The Inn at Loch Bragar
Headed notepaper. Nicely done, and the typeface, Baskerville in blue. He liked that, the little touches of good taste.
He removed the top of his fountain pen, and paused with the nib held over the paper.
This was going to be the most difficult letter he’d ever written.
I put pen to paper, unaware of how long it will take to find my body.
After every grand house I visited, bar two, I wrote a letter afterwards, thanking my hosts for their hospitality. The Girls appreciated it: Babe, Slim, Gloria, C.Z.
Although I’m paying for my accommodation here, I feel I ought to supply some notification of intent: and apologies in advance for the trouble I’m bound to cause.
‘Mea Culpa’. But the real blame belongs to the bastards, the contemptible low-life little shits, the ones I wasn’t going to mention.
I wish I could live to read my obituaries.
WORLD-FAMOUS AUTHORITY ON ... whichever school of Renaissance art they choose to think I most excelled at. In truth there were so many.
They’ll use that photograph of me on Peggy Guggenheim’s terrace, with my new beard trimmed to a point and Venice a riot of life behind me, apparently two gondolas held in my two raised hands as I engage with the camera as Dali taught me to. Or at Zeffirelli’s, in my kaftan and fez, smoking a cigar and with the shameless look of an old roue on my face.
There’ll be something about my obscure origins, before they parade my glories. He worked at this and that gallery before he went freelance, consulted regularly by the Metropolitan, Uffizi, Louvre, National Gallery. My books. My performance on ‘Apostrophes’, when a quarter of France went out and bought my latest title the next day. And then, a paragraph or two about the controversies in the 80s. The Nazi plunder, and questions about how I went about establishing their provenance. Something else about the private patrons of vast fortune who approached me, wishing to have some work of art in their fabulous collections authenticated. And nothing, I hope, about the c**ts who decided, come the new century, let’s discredit some of the giants of the old.
My philosophy? Oh, very simple. I always had to be better informed and more cunning than those around me. Sound supremely confident, and the world will trust you, believe in you.
I became my own greatest creation.
Will the obituaries mention - I doubt it, very much - that I was a perfect house-guest, ready to sing for my supper. For several decades I travelled with four trunks, and another five or six bags. (Nothing compared to Marlene, RIP. Or - God help us - the Rex Harrisons. They had fifty, sixty, seventy.) I always had room for my dress kilt. The Campbell tartan, because I long ago guessed that I wasn’t who my mother said. On her death-bed, although I was six thousand miles away, she started mumbling about the castle where she’d once worked as a girl, in Perthshire, near a town called Carnbeg, and her sorrow that her son should never know he was in fact ... At which point, with an actress’s timing, the breath left her body.
My instinct for the best art must have come from somewhere: not from her husband, who ran a newsagent’s shop in that Argyllshire lochside town. In her youth she accompanied all the shooting parties, and even though she was a maid for the ladies, her looks must have been captivating to the menfolk. Look at my fingers, see, they’re long and slender, finely tapering, van Dyck hands. They weren’t made for grubbing in some wee newsagent’s; yes, my mother had deft fingers for her seamstress’s work later, but I’ve never had any aptitude - let it be written on my gravestone - for bowing my head, except to deceive.
The true grandees don’t insist on it, only the nouveaux riches. Anyway, it’s they who want something from me. They seek my word on the provenance of their treasures, my yea or nay. Or sometimes I defer, and resort to that useful term in Scots law, Not Proven, which is considerably less than an outright dismissal.
So now the hacks, those cretins, they’re sniffing blood and baying for me - for me!! They allege ... What exactly? That I said ‘yea’ too often when I should have said ‘nay’. And ‘Not Proven’ when I feared that I wouldn’t land my hefty fee otherwise. They say I was party to the sale of this item or that, in New York or London or Tokyo, and that I duly received my commission (40% at least), sometimes by very devious financial routes.
My philosophy? Oh, very simple. If the owners of those paintings or sculptures were too stupid to tell the difference between genuine and fake, then where was the harm?
My detractors, my slanderers and libellers, they couldn’t care less about the works which I rescued for the world to enjoy. They don’t say a word about the twenty-odd books I wrote. (Who has ever bettered my ‘Florentine Mannerists’?) They conveniently forget how much hard graft (as well as natural talent) it takes to be a world-famous fucking AUTHORITY.
They say they have proof.
(1) They’ve found documents, referring to off-shore companies I’ve never heard of. I use Swiss banks, and you pay them interest to guarantee their confidentiality. I see no reason to distrust that arrangement.
(2) They say I knew that a certain Bernini or Raphael or Titian was not in fact as attributed. They first said it twenty years ago. Now some smartarse has been going through my books paragraph by paragraph, line by line; he’s found my lecture notes, buried in the archives at Cornell and Harvard; he’s spent five years of his squalid little life trawling auction house records. He’s run everything through computers, and, yes, he’s set to do a big piece, a major expose, blah-blah. Some hotshot agent has come aboard, and Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker are fighting to see who’ll get it.
Fuck the lot of them.
That was the age of greed that was. Now, in the terrifying new century, we’re so moral.
They can burn in hell, burn to ash, before I’ll confess anything.
(Note: These low Highland clouds, suddenly parting. = Clouds in Raphael. Sistine Madonna (Dresden?). Incarnation, Word becomes flesh ---- Transfiguration (Vatican), Christ pierced by the light of His divinity.)
A citizen of the world. Here, there and everywhere. British when it suited me. Or American. I woke up in Rome, or Paris, or Madrid, and could never remember where the goddam pisspot was. I even started to look a little Russki once the rouble took over; someone would recognise me at the Negresco - ‘Sink some vodka with us! Belugia caviare, my friend?’ - and it was like Nice a century ago, without the style admittedly, but with the wherewithal. And anyway, I could always go pray for my sins at their lovely cathedral. Those saints on the icons, big faces and navvies’ hands, they could’ve knocked you up a nice little dacha NO trouble. (I once met Matisse, at the Regina at the top of Cimiez. Oh, wouldn’t you like to know what he said to me? ‘The paintings I hid from view, no one will see them, but I shall tell you where they are. Come a little closer …’)
I’ve always had a fear of water. I have a phobia about bridges maybe. In cities, it bothers me a little less, where traffic passes, and the pedestrians don’t look threatening. Those metal rat-runs attached alongside or beneath railway bridges I dislike, I panic; the echoes of my feet are lost beneath the rumble of trains, and everyone is a stranger, an illegal alien without a name who looks as if he’d whip out a flick-knife and, just like that, slit your throat.
There is a bridge here I crossed yesterday, straddling an inlet of the loch. It’s a lonely spot, not a soul in sight, and the walkway is high over still, dark, deep water. A breeze continually blows, and from either direction you have to walk against it.
But I needed to know where to make my jump.
That’s all, folks.
‘The disgraced world-authority’. The books won’t get read: why should we believe anything he said? The gilt letters of my name will be scraped from honours boards. Maybe I’ll be airbrushed out of photographs: those degree ceremonies where I was capped and received yet another doctorate. (I used to ration myself to how many I accepted. I took seven, I could have had fifty, but I didn’t want to debase the currency.)
The game’s up now. Those students who’re writing theses about me will switch topics. In the history of art-historians I shall become a comma, a footnote. I’ll be lost in a list of guests at famous parties, and no one will know I held the floor - that Horst and Beaton photographed me - and Visconti gifted me a cottage on Ischia - and Onassis asked me what he should buy for his walls. They’ll forget I was the one destined to fit Berenson’s shoes (or rather, harem slippers, - danke schon, Karl Lagerfeld).
I might have dreamed it all. The dream will pass with the dreamer, and alas, that will be that.
What is there to live for?
Schubert’s Eighth is playing on the radio, the Unfinished, and it never sounded so sorrowful, so dark.
A Tintoretto indeed. (And who was it wrote - by common consent - the definitive, most profound account of the making and meaning of ‘The Finding of the Body of St Mark’, Brera, 1562’?)
Yes. I came here to kill myself.
I came here because it’s near where I was born, one May. My mother left her job to return to Carnbeg, because the place was special to her in some way. In those days the August shooting parties stayed at all the big houses roundabout. The newsagent, good socialist that he was, had no truck with any of that, but my mother used to snip gossip columns from the newspapers with her dressmaking scissors and hide them away, secrete them somewhere, as securely as any Zurich bank could have done.
Snick, snick, snick!
I was a collector myself. But I preferred my acquisitions LIVE.
Garbo. Judy. Bette. The two Hepburns. I was there in Marlene’s address book - elastic bands held it together - my name writ in indelible ink, not pencil; she would call me on her white phone from Paris, once or twice a week. Wallis cooked me her Southern fried chicken at the royal mill house, several times, but no, she wouldn’t give me her recipe; I called her ‘Your Royal Highness’, but she still wouldn’t tell me. Diana stopped off at my apartment, on the Avenue Montaigne, only hours before the Mercedes came to collect her at the Ritz.
They’re waiting for me, in the haunted Bois de Boulogne. Jackie too, and Callas. My Ladies of the Bois. We’ll drive around, all night long. We’ll call on Proust, 102 Boulevard Haussmann: he’ll be just rising. We’ll go see Cocteau at Milly-la-Foret. ‘Je reste avec vous.’ It’ll be fun. It will.
I wasn’t expecting to see the glory of autumn on the trees - the blaze all along the shoreline - and its perfect double in the loch, so that the water seems to be on fire.
All this beauty still in the world, it takes my breath away.
As does the beauty of the boy who sweeps the leaves in the garden. He’s seventeen, he told me so when we got talking. Close to, he has perfect skin, even though he works out of doors; not a worry line, not even the hint of a furrow forming. He wants to get into gardening. Not horticulture but garden design. He told me in all innocence, and of course I fell into his thrall, enraptured.
He has attractive hands, even paler by contrast with the leaves (gold, russet), fingers which may not be unusually fine or elegant but which suggest sensitivity.
I wonder if he needs to spend quite so long sweeping that one stretch of lawn. He looks up at the sky every so often, which allows his eyes to pass the window where I’m sitting.
We may have reached the fall, but Iain (sic) is filled with the sap of spring. All the vernal delights ooze from him, and what does it matter if he hasn’t heard of Uccello or Piero della Francesca, he will.
I’ll tell him, he should postpone doing his gardening course. See the world first. ‘I’ll get you into a college, when you’re ready. The best.’ They always get their pay-off like that, once the day comes when they look at you in a different way, when the respect for you has started to fade from their eyes, when they’ve grown a little bored and they realise they can walk into a room without you and make other men’s heads turn.
But until then there may be four or five years. Meanwhile, I love you, Iain (with 2 i’s).
Suicide letters, I realise, are not my forte. It’s easier to write thank you letters to life, I think.
Sudden sun throws my reflection on to the window glass.
Already my silver beard has gone. I’ve dyed my hair, even though I resisted for thirty years. But needs must. Few would recognise me now.
I have in mind a fishing village in Liguria, it slopes steeply down to the sea, and is like somewhere I felt I’d already dreamed when I first went there, so that it was like stepping back into the familiar. After that, Iain, the Mediterranean will be our succulent oyster.
He replaced the top on his pen, and laid the pen down. (Tiffany, a one-off, courtesy of dear faithful Mona, Kentucky farm gal metamorphosed into the Countess of Bismarck, with her Harrison Williams money.)
He turned the turquoise lacquered barrel with the tips of his fingers. (Fine, tapering, clear-polished nails.)
He sighed softly, wistfully, experiencing the deliciously mixed torment and pleasure of the moment. (He was a man to take all experience as far as he could, to its limits.)
From some future point, this would be a memory. He would regain it, with a sense of triumphant achievement, the moment when.
(He’d never been a tourist of life. Horst und Helmut and Cecil B. maybe, but he wasn’t the sort to need a photograph of the event to prove he’d been there. That presupposed you feared the opportunity wouldn’t recur, and that this was just a fluke, a lucky chance. No, you had to believe in your own worth and deserving, and then everyone else would too.)
Travelling north, he’d read a famous English journalist, turning against her own kind. Haven’t you noticed, she asked, that critics always have very mean, tiny mouths? They made her think every time of ‘a cat’s anus’.
His mirth had exploded in the train compartment. Anxious eyes watched over the tops of newspapers, mouths shrank. Christ, if you can’t take a fucking joke!
(Then they’d hit a long tunnel, and somehow he forgot about the joke, and gloom-swaddled he foresaw his own tragic, theatrical death by the shores of Loch Bragar.)
CHANGE OF PLAN.
At the writing desk he watched now as his fingers, stronger than they looked, started to tear up the letter, into smaller and smaller pieces.
Then, not too steadily, he got to his feet. A glimpse out of the window.
Iain, posed like the marble Hermes of Praxiteles but (alas) clothed, was leaning on his broom, waiting for him.
On his clattery way down the wooden staircase he was planning their route.
Firstly, Edinburgh to Paris by air.
The night ‘Palatino’ for Rome left Paris-Gare de Lyon at 7.30 pm. Dinner a deux in the restaurant car - bed if not sleep in the cabin - and they’d reach Piazza Principe in Genoa nine-and-a-half hours after they boarded, nicely in time for breaking day.
To be continued