from Hollywood Round-Up: "ĎHollywood,í says comedian Phil
Silvers, Ďis the place where people spend more than they earn
to please people they donít like.í"
I was sitting alone, sipping my tea, reading a magazine. I was on the terrace. It was August. A wood thrush was warbling somewhere nearby. The dogs were napping under the shade my table umbrella provided. The fountain splashed in its irregular pattern and a heard the sound of a auto engine somewhere nearby. It spluttered twice and then went quiet. Then I heard the footfalls and a change in the water splashes in the fountain and I knew she was here. I didnít turn around, or change my position or do anything else that might let her know I was interested. Until I spoke, of course.
"Hello, Freddy," I said quietly, still not looking at her. "Welcome to Farnham Hall."
"Happy birthday, Max," she said without moving any closer.
"Itís not my birthday."
"So you didnít mean it?"
"Well, you werenít too sincere over that Ďwelcome,í were you?"
"No," I said. "I suppose I wasnít."
I turned in my chair to look at her, the magazine dangling from my clenched fingers. She looked good. Still identifiably Freddy, she was dressed in a fashionable suit, with a hat on, a clutch bag and high-heeled shoes. Even so, the girl I had known and adored was still there under the brim, behind the silk scarf at her neck, above the three-inch stilettos.
"You look tall today," I said.
"Like a little girl on stilts?" she said sweetly. I blushed, remembering how weíd met, that day, so long ago, in Central Park.
"Thatís how I think of you all the time," I answered her.
"Well, please come and kiss me, then." She held out her arms. "Iím really still that girl, you know."
"Itís hard to believe, but okay," I said, springing up, disturbing the dogs, dropping the magazine. I took the four steps needed to reach her, my own arms now ready and available and I took her into my embrace and she closed her circle of arms around me. It felt good to stand there with her, hugging her, being hugged. It had been too long without a touch of home, of my real life. I hadnít realized how much Iíd missed it all.
Iíd been in England for two years. Iíd been living here at Farnham Hall in the Cotswolds for more than half that time. I had spoken to my parents, seen Brianna on occasion, but hadnít maintained any other contacts with my past in all that time. There had been no reason. None at all.
"Can I pour you some tea, Freddy?" I asked her, not wanting to dwell on my own life but rather hoping to get down to hers.
"Tea? On a hot day like this?"
"Hot tea is the best thing for you. Take my word."
"Iíd really rather go straight to a martini if itís all right with you."
"Ah. Well, There I canít help you. The bar doesnít open for another half hour. Rules, you know."
"Not even for me?" She winked as she said it.
"Not even for the Queen," I said.
"Now, Freddy! Behave yourself." I was spluttering. "These ancient walls may well have ears."
"How old is this place, Max?"
"Built in 1574, inhabited by one family until the mid-1800s when Drewís ancestor acquired it through some shady dealing in stocks, I think."
"Incredible." She smiled that lovely broad smile Iíd always liked. "Growing up where we did, it always seemed like anything older than sixty years was ancient and should be replaced."
"Itís true. Things are different here. Slower. Much, much slower."
"So, no drink?" I shook my head. "Well, then, tea it is."
I pulled out the other chair at the table, displacing Alexei, the borzoi. He lumbered off in the direction of the hedgerow and Freddy took his place. I picked up the teacup and saucer, the teapot with the other hand and brought them to shoulder height at precisely the same moment, curving one hand slightly to pour the still warm brown liquid into the cup. Freddy applauded.
"You do that perfectly, Max," she said, and I could hear the genuine delight in her voice.
"Youíre like a Geisha," she added and I felt myself blush. "Oh, stop that. You know you are. You know what you do and who you are and who you do."
"Freddy, stop it. Things are different here."
"You think I donít know that b y now Max? Iíve been in England for nearly17 months. I know how different things are here."
"Has it been that long, really?"
"You must be nearly done with the project."
"So, what happens next for you? Back to New York, the old life?"
"I... I donít know, Max. I havenít made any decisions yet."
"Well, have you anything back there to go home to?"
She was quiet, holding her teacup, taking her time before answering me. I was looking straight at her and she was avoiding my eyes.
"If you mean Mikhael, no. Thatís done. You know that." I shushed her and she smiled, then went on. "Iíve never heard another word from him. And, before you ask, I donít miss him anymore. My motherís dead. So thereís no real hold on me there either."
"What about your father?" We had never really talked about her dad, but the little Iíd learned hadnít been very good.
"I wouldnít see him, Max. Not now."
"Too late for that? Or still too soon?"
"Both, I think. Thereís be no reason for a reconciliation and Iím not sure I could control my emotions if I was thrust into a room with him at this point. My best memories of him are still too painful."
"You know with my family itís so very different."
"Youíre the lucky one, Max. You have the perfect family."
"Oh, absolutely. Dadís a pimp, momís a call girl, grannyís a whore and my sister has been a kept woman since the age of sixteen. An Ideal Family by Oscar Wilde.í
"Youíre funny, Max."
"Am I? Sometimes when I think about us all, I wonder how Iíve managed to have even a semblance of a sense of humor."
"Max, your family are kind, sensitive, gentle people who always think about other folks pleasure and needs. Theyíre around when you need them and they donít criticize you harshly for your decisions."
"Freddy, you have no idea what youíre talking about." I could hear the telephone in the drawing room ringing off the hook. I wondered if I should excuse myself, rush in and answer it when the ringing stopped. "My family willingly trained me for prostitution, encouraged my homosexual side, and literally sold me to Paul Donner when he took an interest in me. Drewís the only decision I ever made for myself and that was just one more step in the pattern established for me as a child."
"You underestimate yourself, Max. You always did"
I could see Hilary, the housekeeper advancing with the phone in her hand. I nodded to her and she moved closer quicker.
"Itís Master Drew, sir, for you," she said, handing me the ornate, gilt-edged phone. I took it, nodded to her and turned to Freddy.
"Excuse me, please, for a moment." She smiled, waggled her fingers in my direction and turned away, the teacup in her hand. "Hello?"
"Not hello, dear. Iíve told you. ĎAre you there?í is the proper greeting." It was Drew, all right.
"Yes, I know, but the reality is I already knew it was you because Hilary told me and I was sure you were there, because you called me."
"Itís form, dear. Form."
"Iíll try to remember. I promise. So, whatís going on?"
"Is she there?" he whispered into my ear through the receiver.
"Yes," I whispered back. He guffawed, as I now knew to call the small spurt of laughter that often issued from his throat.
"You donít have to whisper," he said.
"Neither do you," I responded. "Weíre on the phone and youíre in London."
"Oh, yes, quite right."
"Thanks. Now, whatís up?"
"Well, Maxie, now that the flatís been redone and the restaurant is on better footing, I thought we should all celebrate."
"Okay." I smiled at Freddy who had turned her attention back in my direction, then I shrugged and made a little, odd face.
"Why donít you and that girl powder your pretty faces and come into town for dinner tonight. Weíll inaugurate the new dining room, tickle the new ivories and tackle the new bed. What do you think?"
"Okay," I said again, still smiling at Freddy.
"Well, thatís not the enthusiastic response Iíd hoped for, dear, but it will do for the moment."
"Anything special youíd like?" I asked him.
"Yes, wear the new Dior. I like you in that."
"All right. Iíll order the car and weíll meet at 7:15."
"Sorry, quarter past."
"Better. Much better." He guffawed again. "Ta!" And he was off, the line was dead.
I smiled at Freddy. "Drew wants us for dinner at quarter past seven. At the building."
"Oh, dear. I was hoping not to have to go back there just yet."
"Well, the grand opening is, what, Sunday, so thereís still three more days in which to stay away. You could consider this an aberration."
"Do you want to go in, Max?"
"I was quite happy here with the dogs, actually. I hadnít planned on moving from this spot at all."
"It is beautiful. Bucolic really."
"Yes, it is."
We sat in silence letting the country beauty wash over us, the lightly aromatic air waft through our heads. I leaned back in my chair and let my legs stretch forward as far as they could go. There was a yelp as my heel dug into the side of the Spaniel, Floria. She leapt to her feet and shook herself violently as I pulled back my legs and sat up. She was wagging her tail, but she was clearly annoyed with me for invading the solitude of her nap. Without much more noise or fuss she trotted away, toward the same hedgerow that Alexei had found as a refuge earlier.
"The dogs donít like me today, it seems," I said to Freddy. "I might as well go into town and see what Drewís been cooking up. And if I have to, you have to."
"All right, Massa Max." She stood up and came round the table to where I was standing. She put her arms around me and kissed me gently on the lips. "How long are we going on this way, Max?" she asked.
"Just as long as we must, dear," I said. "Just as long as we must."
It was silly, I thought, that we always played these little scenes out for the servants. Weíd been at this for months and months and I was getting tired of the tiny deceptions. We played at being old friends, which we were. We played at casual interest which was just plain wrong. We feigned a sexual disinterest which hadnít been the case for six months already. We did it for "form" for what Drew considered the proper way of doing things. I was hating it more and more and I thought Freddy was also.
"I could support you, you know, " she said to me, loosening her hold on my neck.
"I canít do that."
"Of course you can. You always have."
"Not with you. Freddy, it wouldnít work with you."
"I am the older woman in this relationship."
"One year. Itís always only been one year."
"Iím a woman, Max. We age faster than you men. Your one year is my seven years. I am significantly older."
"Youíre not. I wonít have it that way."
"Well, you go put on your frock for gentleman in town. We can talk about this later. Over a martini, for Godís sake."
I laughed at her persistence in these things, gave her a quick, light kiss on the cheek and trotted up to the house. At the French doors I stopped and turned.
"Bring the phone in, wonít you? Please?"
She nodded and waved. I went upstairs to make myself attractive.