would touch him or the dwindling population of those he cared about. No one would die in his arms. No one would threaten him. No one would lie to him. No one fear the truths those secrets revealed or send the world up in flames. It was an exercise to beguile his mind from its constant forays into his own past.
ooooAnd that all made so much sense.
ooooAnd it was such a lie.
ooooHe was becoming obsessed, and he knew it, and there was nothing he could do about it.
oooo“I know!” said Jeremy suddenly, startling the swan who seemed to notice for the first time that she was being watched, and turned her tail feathers toward them with a squawk of indignation. “He was looking at a mirror!”
oooo“Must’ve been. He was painting a self-portrait, right?”
ooooAlbert accepted this.
oooo“Then he must have been looking at himself,” Jeremy Ash deduced. “A mirror.”
ooooIt was so obvious. Of course he was looking at himself in a mirror, how else could be paint a self-portrait? “Of course.”
oooo“Mystery solved!” Jeremy Ash pronounced.
ooooUpon reflection, Albert didn’t think so. Why was the mirror not in front of him? It would be like sitting down at the piano and trying to read music taped to the wall off to the right somewhere. “Why didn’t she put the mirror in front of him?”
ooooThe swan twisted her long neck for a backward glance at Jeremy as if to say, ‘Well?’
oooo“She was weird,” he snapped. “Who cares?”
oooo‘Who cares?’ was Jeremy’s response to most things he didn’t understand. Albert ignored him and resumed their stroll in the direction of a boathouse further along the path, at which point they were joined by Balfour, emerging from the long, shrubbery-lined path to the house. His forehead was bejeweled with sweat of his effort, which he mopped with a handkerchief.
oooo“Ah, Maestro!” he panted. “I’m so glad to have found you.”
ooooAlbert hadn’t known he was missing.
oooo“There’s been a call for you – from London. A Mr. Huffsey?”
oooo“Huffy,” Jeremy corrected.
oooo“Huffy? Yes, that may have been the name. At all events, he wants to speak to you.”
ooooThere were very few people who Albert enjoyed speaking with: Jeremy Ash was one. And Heather-Angela, and Maylene and Cindy. It was a short list, and Huffy wasn’t on it. If there had been a list of people he didn’t want to talk to, Huffy would have been on that; at the top.
oooo“He’ll call back.”
oooo“Yes, sir,” said Balfour. “But, if you’ll permit, he seemed most adamant.”
ooooAlbert had never known Huffy to be anything but adamant. He was one of those finger-twitching individuals for whom everything was a crisis; one requiring Albert’s immediate attention.
oooo“He’s an adamant person.”
oooo“What did he want?” said Jeremy Ash.
oooo“He didn’t confide in me in any detail, master Ash,” said Balfour with a slight bow in the boy’s direction, “but I infer from his comments that the maestro visited a hospital recently and that they wished to confer with him regarding an x-ray they had made.”
ooooTalk of hospitals and x-rays made Jeremy instantly nauseous.
October 13, 1216 – The Castle, Castle Combe, England
oooo“She will see you now,” said the maid with a curtsey. The Poitouese French in which she delivered the command evoked for Ralph de Rodes an image of thick cream in a cool barrel so visceral he could almost dip his finger in and taste it. He tucked his helmet under his arm and, bending low, banged his head on the lentil anyway as he entered the queen’s bedchamber. He swore.
ooooIsabella laughed. “That is your reward for being so tall, Rodes.”
oooo“I beg your pardon,” said Rodes who, already ruddy from his long ride from King’s Lynn, reddened some more. He dabbed at his scalp and looked at his fingers to see if he was bleeding. “Height is a curse.”
oooo“So it would seem,” said Isabella as she brushed the hair of one of her numerous children, which one it was impossible to tell. She and the king had been blessed with five prospective contenders for the throne and, despite long acquaintance, they all seemed much the same to Ralph. It was even impossible to tell if the one on the receiving end of the queen’s present ministrations was a boy or girl, though its willing submission to grooming suggested female. “You have news from my husband?” She purposely said ‘from my husband’, and not ‘of my husband’.
ooooThe shoulders of the tall, tired, newly-wounded warrior sagged like a field of dead sunflowers.
ooooThe queen stood abruptly, relinquishing the child at hand to the care of one of her lady’s maids. “Leave us!” The command startled a flock of skirts into motion as her attendants hastened to obey, crushing, in their haste, the last remains of fragrance from the hyssop and lavender rushes carpeting the floor.
ooooUntil the last woman left, Isabella stood at regal attention, her hands clutching one another; clinging to an emotional cliff. As soon as the lever settled into the latch she deflated to the edge of her bed and turned the full intensity of her remarkable blue eyes on the knight, to whom it seemed–though he towered over her–he was being looked down upon from a great height.
ooooAware that he was the bearer of bad tidings, he had resolved to resist the sheer animal power of the beauty of this woman that had even brought the randy old king to a fidelity of sorts. Determination failed. It was not for nothing she had won the old man’s hand and heart when she was little more than twelve, or that she had since come to be called Helena. He shook off a fleeting frisson of chivalry that suggested falling on his sword might be a nobler act than to bring tears to those eyes.
ooooZig-zagging his way across miles and miles of open country, in peril of the rebellious barons at every crossroads and river shallows, he had pillaged his brain for an arrangement of words with which to swaddle the news. One horse had died under him and the one he had stolen to take its place now lay in the courtyard, its mighty heart struggling for life, much like its former master who lay beside a field in some obscure valley fifteen miles to the east, attempting, with porous hands, to staunch the blood oozing from the gash in his side. His struggle would soon be over.
ooooDe Rode was smitten by the notion that, perhaps, the souls of the man and his borrowed beast would ride to heaven together, but the news he bore allowed no leisure for poetical notions. He drew a breath to speak when Isabella preempted him. “He’s been killed?”
ooooThe knight looked away. “No, your majesty. The king is alive.”
oooo“Then what, de Rode? You’ve obviously come a great distance – at what risk to yourself I can only imagine – to what purpose if only to tell me the king is alive and well?”
ooooDe Rode breathed deeply, and delivered his burden on the exhale. “The king is alive, but only just.”
oooo“Wounded?” said the queen, twining her fingers, their white knuckles portraying the force of emotion she was restraining.
oooo“He’s ill, your majesty.”
oooo“Ill? Ill how? With what?”
ooooRelief burst from the queen in a single syllable. “Flux!” She laughed. “He’s had the flux before. He’s prone to it!”
oooo“But . . .”
ooooThe queen stood and began pacing across the foot of her bed. “He eats too fast, that’s his problem. Always has . . . fruit out of season, peaches and . . .”
“Your majesty . . .”
oooo“And sweets! You tell him I said he oughtn’t have so many sweets! It’s lard, you know, that’s what seizes his bowels. The goose.”
oooo“It’s not the same thing this time,” said de Rode quickly. “He’s bleeding badly, and it’s affected his mind.”
ooooDe Rode sank to a nearby chair, even though he hadn’t been given permission. “He’s become irrational. Paranoid.”
oooo“Paranoid! Of course he’s paranoid; he’s the king, de Rode! A king who’s not paranoid is soon a corpse!”
oooo“Granted, caution is a wise course for the head that wears the crown, your majesty, but this is worse. He trusts no one, even those of us who have remained loyal to him through it all! He thinks we’re poisoning him.”
oooo“And are you?” Isabella snapped, and at once relented. “Forgive me, de Rode. Ralph. I don’t question your loyalty. But can you say the same for all his companions? Loyalties change like the tide. Look at his own brothers!”
oooo“William is back with him now.”
oooo“My point exactly! First with him, then with Louis, then back with him, on his knees no doubt. It’s impossible to tell whom to trust. Who’s his physician?”
oooo“He has none, majesty.”
oooo“What do you mean. What of Father Confrere? Or Langburne, he’s a good man with leeches.”
oooo“He’s sent them away. He even had Langburne flogged, for no reason other than that he objected to the man’s breath which, said his majesty, reminded him of a donkey. He had a saddle put on the man and rode him across a bridge which exertion made the old fellow collapse, spilling the king in the mud. So he had him flogged for insult to the royal person and turned loose in the fens.”
ooooIsabella sat again. Her voice fell to a whisper. “Langburne has been with the family forever.” The eyes she raised to de Rode nearly stopped his heart. “What attempts have been made to restore his humours?”
ooooDe Rode shrugged. “He won’t allow anyone near him. He’s fixated upon his treasures.”
oooo“He has them all?”
ooooDe Rode nodded. “Yes. His personal collection he keeps with him, and the Crown Jewels, of course, for fear lest they fall into the hands of the barons. The household plate is in a separate wagon traveling with the Marshal, but he treats even that faithful old graybeard with suspicion; couriers are going back and forth between his own train and that of his household at all hours, day and night, taking never-ending inventories – and that with the barons nipping at their heals, storms pushing the sea up the Wash so it’s hard to tell the highway from quicksand, and reports that Alexander has broken his treaty and left Scotland, heading south to London with three or four thousand troops to lift the siege. Meaning their paths are likely to cross as the King pushes to Lincoln.”
ooooThe queen allowed De Rode to vent his feelings without interruption. “What is your opinion of his condition?” she said at last.
ooooDe Rode’s impulse was to take the woman in his arms, as he would have his daughters, or his wife, or sister, and comfort her against the blow he was about to deliver; but experience had taught him that Isabella was not merely a woman, but a queen, and not simply a queen, but a thunderbolt; notoriously volatile at the best of times. Who knew how she might interpret such an action if he were to forget himself so far? He folded his hands behind his back. “Not good, your majesty. Not good at all.”
oooo“Who sent you? Surely not the King.”
oooo“William Marshall, your majesty. He sent me to protect – to ensure Henry’s safety in the event. . .”
oooo“This is the king’s wish, to secure the throne for my son should the King die?”
oooo“Yes, your majesty. That is what the Marshall said.”
ooooThe queen studied her hands. “This is just too ludicrous, to think the King might succumb to the flux, when half the swag-bellied tosspots of England have had their swords drawn against him these last four years!” She seized the canopy of her bed as if it was a lifeline. “Where is he now?”
oooo“He was near Bishop’s Lynn, near the Millfleet when I saw him last. According to the Marshal, the king is determined to make it to Newark castle. He seems convinced the monks at the priory can cure him.”
ooooDeath must be imminent, then, for John to have sought the aid of clergy, a population he had assiduously avoided – except when required by ceremony – for the better part of half a century.
ooooThe horrible pronouncement was pregnant with consequence; were John to die, the children – if they survived – would lose a father and she a husband, but of more immediate import, the nation would lose its king and she, at the ripe old age of twenty eight, would become a dowager queen, relegated to a life of carefully circumscribed luxury – sequestered away in some country estate, her future entirely in the hands of a King’s Council who would have it in their power to determine when, where, who, and if she would marry again.
ooooShe was twenty-eight years old!
oooo“Do you think he may be dead already?”
ooooDe Rode bowed his head. “As you say, the king has recovered from flux in the past.”
ooooThe knight held his tongue.
oooo“We have to get Henry to Gloucestershire!” The tears de Rode had anticipated were not forthcoming. What, in his experience of her, had led him to imagined they would be? The queen, by turns petulant, provocative, vain, and frighteningly capricious – and why not, for no one had ever said her ‘no’? – was not a shrinking violet. She rose like a tongue of fire from the ashes of her private bereavement with but one goal, hasten to the nearest cathedral and, there, have her eldest son crowned king.
ooooHenry the Third.
ooooHe was still a child; malleable, and she, if she could have the church recognize her as regent until he came to his majority, would have ample time to make him the king she needed him to be. Meantime, the power inherent in her position would place her beyond the reach of anyone attempting to orchestrate her life or circumscribe her activities.
ooooThe sound of hoofbeats striking sparks from the stones in the courtyard tore her from consideration of possibilities.
oooo“The barons!” said De Rode, leaping to his feet. “Where are the children!?”
oooo“In their beds, please Lord,” the queen replied. She ran to the door and, flinging it open, held a hasty conference with her ladies-in-waiting who scattered in various directions to fulfill her commands. Isabella returned to her bedside where, from a massive oaken table, she lifted a small casket of jewels and, in a single fluid motion, emptied it into a pillowcase, together with her crown – a delicate circlet of gold – that sat atop a silken pillow. “The barons will not be allowed in. Whether fealty will bar them from beating down the door and slaughtering my household depends on who is their leader.” She rifled through her wardrobe and drew out a dark blue cape which she flung about her shoulders. “If it’s Louie’s treble-faced pathicus Beauchamp, God help us.”
ooooShe tossed the sack of jewels at De Rode. “Guard those with your life, de Rode. You understand? We’ll need them. Whether for ransom or to purchase an army depends on your getting us to Gloucestershire before those brutes overtake us!”
ooooDe Rode, mesmerized by the scene unfolding before his eyes – one that must have been rehearsed many times, for it was flawless – inclined his head, but said nothing. Had the moment not been captive to terror, he would have been embarrassed by the intimacy of watching the queen strap the barbette around her neck and, gathering the cascade of golden hair from her shoulders, fold it so expertly under her crespine that it was all but invisible except at the very back of her neck.
ooooShe had made herself a shadow.
oooo“Close your mouth, de Rode. A slack jaw does not become you.”
oooo“Your majesty,” said de Rode, snapping his mouth shut.
ooooIsabella scanned the room with a careful eye then, without a word, swept into the hall. De Rode, as was expected of him, fell in behind her, but had the presence of mind to shut and lock the door. Should the barons gain access to the castle and find the door to the queen’s bedchamber locked, the process of arguing amongst themselves as to the protocol of breaking it in and the deed itself would buy a precious minute or two.
ooooHe followed her through a dizzying warren of hallways lit only by a mildly curious moon, which peeked in, now and then, at arrow slits and other chinks in the castle’s stony armor.
ooooAs surely as if she were following a string laid for the purpose, the queen made her way down the spiral stairs of a northwest-facing tower to a room at its base where the King’s offspring were huddled, trembling, amongst the skirts of their nurses and other females of the queen’s retinue. All but Henry, the eldest at nine, who stood a manly distance from the women, dimly aware that ancient forces were at work in the chaos of the moment, and that their demands would transform him either into a king, or a corpse.
ooooHe drew his shoulders back. “What are we going to do, mother?”
ooooThe queen took a quick, meaningful survey of her attendants, then dropped to her knees before the boy. “The women and the other children will make their way to Langar. This man . . .”
oooo“I remember de Rode.” He and the knight exchanged a nod of recognition.
oooo“Yes, of course you do. He will take us to Gloucester.” She pulled his tunic tightly around his neck and tied it.
oooo“Why to Gloucester? Why not to father?”
ooooIsabella placed her lips by her son’s ear and whispered. “You must be strong, Henry. The other children must not know, your father . . . is very ill. He may even be dead.”
ooooHenry understood now the immediacy of the peril which he, in particular, was in from the barons who, even now, were converting the sturdy oak of the castle door to kindling.
oooo“What’s out this way, your Majesty?” asked de Rode, pointing at the door toward which everyone was being herded.
oooo“The kitchen gardens,” Isabella said. She tented her children with her cloak and swept them before her, all but the infant Eleanor, who, through all the tumult, sucked contentedly at the breast of her wet nurse. “Then the peasant’s path through the forest and down to the village..”
ooooDe Rode at once saw the sense of this. The castle was built on a wedge of land overlooking the valley, surrounded on two sides by steep cliffs – down one of which they would be descending to the village – and which only a madman would attempt on horseback. The third side led through an ancient motte and bailey to the highway; in times of peace the easiest route to Gloucester.
ooooClearly not an option.
oooo“I’ll go first,” said de Rode, forcing his way through the little crowd toward the door.
ooooThe queen, with a touch on his shoulder, detained him as surely as if he’d been struck by lightning. “No, Isomene will go first.”
ooooThe girl toward whom she nodded at been hovering excitedly at the fringe of de Rode’s awareness. Not much more than ten or eleven, he reckoned, she stepped to the small vacancy into which the queen beckoned her. “Now, my little Judas. You understand what needs to be done?”
ooooIsomene’s curtsey of response was awkward but sincere.
oooo“What do you mean, Judas? Where is she going?”
ooooThe queen watched after the girl as she fled into the shadows on her errand. “Judas was God’s right-hand man, de Rode. Without him there would never have been an arrest, a trial, a crucifixion, a Resurrection. No Christ to redeem us all.”
ooooDe Rode, a man whose spiritual impulses had been drowned long ago, by too much blood, bent his brows at the queen’s speech. “Isomene is Henry’s little Judas. She will open the door to the barons and, if she is as good a liar as she has always proved herself, convince them that we have fled through the cellars where a door gives way through the western wall. There is a footpath along the top of the ridge, paralleling the highway and separated from it my a thick copse. A logical escape for a frightened gaggle of women and children.”
oooo“Thus saving our future king,” said de Rode. His estimation of Isabella, rising from the foundation of her overpowering beauty and domineering will – which he had always taken as selfish and childish – crumbled in an instant. Here was a woman whose mind was every inch the equal of a warrior. Even better, for to hers’ was added the subtlety, duplicity, and craft of which only a woman or a king was capable. Her’s was the reptile blood of true nobility.
oooo“Now, see that the way is clear, de Rode,” she commanded, standing aside to clear his path to the door.
ooooThe Damascus steel of his blade sang a brief, deadly note as he drew his sword from its sheath. He stepped forward, wedging his boot a few inches from the bass of the door in the event someone was on the other side, waiting for their chance. He quietly lifted the bolt and gave Isabella one hasty backward glance. She breathed deeply and nodded, pressing her children against the wall.
ooooThe moon, which had tracked them in fleeting glances on their flight through the castle, regarded them with undiluted intensity as, one-by-one, the silent parade emerged into the kitchen garden. The air was still and, even this time of year, supported a mixed salad of scents; rosemary, thyme; meadowsweet and marjoram; germander, hyssop, and mint, the last leaping to prominence as its vines and leaves were trod upon.
ooooThe searching moon found the blade of de Rode’s sword and struck it a glancing blow that sent shards of life splintering into the night.
oooo“Put that down!” Isabella commanded in a sharp whisper. De Rode had done so before the words died.
oooo“Which way?” he said under his breath.
ooooIsabella pushed a serving girl to the fore. “This is Hermione. She’s from the village. Follow her.”
ooooDe Rode stepped into the thicket of dead grasses bordering the narrow path, and gestured the girl forward. When she had passed, he fell in behind her.
ooooSuddenly a girl’s scream cleaved the night.
oooo“Isomene!” Isabella rasped. She turned just in time to see the shadow of the girl running from the castle toward her as if demons were at her heals. Her screams continued, if anything intensifying as she caught sight of her queen. She burst into the open, with her arm upraised, a fountain of blood made blue-black by the moonlight where her hand had been.
ooooExcepting De Rode, everyone in the little party was transfixed with horror. The knight ran at the girl and, with a single, swift motion, ended her suffering and her screams.
ooooIsabella, her eyes wide with disbelief as they absorbed the sight of Isomene’s head slowly titling from her neck and tumbling to the ground at her feet. For what seemed a long moment, her body remained standing – its arm upraised as if there was something she had meant to say but couldn’t think what it was, then, at last, the knees buckled and the little female edifice settled to earth, gently enfolding the head whose servant it had once been.
ooooIsabella nearly choked with fury. “De Rode! What have you done!”
oooo“What was needful,” said de Rode unapologetically, but his words were punctuated by the striking of iron horseshoes on stone, and the unmistakable tinker’s wagon’s clash and clatter of men in armor rounding the castle from the south.
ooooThe threat from that quarter, however, was mitigated by a more present, if unaccountable danger. In that startled instant, de Rode couldn’t believe his ears; someone had pursued the girl through the castle on horseback! There was no other accounting for the frenzied chorus of cascading metal and thunderous hoofbeats–at once muted by and tripling from the castle’s interior walls–that belched through the door from which the unfortunate Isomene had so recently tumbled into the fate of Judas.
ooooIsabella and De Rode caught one another’s astonished eyes. Only one horseman could be so possessed by bloodlust to make such a mad attempt. “Beauchamp!” they said in unison; the one man at whose hands they would receive no quarter.
oooo“Go!” Isabella screamed, and Hermione, who needed no further coaxing, vanished through the tiny gate leading from the kitchen garden to the footpath that dove perilously through the forest of the ravine toward the river below and its tiny stone bridge into the village.
ooooFlight would have been in vain had it not been for the fact that Beauchamp–or whoever it was–had to dismount and drag, push, or coax his terrorized steed through the opening of the tower door that wouldn’t accommodate both of them at once.
ooooThe little group of exiles, like a menagerie of Lot’s wives, momentarily heedless of the peril to themselves, looked back at the tumult and seemed suddenly transfixed by the sheer impossibility of the scene unfolding before their eyes. “Henry!” De Rode shouted. “Follow Hermione!”
ooooHenry stood his ground, trying to detach his fascinated gaze. “See to the safety of the others, de Rode,” he said, the words sounding girlish in his nine-year old throat. “I’ll follow.”
oooo“A noble gesture,” De Rode replied. “And foolish.” He seized Henry by the shoulder and pushed him down the slope, at which point gravity took over and Henry had no choice but to comply. De Rode swept two of the younger, slower children up in his arms. “Now you,” he ordered Isabella, and, without hesitation, the queen obeyed, followed by the others who plunged behind her in a screaming wave.
ooooOnly De Rode was left to witness the birth of the arabian steed from the castle door, an opening only slightly larger than its startled eyes and, immediately behind it, the unlikely midwife: Prince Louis’ bloodthirsty henchman Guilliam de Beauchamp.
ooooFor an instant, their eyes locked, then Beauchamp swung himself up on the horse. By the time he settled in the saddle and looked up again, de Rode was gone. He dug his heels into the animal’s sides. The horse nearly sprang out of its skin and would have spilled its rider among the herbs had not the knight maintained a death’s grip on its mane. Once all four hooves thudded to the ground in a nervous tattoo, the space between the castle and the garden wall was bridged in an instant, but Beauchamp pulled up short at the opening; too narrow for the horse.
ooooIt seemed to de Rode, in a brief backward glance before hurling himself down the slope, that, for an instant, Beauchamp – atop his wildly pirouetting steed – might attempt to jump the wall which, given the weight of the horse’s own armor and that of its rider, would be fool-hardy in the extreme.
So captive was Beauchamp’s reason to bloodlust, however, that he wheeled the horse around, spurred it to the farthest eastern extent of the garden and charged the wall.
oooo“Impossible!” de Rode told himself.