With my humility, as I've blogged before, growing apace, I've been spending time on carefully rewriting "Chameleonic". Part of writing a decent narrative is being being honest with oneself; plumbing the depths of consciousness and memory, finding the sore spots in one's past and integrating them into the narrative, having the courage to allow others to read one's mind. Consigning sorrow to paper so that it becomes an indelible record of one's life rather than something secretly locked in the darkness. I know that I shall have to rewrite the work over and over again until I am satisfied, that as I grow so it will too; but the whole point of writing is that it is an occupation that never ceases to satisfy as long as one draws breath. In this way life becomes art. Any opinions - positive or negative - on the first chapter below would be most appreciated.
‘Where is it?’ Byron erupted into Gala’s study, quivering with rage, red tongue lolling between his jaws. Gala averted her gaze from the dreadful sight. A sea of tranquil Virgin Mary blue stretched out before her. It disappeared abruptly as the blue blanket that had been covering her during her afternoon rest was torn away. Byron’s strange yellow eyes bored into hers. Defiantly, Gala put up her chin.
‘Where is what?’
‘My short story, the story I am writing, you red-headed shrew,’ he said rapidly between his teeth, grabbing one coppery ringlet and giving it a ferocious tug. Gala shrieked and rubbed her maligned head.
‘I have no idea, Glyphon.’ She squirmed away from him and made for her cigarette box. ‘Why in God’s name did you ring up the ironmongers’ and pretend to be called ‘Glyphon’, you senile old fool?’
‘If you do not give me back my story I shall strike you,’ said Byron menacingly. Gala lit her cigarette and yawned with supreme indifference. She looked him up and down.
‘So what else is new? You strike me all the time. Coward. Only a coward would strike a defenceless woman. You brute.’
‘Gorgon. Medusa. You unspeakable harpy!’ shouted Byron, striking a tabletop with a clenched fist. Gala did not flinch. She drifted over to the window and gazed across the gardens of “La Belle Epoque” to the sea.
‘I think I might have seen a bundle of papers by the furnace. You might just be able to rescue them if Betty hasn’t burnt them already,’ she said without turning her head. Byron howled inarticulately and stamped, the floorboards trembling beneath his feet. He threw the door open with a tremendous crash and trampled noisily down the stairs. Gala closed the splintered door gently. She loosened the bodice of her capacious smock and extracted several sheets of foolscap. Byron had been using the typewriter with the misaligned ‘a’ again, she noted with a sigh. The paper was pale green. Byron claimed that no other colour felt right — a sentiment he had lifted straight from Proust, thought Gala sourly; Byron was entirely derivative, had never had an original thought in his life. She read through the prose, one cinnamon-red brow raised, her upper lip quivering with disgust.
‘Ha!’ The door flew open once more. Byron, his bundle of foolscap clasped to his chest, marched into the study and snatched the sheets of paper from her fingers. He shook them at her, yellow eyes gleaming. ‘Thought you could hide them, eh? Well, I have had my revenge on you.’ He folded his arms, careless of the mass of foolscap, and nodded triumphantly. Gala raised her brows questioningly.
‘I discovered where you’ve been hiding your chocolate ration. And I ate it. Every bit of it.’
Gala darted up and slapped him. ‘How dare you!’ she shrieked. ‘How dare you!’
‘I thought you might not like that,’ said Byron, smiling complacently. ‘See you at dinner.’ He bowed and strolled out of the room, whistling cheerfully. Gala, face hot with fury, her chest rising and falling tumultuously, stared through the open door of the study opposite hers. Byron, in an excellent humour, was battering away at his typewriter. He perched a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles on the end of his nose and peered at the page in front of him.
‘Demented old fool doesn’t even need spectacles,’ muttered Gala. ‘Eat my chocolate ration, would he? Well I’ll show him.’ Hugging herself with savage glee she extracted Byron’s favourite smoking jacket, tailored for him just before the War, from beneath a cushion and crept down the red-carpeted stairs. She ran on tiptoe across the draughty hallway through the open side door into the garden. A barbecue, on of the few remnants of her antipodean heritage for which she had any fondness, stood squarely in the middle of the lawn. Whistling to herself, Gala lit the barbecue expertly, squinting up at Byron’s window. As the smoke began to billow and curl, the distant rattle of keys ceased abruptly. Smiling serenely, Gala dropped the smoking jacket atop the coals and poked at it with a pair of tongs. There was a howl of fury and Byron’s window-glass rattled. Unperturbed, Gala continued to sauté the crimson velvet until it had caught alight and the twisted gold cord had tarnished and disintegrated. Byron, leonine head topped incongruously with a yellow silk turban, leapt on to the lawn.
‘Why?’ he bellowed.
‘You ate my chocolate ration when you knew it was the only thing I had to look forward to all week,’ hissed Gala, brandishing the tongs at him. Byron eyed them uneasily. Gala was capable of doing him a serious mischief if she felt fiendish enough. Once she had presented him with a rose filled with pepper: he had broken a rib in the resultant sneezing fit. Gala could always out-beastly him — which was why he felt no compunction about hitting her. His eye fell on the smoking remains of the smoking jacket. He would like to beat her until she screamed, he thought grimly, fist clenched.
‘I wouldn’t if I were you,’ Gala advised: ‘the Vicar’s coming.’
‘Good afternoon, Vicar!’ called Byron with false cheer, trampling across the emerald grass. Gala gave the ashes a final poke and followed him.
‘Lovely day,’ said the Vicar mildly, doffing his hat to Gala. He was a tall, spare, bow-backed aesthete who was bullied mercilessly by his cook-general. From the faint stains on his lapel Gala deduced that he had been eating a cold collation of flaccid ham, wilted lettuce and bottled salad cream that that domestic tyrant ordained was quite good enough for a clergyman. She smiled sympathetically. The Vicar caught her look and sighed a little.
‘Would you like to come to dinner?’ asked Byron, who had also noticed the salad cream stains. The Vicar brightened.
‘I would be delighted,’ he said with alacrity; then his face fell. ‘Maundy Thursday, so much to do, and the Little Tadchester choir need me to play the organ for them this evening…’
‘Tomorrow?’ asked Gala doubtfully. The Vicar shook his head, took out his diary and thumbed through it hopelessly. ‘No, I am afraid that I do not have a free evening until three weeks on Tuesday.’
‘We’ll plan a proper dinner party. Four courses. And port.’
‘The best. Byron laid it down before the War. We’ve been saving it for special occasions.’ A gust of wind lifted the yellow silk turban from Byron’s head and bowled it across the garden. Gala shrieked with laughter. Casting her a look of immense dislike, Byron chased after it.
‘Wonderful,’ said the Vicar, writing Dinner at La Belle Epoque in his diary and beaming. He watched Byron sprint after his turban. ‘May I ask, my dear, if you are well?’
Gala looked at him quickly. For a moment her green eyes softened with misery. Then she folded her arms and straightened her back resolutely. ‘We rub along well enough. It’s not happy, precisely, but we’ve been married for over thirty years. I don’t know who I’d be without Byron. I just wish…’ She shrugged. ‘I wish he’d be a bit nicer sometimes. Do you know, after all these years he still only gets out one wineglass, makes one cup of tea?’ She hesitated. ‘I’ve said too much. I’m sorry.’
‘That is what I am here for, my dear.’ The Vicar pressed her hand quickly. ‘I was wondering if you might be interested in doing a little nursing at the convalescent home? You were so good during the War, and…’
‘And it would get me out of the house,’ Gala interjected wryly. ‘I don’t know. When I started nursing way back in 1907 I didn’t ever want to do anything else, and then of course I joined the FANY…’ She smiled. ‘I wanted to do something useful, something that had an actual purpose, where there was no quibbling about who wore the trousers — unlike the London Hospital where the doctors were God and we their unquestioning acolytes.’ She watched Byron who, turban in hand, was staring raptly at the patterns of sunlight falling through leaves. ‘I never saw war as a romantic idyll, I knew it would be bloody hard work, but I was used to death and deprivation. So why not? But now…’ She shook her head. ‘Something about the last War broke me. Twenty years of so-called peace and then the world was plunged into another senseless conflict. All those young men sent off to die, thinking they were doing their duty… Coming back broken, burnt, blinded. We couldn’t mend them, we couldn’t help them. The hardest thing about nursing people you know are never going to get better is that you become quite cynical, you wonder what the point is. I don’t like thinking that way, I don’t like myself when I think that way.’
‘Not all of them are hopeless cases,’ the Vicar pointed out. ‘They are on the road to recovery. It just takes time.’
‘I’ll think about it. I promise.’
‘Bless you, my dear. I must be off…’
‘I’ll say ‘goodbye’ to Byron for you. He’s likely to be there for quite some time.’ She watched the Vicar depart along the cliff path and went into the house, hugging herself against the chill. Tomorrow was Good Friday. Byron, a ferocious atheist, had banned all bibles from the house; but Gala had hidden away a cherished, battered little New Testament that had accompanied her through the mud of Flanders and the Somme and the Marne and which had, on one occasion, even saved her life. Sometimes, turning it over and over in her fingers, she reflected that it was her only consolation in life: its unchanging message of hope, its sense of purpose, its strong, stable characters. She opened it to the Gospel of Mark and read slowly, lips moving soundlessly. The door flew open. She jumped and flushed with annoyance.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’
‘Minding my own business,’ said Gala, marking her place with a finger.
Byron stared incredulously at the little book. ‘I said no bibles, no religion in this house. Give it to me.’
‘No.’ Gala looked at him steadily. ‘No, I won’t. Not this. It’s too—’
‘I said ‘give it to me’!’ Byron wrestled it from her and threw it out of the window. ‘Ha!’ he said triumphantly, grinning, inviting Gala to share the joke. She shook her head.
‘I shan’t forgive you for this,’ she said quietly and went down to rescue the little book. It had fallen into a pool of water, its pages crumpled and torn. She lifted it out carefully, smoothing the pages with trembling fingers. Byron ambled out the house, hand stuffed awkwardly in his pocket. He won’t say sorry, he never apologises: goes on the offensive instead. I wonder what he’ll do this time? thought Gala, unable to look at him.
‘When I think of scarlet women,’ Byron began dreamily, ‘I run through a Rolodex of beauties. Rita Hayworth with her red hair. Scarlett O’Hara. Marilyn Monroe in her skintight dress. But I had to end up with you.’ He grabbed a hank of hair and pulled it viciously. Gala swayed, mute, her eyes fixed on her New Testament. ‘You are vile and worthless,’ Byron told her, releasing her suddenly. He went into the library and slammed the door. ‘Damn her,’ he muttered. ‘Never could see the point of a joke.’ He poured himself a glass of brandy, noticing that the level had sunk significantly: their horrible charlady had been at it again. ‘Bloody woman. I’ll tell Gala to fire her.’ Fire Mrs Thing, he wrote on a sheet of paper in a neat square hand. He had no idea what the woman’s name was, menials never interested him: they were arms attached to mops and dusters, a crouched shape with a scrubbing brush in the middle of a shining sea of linoleum.
‘Women!’ Why, oh why, had he ever got married? He should have known it would be bloody miserable. Look at his own parents’ marriage. Mother bolted with her lover, father shot himself. Gala had deliberately set out to entrap him, Byron thought, draining his glass and slamming it on the desk. Got him when he was at his most vulnerable. Right after the Marne when he had been shot twice through the shoulder in the very first hour, left to fester on a jolting cart with all the other wounded bodies, partially paralysed by an inept surgeon and parcelled back to Blighty. He’d never had a chance! And he’d so been looking forward to a jolly good war, he’d reached that point in life where he felt he had nothing new left to experience.
Byron dashed an angry tear from his eye. Gala had been so dashing, an angel of mercy leaning over him as he lay on the filthy cart and murmuring ‘don’t worry, Captain Stanton: we’ll take good care of you.’ And larch-slim and beautiful in a leaf-green dress with a wide cream ribbon tied around her slender waist on one of her leaves, when she came to take tea with him and he ended up proposing. Just like that! She was brave, too: she delivered supplies and transported the wounded to and from the Front all throughout the War. In a strange way, their roles had been reversed: he languished at home while she faced death every day, never turning a hair as shells screamed overhead and mortars pounded unbearably. He resented her bitterly, even as he admired her. Her leaves were few and fleeting, a night here and there, a meeting of strangers who came together to slake their mutual need, he supposed; they rarely spoke, he had no idea what she was thinking. Initially it entranced him, later it made him fear and distrust her.
After the War she came home to the great flat-faced London house Byron shared with his bachelor uncles. Disaster struck. She repulsed him. Her flaming red hair, a primitive danger signal, terrified him. He could not look directly at her, his gaze slid across her as if she were an acquaintance whose name he could not remember. They had nothing in common save a growing dislike. She nursed the two bachelors, whom Byron referred to facetiously as the Maiden Uncles, through a series of illnesses and avoided him. They moved into separate bedrooms. She’d never really been much good in that department anyway, stiffened up halfway through: he supposed she was frigid. Treated him with contempt after their disastrous honeymoon — well, that was rather his fault, he supposed (Byron wriggled uneasily): communicated with him with a series of notes for five years, never speaking to him unless it was absolutely necessary. Put all her energies into nursing a load of broken crocks throughout the Second War, ignored him entirely. What did she expect? A medal? Coming home all weary with blood on her uniform. Disgusting. How could a chap be expected to put up with it?
Why had she got so upset about a wretched little book anyway? She knew it was all a load of codswallop, he had explained patiently to her why religion was the province of the naïve and that God-botherers should be avoided at all costs (save the Vicar, who knew his cricket and had never tried to convert him). And yet she still persisted, in her bloody-minded antipodean way, in believing that absolute twaddle. Byron scowled. Flinging the book out of the window had been a masterstroke, a well-deserved piece of retribution for the time that she had flung his favourite commode out of her window. Why couldn’t she see the joke? Uptight, stiff-necked, humourless harpy.
Byron fingered his upper lip, wondering if he should grow a moustache. Again. But the last time he had done so, hiding out in his quarters for a full fortnight with his pommel horse and regimental uniform at the ready so once his whiskers came through he could play at being a cavalry officer — Gala had laughed until she choked. Eyes watering, cheeks flushed, she had bent double and wheezed with mirth. He wish she had expired from it. Awful shrew! Byron kicked the leg of his desk viciously and hurt himself. He needed to be cheered up somehow. It was too late to buzz down to London and visit the lady with whom he had a discreet arrangement. He would play Roman Emperors instead.
Bounding up the stairs two at a time, useless arm clasped across his chest, he went to his Dressing Up Cupboard and hunted out the capacious white caftans Gala used to cover her bulges. Where was his laurel wreath? And his lyre? Aha! Somehow he had absentmindedly stowed them between his Country Squire costume (tweeds, shooting stick, monocle and a twelve bore) and his American Grandpa outfit (sagging cardigan, checked shirt, a canister of rabbit tobacco and a pair of steel-framed spectacles). Byron placed the laurel wreath on his head and declaimed to the looking glass, standing so that he could not see his partially paralysed arm. ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen…’ he murmured. Frowned. Put up his chin and stared into his own eyes: he wasn’t quite feeling like an Emperor. More like an Indian prince, a Maharajah. He changed rapidly into silk robes and turban, sat cross-legged on a Turkey carpet. Could he get away with smoking his opium pipe? Would he have to dress up as a Chinee instead? Yes: every detail must be accurate, he had to get into character. He exchanged his turban for a pigtailed wig, put on long robes fantastically embroidered, and nodded in satisfaction. A sticky ball of opium was worked between the fingers of the right hand, plugged into a long-stemmed pipe. He lit it, began to soar, to float, absolutely at peace.
Gala, smelling the sweet scent of opium wreathing beneath Byron’s door, ground her teeth in frustration. He would be useless for the rest of the day, when he did finally emerge from the cloud forests to which the drug transported him he would be dreamy and distracted, lost in a world of inner contemplation. Why did he have to be a Mandarin today? she wondered. In a rare moment of candour Byron had confessed that he has been masquerading as a series of characters since the age of eleven as a way to escape the misery and bullying at school. Gala suspected that others preferred Byron when he was in character rather than out of it, the real Byron, raw and vulnerable: the man who, when he thought no one was watching, looked at the world with the eyes of a child. She went down to the kitchen, disturbing her general factotum Betty who was sitting with her feet in the warm oven reading a lovely novel called “Miss Glamorna’s Passion”.
‘Don’t get up. I only came to dry this out.’ She held up the sodden New Testament.
‘I’ll pop it in the oven,’ said Betty, taking her feet out and replacing them with the book. ‘Should be dry in no time. Do you want a cup of tea? You look ever so tired.’
‘I rather think I need something stronger.’ Gala stared at the fat ginger cat which was lying on its back with its paws in the air, toasting itself on the hearth. ‘Dinner at eight if you can manage it.’
‘Got some lovely mackerel off the boat this morning. And Mr Purvis give me three tins of peaches from under the counter, so I thought a nice trifle?’
‘Splendid. Byron loves his trifle.’ She watched the cat’s ears flicker, its paws twitch as it dreamed.
‘Everything all right?’ asked Betty casually.
‘Oh, you know. Same as ever.’ The two women looked at one another. Betty nodded. Then, the natural hierarchy reasserting itself, Gala left the kitchen and went in search of the gin.
Byron was sleepy and abstracted at supper, toying with his grilled mackerel and picking all the peach out of his trifle and laying it end to end. Gala, who was determined not to let him vex her, read The Old Wives’ Tale which she had propped against the brandy decanter and ignored him.
‘You’re getting very fat,’ he announced suddenly.
Gala sent him a stony glare. ‘I can lose weight,’ she said evenly. ‘You, on the other hand, will never be anything other than a cloth-headed idiot.’ Byron gnashed his teeth. Gala returned to her book, serene in the knowledge that she had got one over on him.
Byron twiddled his thumbs, played with the saltcellar and finally burst out: ‘do you have to read at the table? It’s frightfully antisocial.’
‘Because you’re such wonderful company? Yes, I do.’ She got up and began to clear the plates.
‘Where’s Betty?’ demanded Byron aggressively.
‘Went to her mother’s; she’s not very well…’
Byron followed Gala to the kitchen, grumbling, and pursued her to the sink. ‘Why won’t you talk to me? It’s pretty childish of you, isn’t it?’
‘I am not talking to you because I have nothing to say.’ Gala rinsed the plates. Furious, a maddened bull, Byron trampled back and forth, head swinging from side to side. His choleric gaze fell on the New Testament which Betty had placed on top of the Aga.
‘Ha!’ He seized the book and shook it at her. ‘Ha!’
‘Put it down, Byron. Please.’
Byron stared at her for a long moment. Then turned with disconcerting speed and thrust the book into the fire.
‘No…’ The cry burst from Gala’s lips; ashen, she raised a hand to her mouth, trembling. ‘No…’ Her groping hand found the back of a chair; she lowered herself into it, staring at the book which was being consumed by a sheet of flame.
‘Say something!’ demanded Byron. Gala shook her head; enraged, Byron shook Gala. He finally released her, pressing his face into hers. She arose, drawing her cardigan around her, and stood for a moment staring at the fire.
‘I am so disgusted with you that I do not think I will ever want to look at you again,’ she said softly. Byron dashed after her into the hall, watched as she ascended through golden lamplight, her hair a gleaming mass of russet and sunset. He opened his lips to call out to her, to demand that she come down at once and speak to him, but the hard planes of her face silenced him. He had gone too far this time, finally, after all these years…
Disconsolate, Byron wandered into the drawing room, turned on the radiogramme, turned it off again, fiddled with the Meissen statuary on the chimneypiece, slammed the lid of the tantalus several times, flung himself into an armchair and out of it again, unable to settle. ‘Ga—!’ The house was silent, absolutely still; as still as if he were the only one living there, as if she had already left it. Damnable woman, thought Byron inconsolably, hugging himself with his one good arm. He perched on the edge of the sofa, swinging his foot violently. Why can’t she have more of a sense of humour? I wish I’d never met her. Horrible little redheaded creature, I wish she was dead. He put his face down on his knees and wept.