Saturday, May 23, 2009


for Carole

“ALWAYS THE SAME. It’s a wonder she ever agreed to move to a place that had as its Latin motto ‘Semper eadem.’ And it wasn’t just moving, but relocating her life “…across the pond” as he liked to say. It seemed only fair. He had come to America on an adventure, on blind faith. After 20 years of marriage she knew that she too needed an adventure. If risks were to be taken, it had to be sooner rather than later. That was nearly twelve years ago.

Bette met him in Paris less than six months before they married in New York where she lived. Ian was a skinny, green-eyed monster guitar player from London, younger than she by more than a decade with a ferocious fix on writing that next big hit. Leicester was his hometown. It was the midlands of England he told her when she asked, “How do you spell that?”

She was a painter then, divorced, newly 40 and freshly blonde; ready to affirm her commitment to the Muse. Paris was her Rubicon and soon she would take that step into a two-hundred-year-old cottage in the south of France. The woman she was staying with in Paris loved nothing better than to manage her friend’s life, though her own as a writer was left to flounder under the many altruistic projects she allowed to sidetrack her literary ambitions. She had a great heart and infinite generosity. Bette was her project and she could paint in peace, her friend decided, if she lived as caretaker in her cottage. Her friend would manage brief escapes from Paris but would write in another part of the cottage. The light was painter’s light. “Ce sera amusement!”

Bette had only to sublet her apartment in Manhattan. First, she would head south for a dry run; a few weeks on her own to see if life would suit her in a Romanesque village tucked into the verdant bowl beneath huge limestone cliffs the area was noted for and which her ghost-loving friend called primeval. An ancient abbey carved among the clay-shingled cottages in the village. Fresh bread and produce were available daily. Bookshops and cinemas were ten miles away. There was one restaurant in the sole hotel but it had a bar. That would have to do for amusement. There were other artists in the area. Bette’s French was rusty but her friend assured her it would return in a rush as she would have only Madame Lagarrigue to depend on to help her settle in when the robust woman wasn’t shepherding new arrivals to hotel rooms. Madame spoke no English at all.

Inescapable fate tripped her up in a restaurant the night before she left Paris. Other friends had invited her along for a raucous evening of dinner and drinks at a long table in a very tiny dining room where a trip to the outdoor toilet—or hole—meant one had to negotiate the impossibly narrow kitchen and squeeze between the voluminous buttocks of the husband and wife who ran the place as they bent over steaming cast iron pots. Ian had been visiting those friends, on a break from the London-based band, and was invited along.

They made love back in the room at her friend’s apartment in Belleville. Exhausted and hung over they watched from the terrace as grey dawn crept across Paris until it insinuated the inevitable between them. Negotiating early morning truck deliveries, she weaved with him down a steep hill to the Metro. Ian went back to London and the band. A few hours later she left for the south.

The next thing she knew he was on her doorstep in New York and then, the next, next thing she knew they were downtown at City Hall getting married. Paris and the south of France disappeared like the further reaches of the Brooklyn Bridge shrouded under the downpour on their wedding day.

Painting was a struggle after marriage. Marriage was a struggle after marriage. No matter what they say, some thing—or some one—has to give, even between those who love at first sight. Egos need nourishment and not just from impudent love. Bette went back to her old job in publishing, designing book covers for waggish young novelists who all lived in Brooklyn it seemed. In her own time she’d put down the brush and created stories with no real clue as to her future as a writer. Her colleagues read her stories and encouraged her but Bette shied away from their eagerness. Younger than she by many years, she was sure they were humoring her. She wrote a novel. One young editor, a gay man she’d formed an attachment to, was especially ‘psyched’ as he put it. Let me show this around he urged.

Ian took to New York like a plectrum to guitar strings. Here was the metronome he craved; steady chaos. Manhattan was more compact than London and more stimulating than Leicester. The city’s backbeat was familiar and yet still untried. He found his way more easily on the subway than he did on the underground in London. Connections to music did not come as quickly. He posited their upper eastside location was the reason, too far away from the downtown action. After awhile he came to love the proximity to Central Park as much as she did. He formed a band, which drew a local following.

They were meant for each other. She was sure of that. But she knew there would have to be a little bridge connecting them to keep them from getting lost. They started writing songs together. She forgot about the novel until it landed in the right place at the right time, “World’s oldest first time novelist” and all that. Not exactly true but the only way to sell a fully matured plant in a field of younger, more colorful wildflowers.

But she resisted the call of celebrity and though she managed a few book tours when Ian could join her she panicked at the mere suggestion that she appear on women’s talk shows. Everything that came after that novel, every short story, and the second novel weren’t nearly as successful because financial freedom and creative freedom had brokered no acceptable compromise. Sensitively described inner lives drawn in the first book became pretty skins in the rush to follow up that initial success. Her agent panicked and begged her for any old thing. Bette dug out a children’s book she had written and illustrated when she was painting. Surprisingly, it sold and sold well despite Bette’s resistance to reading aloud to jittery children circled around her in dusty libraries. It was the parents who ‘got’ the book anyway.

Sales from her first novel were fine as they were—there had been talk about film rights—and it brought more interest to their songwriting. Her children’s book was extra padding. The income from that book and her first novel—along with a few of their songs, which had made it to movie sound tracks—was more than sufficient. She hated being pestered by anyone, especially by an agent. So, when Ian’s mum died a few years after his father she fostered the idea that they move back to his hometown. It was landlocked and she would miss island living but they were a team. Really. And you went where your team went.

BETTE LIFTED THE PEN from her journal when she heard the ruckus of returning musos. “He’s home, right?” Their cat mewled and looked to her as if for permission before slipping downstairs. The only stipulation to living abroad was that their old cat in Manhattan served out his time there. Cat free but not for long, they arrived in Leicester and as soon as they were installed on Montague Road they were adopted by the grey kitten who’d entered through the cat flap they had inherited in the door to the garden.

The house was smaller than they needed it to be when they bought it. It was on a street lined with terraced Victorians, all nearly identical. The idea of settling into Ian’s family home in a village in Leicestershire after the house was left to him was quickly vetoed by Bette and they sold it. They could have afforded something bigger along Howard Road but they had a fine garden here and Ian was able to secure a vacant plot at the bottom, extending their haven. She gazed through the large window—curtain-free and augmented only with ivy—to the bottom of the garden where they had built a state-of-the-art recording studio. It was meant to be her writing shed but she was happy enough in the room at the top of the stairs, preferred it actually, especially when the band was over. They afforded extensive renovations and she’d had a conservatory added to the kitchen and there was room for friends from abroad only she could never quite take on that ‘abroad’ had been home.’

A clamorous thudding below signaled guitar cases. They were in for a night. Ian and his merry band of reprobates, as they referred to themselves, had been playing at the Saturday afternoon session at The Blessed Burro. Usually she was in attendance—they were her songs, too—catching up with the wives, lovers, and partners of the rest of the band. But lately she’d preferred the bit of gardening that she did on her own to the noise of the pub crowd on a Saturday afternoon unless it was raining. Then she curled up with a book or her journal; couldn’t remember the last time she’d completed a short story though many starts were made. Unable to sleep she watched old American films, especially the ones about New York, like Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Late last night Ian arrived home in the middle of Butterfield 8. “I’d have to call my story Astoria 4,” she joked, referring to her childhood neighborhood in New York. “Do you miss New York?” he asked and then answered for her, “’Course you do.”

Did she miss New York? The DVDs she watched recalled the massive flower beds atop the medians on Park Avenue, how the arrival of spring was marked by thousands of tulips and crisply uniformed doormen in her neighborhood who appeared like blue jays under the building canopies when the weather lightened and greeted passersby with cheerful familiarities. She watched Rent because it was filmed on the lower east side but it was an unsatisfying journey. Films like Desperately Seeking Susan were better but she connected more to Hester Street, though it was way before her time.

Never mind. Ian was happy as a clam. He played more gigs here than he’d ever done in New York with none of the pressure. He was even a bit of a star in his hometown. They liked their married life and what reassurances they had with each other.

They left New York in ’97. Bill Clinton was president. The so-called Oklahoma Bomber, Timothy McVeigh was convicted. Bette remembered feeling unsettled in ‘93 when a truck bomb exploded in the garage of one of the World Trade Center towers. The year they left New York they went with the hundreds of thousands of other ticket holders to see the remake of the movie Titanic and left the country with that same sinking feeling. The other shoe dropped for her as they watched, surrounded by friends in Leicester, the news of the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11. She’d endured the vitriol that followed the sudden “We are all New Yorkers” empathy that flooded them until the rest of the world was drowned in Bush’s retaliatory rhetoric, murderously escalated and acted upon. They drove down to London to visit friends and watched America install an African American family in the White House. When they left New York China was exterminating chickens due to an outbreak of a deadly influenza. Today it was Egypt ridding the world of the porcine carriers of swine flu.

“HELLO LOVE.” Ian greeted her as she turned from the stairs into the front room. Bette pursed her mouth to be kissed. What a nice surprise it had been to discover his eyes were not sci-fi green but that they were blue, like hers. Contacts. And once the henna faded his ginger hair seemed finer, less fraught than the strangled dreads some stylist forced on him for the London band’s promo shots.

“Kettle, yeah?” Bette loved this return to an English turn of phrase he embraced so soon after they arrived and never lost again. The mad trips abroad from New York were particularly necessary, in her mind, for that idiomatical top up when his accent developed rounded corners. Stanley, Pete, and Neil stumbled through the door. Simon was already lighting a joint. Amazing, at his age.

“You get the tea,” she said, and then smiling at Stanley asked: “Do I need to get in some more wine?” “No worries, love,” he replied. “Carolyn will be by later with the stuff.” Simon grinned broadly and asked if it was all right for “uncle” to be invited in. “Indulging in a bit of herb now that the missus is away?” Bette quipped. “How is Maggie? I miss her.”

“’Ere, love. Can you get the car? She’s still at The Burro, in the car park.” Ian grinned sheepishly, shaking the car keys at her while the others marched their instruments through to the shed in the back garden. “Had a bit too much,” Ian winced. Bette pulled a face and then rolled her eyes. It was her signal of acquiescence. “Would ya? Could ya? ‘Course I will,” she laughed.

WEATHER WAS PSYCHOTIC in England. Winters had grown bitter, harsher than anyone ever remembered. Summer brought unusually hot days, and people sweltered in the absence of air conditioning. Temperatures on a spring day could run the gamut and clouds were never far from the horizon. That day was predicted to be warm, but Bette slipped into a sweater, flipping the mouse brown braid from her back. Gray hairs appeared still only sporadically. Even after a dozen English years she did not call a sweater a jumper. Some phrases had made their way into her vernacular but she slid more often into an expressive New York familiarity. Never really here nor there, her accent leapt there more often than not. She started in the direction of Queens Road, basking in the late afternoon sunshine that had sharply sent the morning clouds packing. It was still chilly though and she walked briskly.

A walk would clear her muzzy head. For a while now she had been feeling bereft, but of what she had no idea. Bette had not yet told Ian of the panic attacks because she wasn’t sure that’s what they were. Aging had its downside to be sure and what were once delicious terrors for a young woman were now fears that had less time to justify themselves as new adventures. She demurred when the joint was passed around out back in their garden. “My teeth,” she offered and nobody challenged that excuse.

She turned on to Welford Road. Thank the goddesses for the women: Amy, Maggie, Carolyn, and Imogene. All four were younger than she, not by much except for Carolyn. Bette began to sweat, anxious. She shed the sweater and tied it around her waist. She hardly saw Simon’s wife Maggie anymore. Retired, she visited her children and their families who were scattered all over the globe, the furthest being in Japan, leaving Simon to his music and his pot. There were long hikes with Imogene who adored the countryside. Clutching hand drawn maps on scraps of paper she led Bette on quests for sloe berries in late fall and nesting ospreys in spring. Even in her late 60’s Imogene looked the part of the romantic Gothic heroine, having stepped from the pages of a bodice-ripping novel. Cemeteries were just acres of storytelling and her eccentric tales of family history were always entertaining. Imogene lived up the road from them, a comforting rationale for Bette when they bought their house. Amy lived in Brighton now. People went away at Christmas—a holiday Bette never celebrated and felt some guilt over avoiding until Ian’s parents were dead and it was too late for remorse. They inherited Ian’s family’s tree ornaments and then went away to Brighton at the holiday.

Carolyn was her closest friend in Leicester, the youngest of her friends and nearer to Ian’s age. Retirement was looming for Carolyn. She’d risen in the ranks of her profession quite quickly since Bette’s arrival in Leicester. Then Carolyn was something called a Locality General Manager for the NHS. She had a sharp intellect and impressive reserves of energy that sent her off into the community of general practitioners, supporting their presence so that patients could get out from under the collective clinical thumbs of the hospital monopoly that mired them in Beckettian time waiting for appointments. Their daughter—hers and Stanley’s—had long since been on her own living the muso life up in Manchester. Carolyn had traversed a wide enough political minefield to develop a hardened skill and was mulling a run for city council after retirement.

That energy and sharp intellect proved a foil for Bette who was often antagonized into intellectual discourse with her. Or so she felt. After awhile she became impervious to the implications and soon saw it for the honesty it was on Carolyn’s part. It became less the feeling of being kept in line and more the challenge to keep up. She was glad Carolyn would be by later. She might get a chance to tell her friend about the panic attacks, the haze that descended without warning when she’d find herself gazing into the fridge or a cupboard unable to recall what she was looking for.

BETTE STARED from the bottom of Montague Road up at the long row of panels until they became doors but they all looked the same, like a colorful deck of cards lining the road. She’d parked the Volvo but felt like she had forgotten something. Searching her pockets she was reassured by the car keys. She drew her hand across her brow and felt the sheen of perspiration that had bloomed there. Quickly she ran through numbers in her head: phone number, bankcard. Her address, what was her address? She felt the slow release of panic being rung from her heart. This was silly. She was on her street. Imogene lived on the street. But she was away, somewhere in the Orkneys bird watching. Bette remembered that. She had not remembered to take the cell phone, a habit she never cottoned to. One button would have had Ian on the line. But what could she tell him? That she was at the bottom of the road and could not remember which was her house? She could have been asking if they needed anything bringing in—oh, and by the way, what’s our address?

The solution would be to walk, she reckoned. That’s how things got sorted between them. It was a lovely day still, the air bracing under a late afternoon sun. Bette slipped into her sweater, buttoning to the neck. She’d just let her inner tide lap at her consciousness until it tossed up her address. Ian and the guys would be in the shed and by the time he missed her she would have remembered and returned home.

Back on Queens Road she was relieved to see everything in its place. She had not suddenly been transported to a twilight zone. There was the Jones Café. Ugh, and the fast food shop with the lurid yellow and green front that seemed to have followed them from America. Bette headed for Victoria Park, passing the Cuban American bar where she had often joined her friends for a girls’ night out. When she’d first arrived in Leicester to live she was shot down practically before she could even suggest drinks at The Clarendon. That dump? So, she bowed to the majority rule. Ian often kidded her that the reason she settled so quickly on their house had something to do with the close proximity to The Clary, as they called the local pub. A hangover she recalled even twelve years later—that she remembers—put her off mojitos forever and she was content to stick with red wine forever after.

The park was still fairly crowded with weekenders making the most of the break in the weather. If she missed anything about New York it was Central Park. If she missed anything…of course she did. But apart from the obvious like the proximity to Central Park and the short trip to the ocean she wasn’t exactly sure what it was. But it was definitely something. Bette crossed the park heading for New Walk. This was nice, this walking. She didn’t feel lost. Everything was familiar. Traffic-free New Walk was her usual route into the city centre. She’d just keep walking for a bit.

Ahead was the art museum and then it hit her. The painting. She was missing the painting. They had brought some of her old canvases with them but the remainder stayed behind in a storage unit they paid for yearly. That was her decision. Without warning an emotional cap unscrewed releasing vaporous memory. Her eyes brimmed with tears. What had she done? Leaving her city, her home. She swatted weakly at the confusion. What was her address? Now she could not even remember the street…road…street—no, dammit—road! She caught the eye of a young couple. Their look of concern frightened her even more. She pulled the hem of her sweater to her eyes, smiling wanly. “Allergies, eh? What are you gonna do?”

Bette walked quickly. She felt old. For the first time she since she got here she felt old. Oh she had no illusions that she was aging. The people she loved were too. Ian looked more like his father every day. She came to the open plaza at the new theatre, called The Curve. The massive belly of glass—architecturally striking—had been insinuated into lanes more accommodating to smaller Victorian structures. Somehow it worked. Bette looked up at the building. They had been to many fine theatrical productions here. Not so much lately. A city could reinvent itself, sometimes without thinking, and appear more youthful. Humans couldn’t do that short of cosmetic surgery and that never worked.

LONDON ROAD. The music shop was just ahead! She would ask Liam to get her a cab; tell him she misjudged her stamina for such a long walk and now she needed a ride home. Bette brightened. Of course, this was perfect. Liam knew Ian since he was a pup and had been to their house many times. A swift but fleeting return of anxiety: she is afraid that she’ll look too relieved and he’ll know. They will all know. But no, when he called a cab for her he would give the dispatch operator her address. She nearly wept again, this time from relief and stood for a few moments beside a bicycle parked in front of the shop.

Liam had long since retired the running of the business to one of his sons but Bette knew he couldn’t let go entirely and was seen in the shop on most days. The other son, Jess, was slow. He’d been in a motorcycle accident in his youth, and now, a grown man in his forties; he had the emotional and mental capacity of a careful child. Ian had somehow gotten roped into driving Jess to his art classes out by Hallaton and Bette gently reminded him how much Liam had done for Ian and if he was going out that way to pick up Pete every week what was the difference? Jess even came to the house, leaving his bicycle in the passageway. “He doesn’t say anything.” “He’s slower than you,” Bette reminded him. “Be kind.” Ian carped but she knew he would not let Liam down.

At that moment Jess strode from the shop, backpack slung over his broad shoulders. His hands were large and he was careful in the way that made others feel clumsy. He had on a faded brown t-shirt from a well-know music shop on Bleecker Street in Manhattan which his father had brought from a business trip years before. He wore wide-wale corduroy trousers all year, even in the hottest months. Jess delivered quiet, under-the-breath commentary that unnerved some people but it made Bette laugh because it was very sharp observation if you listened closely.

He came closer to her, towering over her. His hair was unkempt but smelled clean. He smelled of turpentine and oil paint. Splotches of color, like tattoos, flowered across his knuckles. Bette smiled at him. “Want a ride?” he said. He pulled the bicycle away from the building. Bette stuttered, “No, I’m just….” Jess straddled the bicycle. “Hop on.” She protested. “At my age, don’t be silly.” He nodded to the bar where she could sit “side-saddle.” “Hop on,” he repeated. “Do you know where I live?” she asked cautiously. He looked at her as if she was daft. “Of course,” he replied and rolled his eyes crazily, as if for effect.

SHE FELT LIKE A GIRL gripping the handlebars between his much larger hands. He revealed that truth was he didn’t much like her husband. Well, he does but he knows he’s an inconvenience for a busy man. Oh, she laughed, he’s not so busy. Musicians are never busy. When they reached Victoria Park Jess asked her why she didn’t paint anymore. How did he know that? That painting—that was her father, right? He loved that painting. Bette, shyly pleased at his praise, promised to show him the other portrait she’d done; the one of Ian’s father. It was hanging in the recording studio.

“We could maybe paint together some time, yeah? In your garden, if it’s all right….” His voice trailed off and they were in front of her house. Her house! Carolyn was standing outside in the dwindling light, her blazing fringe of flame-red hair capping an anxious expression. “Hiya Jess,” she cried before an uncharacteristic peck on Bette’s cheek, squeezing her arm. “Everything all right?”

Ian appeared from behind the partially opened front door and waved to Jess. “Rescued the missus, eh?”

“Yes,” Bette said, sliding from the bicycle. “He rescued me.”

THE ART STUDENT is a short story by Linda Danz.

STORIES ON THE AMERICAN FRIEND Writers Guild of America, East #R28299

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business organizations, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. The use of names of actual persons, places, and events is incidental to the plot, and is not intended to change the entirely fictional character of the work. ©2009

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