The Salon of Second Chances
THE SALON OF Second Chances was held on the penultimate day of the twentieth century, from four to seven p.m. The normally somber town hall, with its sallow walls and fluorescent lights, was transformed by the garlands and evergreens left over from the primary school Christmas play, and by the colored lights that Anthony’s mother had strung around the room. Matthew and Benjamin had each carried over their family Christmas tree, one spruce, one pine, and the two stood, brightly decorated sentinels, on either side of the stage. The long buffet table was lined with candles. At one end was an urn with a battalion of mugs. A saucepan of Hal’s mulled wine simmered on a hot plate next to two trays of mince pies donated by the Co-op. Mr. MacLeod had brought fifty sausage rolls. There were cheeses and dips, Victoria sponges and treacle tarts. In the background a David Bowie CD was playing. The committee had asked for volunteers—all ages welcome—to come as the person or animal you would most like to be. Some people came as famous people, some as their younger selves, some as characters in books or films. A few people set up little scenes and waited to be visited but most wandered around, greeting friends and strangers. Everyone, disguised or undisguised, paid ten pounds; five for under-eighteens.
The manager of the Co-op, wearing a suit and a beret, carrying an unlit Gauloises, prowled the crowd as a member of the French Resistance. “I’d have been a wretched maquisard,” he confessed to Zoe. “I can’t kill a spider.” Eileen, one of Matthew’s fellow cashiers, came as a zebra. A girl from Duncan’s class was a mermaid, with silver fish fastened in her hair and a scaly tail trailing behind her. His friend Will came as the polar bear in His Dark Materials, walking upright in a white bear suit, wearing a pair of spectacles. Mr. MacLeod was Capability Brown, the great eighteenth-century garden designer. With the help of his son, he had made a miniature garden in one corner of the hall. The barman at the Green Man came as a famous Irish giant, walking waveringly on the stilts hidden beneath his extra-long trousers. Several small children—Hansel, Gretel, Thumbelina, and Little Red Riding Hood—followed him. In their wake, the barman’s wife, dressed as a wolf, preened her whiskers. Duncan had known instantly who he wanted to be. He wore his only suit and had brought his easel and five bottles, which he set up on a small table. It would be a kind of blasphemy to try to paint them, but a sketch, using pastels, seemed possible. He had brought a book of Morandi’s paintings—one of his Christmas presents—so that people could glimpse their evanescent beauty.
Matthew also wore a suit. Feeling faintly disloyal to Hugh Price, he had come as Inspector Morse, carrying a bottle of Wychwood Hobgoblin and a copy of Ovid’s Amores. He could not help envying Benjamin, who, as d’Artagnan, the fourth musketeer, wore a dashing wide-brimmed hat and high boots.
Hal had come as Christiaan Barnard, the doctor who had achieved the first heart transplant; he wore a white coat with a stethoscope dangling from his neck. In one hand he carried an artificial heart. Zoe had not planned to dress up, but that morning she had asked to borrow the black robes her mother wore in court. Pinned to her chest was a red heart on which she had printed one of her favorite quotes from Spinoza: Desire is the essence of everyone. Like Matthew, she carried a book: a dictionary wrapped in brown paper, labeled Ethics. If he had gone to Paris for the ten days he’d intended, then he was back. If he was back, then he had got the leaflet about the Salon she had left at Holywell Manor. If he had got the leaflet, then ...
Betsy had spent two days shut away in her study, making her costume. “You’ll see,” she said when any of them asked. Both Zoe and Duncan noticed the arrival of a woman wearing a long blond wig. The lower half of her black leotard was covered with brown feathers that tapered into black leggings. Her arms too were covered in feathers; outstretched, they became wings. Only when she stopped beside Duncan’s easel did he and Zoe recognize their mother, the siren.
How perfect, Zoe thought. She saw her father, standing near the buffet, staring at the siren with an expression she could not decipher.
“Excuse me, Mr. Spinoza,” said the giant, “can you tell me what to do about being so tall?”
“Enjoy the view?” she suggested. But he was already moving away on his stilts, calling apologies over his shoulder.
Now her father in his white coat was greeting a man and a woman both wearing ordinary clothes. The man had beautiful golden eyebrows. He could have come as a lion, Zoe thought, and the woman could have come as a lion tamer. She was imagining their costumes, a huge mane for him, a flared skirt for her, when she saw standing beside them, upright and unmistakable, the boy in the field. Her father was handing him the model heart, pointing to an artery. She made her way through the crowd.
“And may I present my daughter, Zoe,” her father said. “Better known as Baruch Spinoza.”
Mrs. Lustig came into focus, not as a lion tamer but as the woman who worked at the post office, selling stamps and giving out pensions. Frank Lustig said, “I’m glad to meet you. We learned about you in school. Which is more important: truth or beauty?”
“They’re not in competition,” she said firmly. “The important thing is to understand.” According to her library book, Spinoza believed passionately in understanding.
Karel, still holding the heart, stepped forward. “You are the third person I must thank for saving me.”
For a moment all she saw was his face and, cupped in one hand, the deep red heart. She fumbled for words, something about the field, the man. Whatever she said, his gaze grew instantly opaque, as if a second, secret eyelid had closed.
“That was the best Christmas present,” his mother said, “knowing he was behind bars.”
Her comment served to bring Karel back. Or most of the way back. Zoe watched his eyes follow a man in a stovepipe hat. I don’t have to talk to him now, she told herself. He lives nearby. But there was something about the Salon, full of people in disguise, and indeed her own black robes, that licensed a certain freedom.
“Come and meet my brother, Duncan,” she suggested. “He’s a famous painter.”
Karel handed the heart back to her father and followed. They passed a stout man dressed as a Jack Russell terrier and a boy wearing round glasses and carrying a goblet. “In the field,” she tried again, “I was sure you’d gone down to the underworld, that you would bring back a message.”
She stole a quick glance at Karel. He was studying the sign above the buffet: Welcome to the Salon of Second Chances. “All the stories I know about the underworld,” he said, “are about people trying to get their wives or their daughters to come back. No one ever asks the wife or daughter if she’d like to stay. Maybe she would? But I never got there. I was lying in a field with rabbits, and flies, and bales of straw. I could see the birds flying over me. I could hear the three of you talking.”
“So you weren’t unconscious.”
“I was in between. I knew where I was, and I went places inside my head where I felt safe: my bedroom, my father’s workroom, my parents’ village. I was walking along the river that runs through the village. On the other bank a family was picnicking— grandparents, babies, children, everyone talking and laughing. If I could cross the river, I would be with them, surrounded by happiness. But the current was very strong. I could see the water rippling as if it had muscles.”
Suddenly he was holding her arm, guiding her to another part of the hall. “There is a woman here I would prefer not to meet.”
Zoe spotted her: fair hair, broad smooth cheeks, the jacket much bolder than she was. “Who is she?”
“My brother’s former fiancée.”
“Let’s go and look at Capability Brown’s garden. Is your brother upset at being former?”
“Very. He blames me.”
They skirted an astronaut, holding her helmet in one gloved hand.
“My boyfriend broke up with me.” Even as she spoke, she scanned the room, hoping Rufus would arrive to contradict her. Karel gave the smallest nod.
“Do you remember,” she went on, “when we were in the field, you said ‘Cowrie’?”
“Your brother Matthew thinks I said ‘Coward.’ Your brother Duncan, ‘Cowslip.’ ”
Coward? Cowslip? She gazed at his pale lips. The three of them had never talked about what Karel had said that day. It had been so clear; there had been no need. She remembered the detective asking if she was sure about “Cowrie.” She had been. Now she wasn’t.
Side by side, she and Karel surveyed Capability Brown’s garden. Mr. MacLeod and his son had brought in a six-by-six frame and filled it with sandy soil covered with artificial grass. At one end rose a small hill with a bench on top, surrounded by birch trees. A silvery stream ran down the hill into a silvery lake. Beyond lay a formal garden and an avenue leading to an eighteenth-century manor house. Two peacocks were strolling down the avenue, followed by an elegantly dressed man and woman, all four heading toward the house.
“How is the boy on the scooter?” Karel said.
“All right, though he’s cross about being on crutches for four months.” “So he isn’t hurt in his mind?” If only they could be sitting on the bench on top of the hill, gazing out across the garden. “No. He thinks he’s partly to blame. He swerved to avoid a pothole.”
“That’s good. He’ll get better more quickly if he isn’t angry. I, too, am partly to blame. When the man opened his car door, I wanted to refuse, but I could see he was a person people often said no to.”
On the other side of the garden, Capability Brown was tending his lawn with a little rake. His son placed a tiny blue bird in one of the oak trees.
“Sometimes,” Karel said, “I think my English is at fault. I say ‘no,’ people hear ‘yes.’ I say ‘sparrow,’ people hear ‘cat.’ ”
“Your English is fine,” she said. But how was it that she and her brothers had each heard him so differently?
Across the garden, Mr. MacLeod looked up from his rake.
“You should dress like that for work. Do you like my garden? It’s modeled on one of my most famous gardens at Harewood in Yorkshire, with a few details stolen from Blenheim.”
“You must have a lovely view from the hill,” said Karel.
“You do, and walking down the avenue. My gardens are meant to make you feel the power of reason. You can see your destination, and you can get there by various routes. People didn’t travel much in those days, so they wanted a garden to have many vistas.”
Before either Karel or Zoe could respond, a woman wearing a white lab coat—Marie Curie? Rosalind Franklin?—had accosted him. Still eyeing the peacocks, Zoe said, “Do you have a girlfriend? Or”—she felt rude for not considering this sooner—“a boyfriend?”
“Not at present. There was a person I thought I liked. I was mistaken.” He paused as if looking down the avenue of that relationship. “Perhaps I want too much.”
“Spinoza,” she offered, “believed that our happiness is bound up with who we love. Did you have to identify the man?”
She saw he had spoken his last word on the subject. Across the room Matthew, in his elegant suit, was making his way toward them. Quickly she said, “There’s something I need to ask you, but I can’t figure out what it is.”
“You can ask me any time. I only have one life. Thanks to you I’m here tonight.”
She started to tell him about Rufus, the things that were still true: how at the café she had felt as if they’d climbed onto a small, high ledge; the story they’d each read, he in America, she in England, about the town where the happiness of many depends on the misery of a few; Meresamun, the mummy at the Ashmolean, with her blue eyes, her jackals ...
Once again Karel put his hand on her arm. “You must not lose a person so dear to you,” he said, “if you can help it.”
SINCE HE SAW KAREL ARRIVE, Matthew had been trying to reach him. As Inspector Morse, he thought, he could ask crucial questions. What was it like seeing your assailant again? Are you glad he’s going to prison? Finally, he extricated himself from a girl dressed as an octopus and made his way to where Karel and Zoe stood beside the garden.
“Good evening,” he said, offering Karel his hand. How had he and Zoe become acquainted?
“To whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?” said Karel.
“Inspector Morse, at your service. Perhaps you’ve seen me on television? Or read my books? You decided not to dress up.”
Karel acknowledged the obvious. “I am grateful to have a second chance at being myself,” he said. “But if I were dressing up,” he went on thoughtfully, “I might come as a sheep, safe in my woolly fleece, surrounded by many other sheep. If anyone tried to steal me, or hurt me, I would hide in the flock and you would catch the thief.”
Matthew made a serious face. “I’d sit at home, sipping scotch and listening to The Marriage of Figaro, and suddenly I’d remember the broken straw, lying in the doorway. It was the flautist from the traveling orchestra who’d tried to steal you. He wanted the straw as a mouthpiece for his flute, and his daughter wanted a pet sheep.”
“We were on our way to visit Duncan,” Zoe said, turning from the garden in a swirl of black.
She led the way past a middle-aged woman dressed as a schoolgirl. Nearby, sipping mulled wine, Matthew spotted an elegant Oscar Wilde in conversation with Mrs. Lacey. She wore a long gray dress with a sign: Reader, I married him.
Duncan was drawing his five bottles while Ant’s parents stood watching. Zoe kissed them. Matthew nodded in what he hoped was a laconic, Morse-like fashion. Mrs. Martin reported that Ant had wanted to come but needed to rest. “He’d love to see you,” she said.
Meanwhile Duncan had stepped away from the easel and was telling Karel that he had spoken to his first mother.
“I did not know you had a first mother,” Karel said.
Duncan started to explain that he was adopted.
I’ll talk to him later, Matthew thought. Now he should change the CD, compliment his mother’s costume, and try his father’s mulled wine. He was heading for the wine when he caught sight of another familiar figure. Hugh Price, wearing his usual jacket, smiling his triangular smile, was talking to the giant. Before Matthew could reach them, the two disappeared in the direction of the stage.
A minute later the detective reappeared, towering over the crowd. He had borrowed the giant’s stilts and was taking small steps, calling out warnings as people scattered before him. He almost collided with the astronaut and for several seconds swayed wildly.
DUNCAN TOO WAS WATCHING THE detective. Once again Zoe was alone with Karel. Soon he would be gone. “You should talk to your brother’s fiancée,” she said. “Maybe if she gives up on you, she’ll go back to your brother.”
He looked over at the wolf, who was gnashing her teeth. “The truth is,” he said, “I do not like my brother. It would be better for Sylvie if she met someone else. Someone kind.”
“You shouldn’t have to feel guilty about either of them.” Her robes made it easier to offer advice.
He leaned forward and kissed her cheek. “You shouldn’t have to be broken up with. We will tell each other what happens.”
As he headed back to the garden, Zoe saw the woman in the red jacket make her way toward him. In another part of the hall, she glimpsed her father, in his white coat, offering something—she hoped it was the model heart—to her mother.
AWKWARDLY, WITH THE GIANT’S HELP, Hugh Price got down from the stilts. “That was great,” he said. “Good evening, Inspector Morse.”
“How did you know?”
“The Ovid. Should I be insulted you didn’t choose to be me?” His lips twitched, signaling the joke.
“Why did you become a detective?” It was, Matthew realized, the question he had wanted to ask all along.
Hugh Price thrust his hands into his pockets. “Are you asking because you’re dazzled by my accomplishments? Or you think my job is impossible?”
Neither, Mathew wanted to say, but before he could speak, a voice said “Matty.”
Eileen, his fellow cashier, in her zebra suit, was standing beside them. He introduced her to the detective. “I haven’t heard of you,” she said. “Do you have a TV series?”
“Not yet. Would you excuse me while I have a word with Matthew?”
As she moved away, he turned back to Matthew. In a low, steady voice, he said, “On October twelfth, 1984, my sister Diana disappeared. We searched and searched. No one saw her after she left school, there were no clues; it was as if the earth had swallowed her. It turned out that it had. The following spring a farmer, ploughing his fields, found her. A week later the man who buried her was arrested. The person I most want to be is my younger self, skipping football practice that day to meet her at the school gates and walk her safely home.”
Before Matthew could answer, he too had stepped away, slipping between those in costume and those in ordinary clothes, moving unobtrusively toward the door.
AT FIRST DUNCAN HAD BEEN standing at his easel, only pretending to paint—there were too many distractions; the lighting was bad—but gradually he became absorbed in the problem of how to model the largest bottle. He was applying short strokes of gray when he became aware of a man watching him. He wore an old-fashioned dark suit and a floppy mauve cravat. One gloved hand held up a mask, the face of a pale, long-faced man with long brown hair.
“Why did you decide to make the neck fade away?”
His questioner, Duncan realized, was a woman. Reaching for a stick of purple, he quoted Mr. Griffin. “I want to abolish the tyranny of subject matter.”
“We’re meant to see not just a bottle?”
“Exactly. And to see it beside the others. That’s important too.”
“I like the way the purple makes the gray look.” The woman tilted her mask. “Or do I mean the other way round?”
“Everything is relative,” Duncan said, again quoting Mr. Griffin. “Who are you?”
“I’m Oscar Wilde, not long after I wrote The Importance of Being Earnest.”
“I saw it on TV last year. You were funny. I’m Giorgio Morandi, an Italian painter.”
“Thank you. I was very famous, first in a good way, then in a bad way.”
“What would be a bad way?”
“Being charged with various crimes, being sent to prison. I probably shouldn’t use the word ‘famous.’ More like infamous, or notorious.”
“I was well known,” said Duncan, “not famous. I lived with my sisters in the town where I grew up, but I wasn’t a hermit. I traveled, and I had artist friends. I began to paint my bottles when I got older.”
“So are you old enough to paint them?” Duncan—he had been about to lay down a streak of gray—paused. “No,” he said, “but I’m not really painting them; I’m imitating Morandi. Here’s a picture by him.”
Oscar Wilde stepped forward to look at the book lying open on the table. “I wish we could see the real painting,” she said.
“Do I know you?”
The mask turned in his direction. “We spent nine months together and spoke on the phone a couple of weeks ago.”
She lowered the mask.
Almost unthinkingly, he began to itemize similarities and differences. Eyebrows and upper lips, the same. Skin, hers was a little darker; eyelashes, hers were thicker. Eyes, he couldn’t tell. Earlobes? Yes, they curved in the same way. Hair? They could have swapped hair, and no one would guess; his was a little longer. Hands? But she still wore her black gloves.
“Esmeray.” To say her name, in her presence, made him feel as if he could see every color on the spectrum. “Can I see your hands?”
She set the mask down beside the Morandi book and took off her gloves. He set his right hand on the small table. She did the same. For a moment he could not bear to look.
“We have the same hands,” she said.
He saw his own brown-skinned, long-fingered hand, and next to it, almost the same size, the same brown skin, the same long fingers, the same curve of nails and half-moons, the same thumb not quite reaching the knuckle of the first finger.
“It seemed such a large thing for us to meet for the first time,” she said. “I thought this might be easier. Or easier for me. I wasn’t even sure I’d say hello. But when I saw you painting, I couldn’t help myself.”
“No, no,” he said, not sure what he meant, but wanting to reassure her. “I sent you the leaflet. I wanted you to come. Would you like to meet my family?”
“Not today. They shouldn’t have to meet me without warning. I’m going to leave now.” She leaned forward and kissed him on each cheek. “Oscar Wilde isn’t my alter ego,” she said. “Not like you and Morandi. I only got back from Ankara yesterday and had to find a costume in a hurry.”
“Who would you have come as, if you’d had more time?”
“Amelia Earhart,” she said, and headed for the door.
ZOE HAD DELIBERATELY NOT WORN a watch, but as she wandered the hall, she kept catching sight of other people’s. It was six thirty on the Co-op manager’s; people were beginning to leave. He wasn’t coming. Not X. It was as clear and simple as that. She would have to learn to behave as if they lived on different planets. She stationed herself by the mulled wine and filled a mug to the brim. She emptied it in a few swift swallows and refilled it. You must not lose a person so dear to you, Karel had said, but what could she do?
Her mother was standing beside her, holding out a brown feather. “These keep coming off. I should have sewn them on, rather than using glue.”
Zoe took the feather and raised her mug again. “This was even better than last year,” her mother said, “like Halloween for grown-ups. I like being a siren for an evening.”
“Did you lure anyone onto the rocks?”
“Not that I know of, except for Hal.”
Looking at her mother’s flowing blond hair, her scarlet lips, her feathery chest, Zoe thought, He hasn’t told her yet. “Do you think,” she said, “there are things a person can do that are unforgivable?”
“You mean noncriminal things? To be honest”—her mother plucked another feather—“I’m not sure I know what forgiveness is. You hold something in your mind without anger. Is that forgiveness?” The feather drifted to the floor. “You thought your missing person might come tonight. I’m sorry.” She leaned forward to hug Zoe.
Suddenly there was a drum roll. Hal, in his white coat, was standing on the stage between the Christmas trees. “Thank you all”—he spread his arms wide—“for coming to the Salon of Second Chances, and making it such a success. The town will benefit from the funds we’ve raised tonight. We hope the New Year, the new century, brings everyone the second chance they want.”
“Or need,” someone shouted.
People started to clap. There were shouts of “Happy New Year.”
He was wrong, Zoe thought. If not X was true, then X couldn’t be true. There was no “maybe,” no “almost.”
Around her people began to separate into two groups: those about to leave, those about to tidy up. She finished her wine and found a tray. She did not trust herself to carry it, but she could fill it with mugs and glasses. In the doorway, out of the corner of her eye, she caught a flurry of movement. Her heart gave one last hopeful leap. But it was only the giant abandoning his stilts and embracing the wolf.
Benjamin took the tray, and she started filling the next one. Someone turned up the music. Her father walked by, carrying a Christmas tree. On all sides the hall was being stripped of gaiety and possibility, returned to its institutional dullness. At home she would go directly to bed and trust the mulled wine to carry her away. Perhaps later she would wake to hear a sound she was now in a position to recognize: her parents making love. For a moment, standing there, a mug in one hand, a glass in the other, the longing that came over her was so fierce that she was ready to retrieve her coat, walk the fourteen miles to Oxford, and bang on the doors of Holywell Manor until the porter opened them and she could run up the narrow staircase to his room. She felt the hall lift a few inches. Firmly she retrieved it. Here was a cup branded with lipstick that might be her mother’s; here a glass with an inch of apple juice. She fetched a rubbish bag and emptied in leftover mince pies, slices of orange. Then she turned back to filling the tray.
“May I help you?”
The cup she was holding slipped through her fingers and bounced, unbroken, on the tray.
He was standing on the other side of the table, his El Greco eyes fixed on her. He looked like no one else in the room, no one else in the universe. He leaned forward to set the cup upright. If he were here only to explain why he couldn’t see her again, she wouldn’t listen. Explanations meant nothing. They were a rippling curtain of words that people hid behind.
He came around the table and bent to read what was written on the heart pinned to her chest: Desire is the essence of everyone. “I should have guessed you were Spinoza,” he said.
Slowly he straightened and held out his empty hands, not so much reaching for her as offering himself. “When I was with Renée, I just wanted to be with you. I told her, and I came back and sat in my room and waited to see if my feelings would change. They didn’t. I thought perhaps if I told you at the Salon of Second Chances, you’d give me a second chance. But I got lost driving here. I was afraid you might have left.”
He was wearing a navy-blue jacket with two sets of buttons, each bearing the imprint of an anchor; a red tartan scarf framed his beard.
“Did you tell Renée about the bear clock?”
“The bear clock? Oh, you mean the one at the carnival. No, I never talked about that with Renée. Or anyone else.”
They were still standing beside the table when something made Zoe turn. Across the almost deserted hall Duncan, still in his suit, was walking toward them, led by Lily. When he dropped the lead, she continued, ignoring the groups of people and the many fragments of fallen food in her path.
Zoe found herself sinking to her knees, her black robe pooling around her. Beside her Rufus too knelt—he seemed to understand the solemnity of the occasion. He held out his hand. A few feet away Lily halted. Eyes bright, ears pricked, she regarded him thoughtfully, taking in his virtues and his faults, his desire for the straight roads of reason and his longing for the winds of passion. Zoe, she knew, believed this man was her Platonic ideal, her other half. They all three stayed quite still. Then Lily seemed to reach a decision.
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The Degree Show
HERE IS WHAT happened eight and a half years later, on a Thursday shortly before the summer solstice. The three Lang children were making their separate ways to the hall in central London where Duncan’s degree show was being held. He was sharing the space with eight other students: six painters and two sculptors. When he took Lily for a walk that morning, he could feel the heat already gathering, along with his own anxiety. While she examined a rowan tree, he studied a rosebush in a nearby garden. Why was that creamy pink so impossible on the canvas? His sense of the day as perilous was not so much about other people’s responses to his six canvases—of course he wanted them to like them—but about his own. In his small studio he had never been able to see the paintings, which he thought of as a single work, side by side. Last night, when they were finally on the wall, he could not bear to look but had turned away to help hang his friend Gio’s lithographs.
If he had glanced up from the rosebush, he might have seen Zoe’s plane circling Heathrow, waiting for permission to land. She had taken an overnight flight from Chicago, where she lived with Rufus. He taught at a university and edited a journal, and she wrote poetry and worked with autistic children, most of whom had no use for language. On the plane she held her unopened book and tried to figure out why Rufus wasn’t sitting beside her. Which of them had mentioned the expense, or the paper he was trying to write? She wasn’t sure, but she added this trip to the list she had begun to keep of things they would once have done together and now, to save time or money, did separately. As the plane passed over Runnymede for the third time, she thought perhaps her days in America were numbered. She had lost her gift for slipping between the teeth of time.
Matthew, already at his office, was working on structuring a loan for a Greek shipping company. The sums were large, and exchange rates kept shifting unpredictably. He phoned a colleague in Berlin and planned a conference call to New York in the afternoon; everyone was wary. Looking up from today’s figures, he saw, across a few hundred yards of empty air, the leaded dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral catching the morning sun. The day after they graduated from LSE, he and Benjamin had climbed up to the Golden Gallery beneath the dome and, looking south across the Thames, sworn a pact; they would make money for ten years and then do something useful: dig wells, fund small farms. If I weren’t a coward, he thought now, I’d have quit two years ago. His girlfriend, Camille, had suggested they buy each other round-the-world tickets for Christmas.
After his walk with Lily, Duncan went to the primary school, where he worked as a teacher’s assistant, painting with the children, reading them stories, settling disputes. Zoe made her way to Matthew’s flat in Clerkenwell. Matthew continued to juggle figures; a German bank agreed to take on ten percent of the loan. The sun rolled up the sky; clouds—stratus, cumulus, cumulonimbus, altostratus—began to appear in the west. Duncan’s fellow students bought a crate of rosé wine, two dozen bottles of sparkling water, wedges of Brie and Gouda, a big bowl of strawberries, and a smaller one of almonds. Duncan spent twenty pounds on perfectly blue cornflowers. Last year he had met Vanessa at the Columbia Street market when they both reached for a bunch of cornflowers. Six weeks ago they had agreed they were too busy to see each other.
When Zoe came into the degree show, her hair still damp from the shower, she sensed at once the presence of his paintings. Since she moved to the States, she had seen his work only occasionally, a sketch here, a small painting there. Now she was filled with trepidation. She wanted so badly for the paintings to be wonderful, for Duncan to have captured what he’d been working toward. First a drink. She poured herself a glass of rosé. Turning from the table, she caught sight of him across the room, standing beside a large leafy sculpture. How handsome he was with his dark hair tied back in a ponytail, his elegant black jacket over his white shirt.
“Zoe, you made it.” His face glowed. He embraced her, careful not to spill her wine. They were still exclaiming—the flight was fine; she was so glad to be here—when Matthew arrived and hugged both of them. He had come straight from the office and was still in that hinterland between businessman and brother.
“So where are your paintings?” he said.
Duncan steeled himself. Wordless, he led the way to the wall where his work hung. He stopped in front of the first painting, Zoe on his left, Matthew on his right. Feeling them on either side, their eyes reaching toward the canvas, he was, at last, able to take in the crimson gashes, the soft greens and golds, the black lines which only he knew were swallows, darting. It was Matthew who spoke first.
“You painted the boy in the field.”
“I wondered,” Duncan said, “if you’d guess.” He did not say—there was no need—that these paintings, titled I to VI, were the culmination and distillation of many, many canvases, many, many attempts.
Zoe, too, had known at once that this was Karel, or not exactly Karel but the essence of Karel, of what had happened that day in the field. She remembered kneeling beside him, calm in the face of his bloody legs, unaware that, through his closed eyelids, he saw the three of them.
“I wanted to make twelve,” Duncan said. “A Stations of the Cross, like Agnes Martin or Barnett Newman, but the last one turned out to be the last.” Gradually he could see the painting, see it whole. It works, he thought. I think it works.
“I love the blue,” Matthew said as they moved on to II.
Evening sunlight, the particular gold of midsummer, poured through the high windows, mingling with the angled lights. When Duncan came to London to study art, Matthew had said, Show me the paintings you like. Together they had gone to galleries and museums. Standing in front of the canvases his brother deemed worthy, Matthew had struggled to learn how to look at abstract art; how to find the door into a painting where nothing was anything else.
They were still standing in front of III when, straight from the train, their parents arrived, Betsy flushed from the heat, worrying that they were late; Hal, his shirtsleeves neatly rolled, taking in the tall room and its occupants. More embraces, exclamations. How splendid that Zoe had come. What would they make of the paintings, Matthew thought, not knowing their true subject? “You have to begin at I,” he said, leading the way.
“Is Esmeray here?” Betsy asked, searching the room.
“She’s on flights to Sardinia this week. Look what she made me for graduation.” Duncan held open his jacket to display the deep red lining.
“How elegant.” Betsy gestured at the first painting. “This is beautiful.”
“But a little menacing.” Hal pointed to a different part of the painting. “Storm clouds are gathering.”
“Let me get you some wine,” Zoe said. Making her way through the crowd, she pondered again the mystery of their parents’ reconciliation. Somehow they had got past her father’s betrayal. Miranda, his younger daughter, often visited them at weekends. And yet, she thought, squeezing past a man in a dashiki, here she was still struggling to forgive Rufus for missing the poetry reading she’d given last autumn.
By the time she returned with two glasses of wine, they were back in front of III. She could see her parents straining to say the right thing while Matthew talked easily about the space of the painting, the brushwork, and Duncan stood, silently confronting the canvas. How cruel it was, this moment when the gap between one’s secret imaginings and what one had made became public: an X-ray of one’s mind.
“I thought you might be working on still lifes,” Hal said. “Remember how you adored Morandi?”
“He’s here,” Duncan said, “though most people won’t know it.” He stepped back, trying to take in all six paintings, but there were too many people moving back and forth. V, he thought, was a little tentative, the gestures tangling awkwardly. He would come back tomorrow, first thing, to look at the paintings alone.
The sunlight dimmed and then, reflecting off the nearby buildings, flared. Ice cubes melted in minutes. People gently fanned themselves, or each other. Betsy and Hal moved on to look at the work of the other students. Duncan rejoined Matthew and Zoe in front of the last painting, VI, the one where chaos was let loose.
Separately and together, they remembered Karel, the boy in the field, who had on the day they found him not gone down to the underworld, who could see the swallows even when he closed his eyes, who had offered his understanding like a flower borne of sweetness, darkness, but which too many people had misunderstood. Two years ago Hugh Price had contacted each of them. While his parents were paying their summer visit to the Czech Republic, Karel, no longer afraid, had taken his own life. He had left a note: No one is to blame.
In the aftermath of the detective’s call, Matthew and Zoe had each tried to phone Duncan. But Duncan was lying on the floor of his studio, with Lily beside him, gazing up at the ceiling, recalling that gray November afternoon when he had met Karel at the Cottage Hospital and walked beside him. He remembered the topaz-colored snail inching along the wall, the faint click of the bicycle wheels, the even fainter words, “Sometimes I wish you hadn’t.”
A few miles away Matthew, his call unanswered, had headed out into the narrow streets around his office, searching the buildings and the faces of passersby for clues: Why? Why? Why? Here was the site of the first hospital in London, here was where Henry VIII had kept his wardrobe, here was a woman, smiling secretly as she crossed the road. If only Karel had waited, he thought. Someone would have made him want to stay.
In Chicago, Zoe too had left the house; she had gone down to walk beside the endless lake. She remembered Karel, at the Salon, describing the river that separated him from the happy family—how he had longed and feared to cross it. I hope you’re in the kingdom of reeds, she thought, with music and food and friends who need nothing from you. She threw a cowrie—her childhood collection still sat on her desk—into the wavy water.
Now, side by side, as the last of the evening light struck the wall, she and her brothers stood before Duncan’s painting, ignoring the heat, their lukewarm drinks, the other people. “His name is there,” Duncan said quietly, pointing to the lower right corner of the canvas, a dark blue gesture slashed with black. “You can’t see it, but I put his name in each painting.”
“And then you painted it over,” said Matthew. “Perfect.”
Their parents returned. From one glance at their children, they seemed to understand that speech was not needed. Betsy stood beside Zoe; Hal beside Matthew. Silently the five of them gave themselves over to Duncan’s painting. Their attention, their devotion, began to draw that of others. Soon a small crowd gathered to gaze at the boy in the field.