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THE MIRACLE OF FONTANA'S MONKEY

a novel by

Marcus Reichert


PRELUDE

Bordering the public beach in Marseilles, the Borély Gardens was usually a good place to find a partially smoked cigarette. It was also a good place to hide. Joey sat dreaming of finding a cigarette with lipstick traces smeared round the end. For him this indulgence, which he found particularly erotic, proved that his preference for younger women was not unreasonable: it was the scale of things that limited him in his sensual pursuits. Yearning for the sight of smoke snaking heavenward, for the smell of something delectable smouldering, Joey lay his head on the pavement. Hearing footsteps, he departed the pathway in a single leap.

The mimosa provided the perfect camouflage for a monkey of Joey's colour and furriness, and the two policemen passing below the limb on which he sat were none the wiser. Much to his disappointment, neither policeman was smoking. But they were talking. Unfortunately, Joey did not understand French, otherwise he would have learned that his fugitive days and nights in the Gardens would soon be optional. As the two policemen passed out of view, Joey regarded the bird that had come to alight next to him. Joey hadn't seen a cockatoo for a long while. He couldn't recall if cockatoos were tropical, like himself, or hybrid freaks. It probably doesn't know where it came from, speculated Joey, it only knows it is. Joey preferred the company of humans.

CHAPTER I

Dangling in the sea, Jerome's pale feet appeared waxen and heavy as a corpse's against the cerulean depths. The woman lay on her back in the cold clear water near the edge of the float. She had chosen not to shave her inner thighs, and a golden fringe hovered provocatively on either side of the satinette purple triangle joining her belly to her buttocks. Jerome could practically hear her incoherent thoughts buzzing like mosquitoes inside her head. Her husband, a fat middle-aged psychiatrist who had treated Jerome for various nervous complaints, swam about thirty meters away, diving and surfacing, making an impressive display of his ability to breathe. They were his host and hostess for the weekend. The psychiatrist had casually dropped his cigarette, only just lit, on the deck where it was burning the wood an oily black. The woman had obviously witnessed her husband's feats of athletic prowess countless times before and was feigning oblivion, her eyes closed. Jerome gazed down at his meatless thighs, at his voluminous cotton trunks, his penis lurking inside like an iguana sleeping in the shade.

What shall I do with my hair for the audition, he wondered, just leave it long and lanky, falling on either side of my bony cheeks like a wolfhound's ears, or have it shorn into a princely bob? Or perhaps I should just rely, as always, on my shining eyes, their intelligence superior to my own -- oh, what fucking useless narcissists we actors are.

The woman rolled over in the water and Jerome was momentarily startled by the shimmering wetness of her buttocks. Refreshed by the coldness of the sea, she once again lay on her back, eyes closed.

"Buttons, buttons, infuriating little buttons" she murmured dreamily. "You had so very many buttons on your trousers." Jerome, his tongue thick with disgust, dove into the sea.

Sunset on the Côte d'Azur in all its lurid perfection, July 1934. The psychiatrist's blue Bugatti shimmered dully -- like a slice of raw liver, it occurred to Jerome -- where it rested in the shadow of a great shaggy juniper. Looking out over this much ballyhooed scene from his room's balcony, Jerome wished the psychiatrist and his wife weren't quite so insistently generous: early next morning, he would be obliged to ride alone in the coupe with the psychiatrist, along the coast from Villefranche to Nice, thence on to the film studios of La Victoirine. There, they would await instructions from the producer Hugo de Hauteville, who wished Jerome to play the reincarnation of Jesus Christ in his culminant work, Mr. Didot. Jerome winced as he recalled the psychiatrist's inane patter that afternoon. The wife had eventually excused herself, repulsed by her husband's sarcasm, as, giggling, he had whispered in Jerome's ear, "Lommie, if the interview goes badly, we simply find a pair of winsome Algerian lads and make an evening of it."

From the comedian Pepé Fillipé, who had worked on several of de Hauteville's lighter productions, Jerome had had a vivid account of the impresario's life-style. They had met for a drink at La Coupole the evening before Jerome had departed for the south. As always, Pepé was distracted by the glamorous crowd, his big round eyes swivelling toward the front of the vast restaurant whenever a gurgle of recognition arose from the floor, but nevertheless managed, with typical flamboyance, to bring Hugo de Hauteville's world to life. The producer, Pepé said, adored the scent of his own sunbaked flesh. He ran his empire in a state of nude readiness from the highest suite of Nice's grandest hotel, the Negresco, which overlooked the glittering Baie des Anges. Also enjoying de Hauteville's airy retreat was his personal secretary, a semi-literate ex-publican from Normandy who had traded on his dead father's fame as a boxer. Dudu, as he was called, appeared each afternoon to give massage, prepare drinks, empty the ashtrays throughout the evening, and, before leaving, gather up any debris that might be inappropriate for the hotel staff to handle in the morning. Much of Dudu's time however, according to Pepé, was spent lounging about the suite poring over the minuscule images of his boss's treasured stamp collection.

At this point in Pepé's report, Jerome had asked, "Wouldn't such a wealthy man collect Caravaggios rather than stamps?"

Laughing, Pepé replied, "No, no, no...you see, de Hauteville only found his true purpose in life after retiring from a long-standing position as a postal clerk!"

"So he's essentially uneducated?" Jerome conjectured.

"Doesn't matter. He knows everything anyway," Pepé assured him.

"How?"

"Because he thinkshe does!"

For casting and production meetings, which were confined to the Negresco, de Hauteville supposedly wore a fulsome white terry cloth robe that gave the illusion of substance to his slight figure, and for banking and ambassadorial events, which occurred without exception on La Bonne Santé, a truly magnificent sailing vessel and an object of great personal pride, he wore his yachtsman's blue blazer and white cap, both embroidered with a golden deH.

"And what are his sexual inclinations?" Jerome had asked.

"He likes Dudu!"

Pepé was overcome by a fever of scatological joke-telling. When it ended, Jerome had pursued his topic. "But will he want something from me?"

"How do you mean?"

"Of a sexual nature."

"Oh, no, no, no...much too concerned about appearances for that. And anyway, you're not his type."

"And what's his type?"

"Much, much prettier -- no offence -- or distinctly uglier, with a lot of muscle."



One o'clock the next afternoon and the atmosphere in the uppermost rooms of the Hotel Negresco was just slightly more fraught than usual.

"Do something!" de Hauteville shouted.

"I'm resting," Dudu whined.

"Resting's for Sundays."

"Resting's also for the weary."

"You only just got here."

"Yes, and I've done the work of three lads in an hour."

"That sort of thing's not work," muttered de Hauteville, returning to his toilette.

"Not work? Then what would you call it?!"

"Wash your hands," de Hauteville again shouted, "and see to the essentials!"

De Hauteville wouldn't be wearing his white terry cloth robe, he would be wearing an immaculate white linen jacket, with shorts to match, and a mauve silk shirt. His hair, occasionally an all too human shade of white, had been freshly rinsed to eliminate the yellow. This afternoon, as he and Jerome Lombardi would be in private consultation, they would remain at the Negresco. There would be no reading, only lunch and lots of talk.

Despite having been warned of Jerome Lombardi's anomalous nature, when he opened his door, Hugo de Hauteville felt that rare sensation of immediately being trusted by someone who usually trusts no one. The austerity of the young actor's styling also impressed him greatly.

"Lombardi," said de Hauteville. "I hope we didn't keep you waiting. I was on the telephone to Rome. Pietro Pollo."

"Ah yes," said Jerome. "Your director."

"You know the type -- exceedingly long-winded. An aperitif on the balcony?"

The sunlight pouring in through the French doors at the far end of the palatial room was dazzling. De Hauteville gestured for Jerome to go on ahead of him. Following immediately after them came Dudu with the requisite bottle of Böllinger.

As they stood gazing out over the bay without speaking, the producer stole several long looks at his visitor. Jerome Lombardi's beauty was undeniable -- the fine hands, the wide sensual lips, the deep-set eyes that seemed to be looking out upon another world. De Hauteville understood why he had been recommended for the role of Victor Didot. But de Hauteville had his own exquisite reason for wanting Jerome to succeed, a reason he would impart to the actor only after they had both succeeded in creating a masterpiece.

"Lombardi," he said, "this must surely be the centre of the universe. Have you ever seen anything more beautiful, or more blue?"

"Not more blue," Jerome replied.

"I gave this blue to Matisse. I gave it to him because he knows what to do with it."

Jerome continued to gaze into the distance, not wanting to belie the incredulity rising in him. Smoking through the haze, a lone steamer edged the horizon.

"I stood next to him, just as I'm standing here next to you, and I whispered in his ear ... this is the blue upon which your ship shall sail."

"And what did he say?" Jerome asked.

"He said he'd had the very same thought -- just as I'd spoken," said de Hauteville, sighing with pleasure.

"How very marvellous," Jerome said, "how very marvellous, indeed."

Jerome reminded himself that he mustn't allow his ego to intrude. His presence must only be about the great work ahead, no matter what absurd thing he was obliged to say.

De Hauteville's attention was now drawn back into the room. "Your lunch has arrived," he said.

They left the balcony and went in to sit beneath an enormous bouquet of orchids, their chairs nearly touching. The waiter, his white sleeves whispering coolly before them, set about serving Jerome.

"A fluke," commented his host, "freshly caught this morning by Arnulf, who catches all the fish I offer my friends when they dine with me on La Bonne Santé." He then tilted his head back and gazed serenely at the sunlight flickering over the laurel of gold gracing the ceiling.

The waiter placed a tall glass of seltzer at the centre of de Hauteville's plate.

"I always fast on Mondays," said the producer. "It's good for the soul."

Now Jerome would become more expansive. He would give the impression of warming to the occasion. Having chosen a rather revealing incident from his vagrant years in Paris to amusingly recount for de Hauteville, Jerome waited for his cue. It came in the form of a question.

"I've always wondered what my actors do after a night's filming," said de Hauteville. "I know some go for a drink and a meal, but what about the ones who are too wound up to sit still? How do they break the spell?"

"Hashish and dancing," laughed Jerome. "Here's a for instance. You know, wandering around lost, with or without a comrade in tow -- it's what I like best in the middle of the night -- work or no work."

"And your for instance?"

"Right. Le Bal Negre -- I had no idea it was in the Rue Blomet. And so when our taxi stopped before the Fourcy, which hasn't any inscription that I can recall, I assumed we were going to just another night club. You know, any old place. So, you can appreciate my surprise when, having fought our way through the cigarette smoke stinking mysteriously of hair oil, we were confronted by a long line of African gentlemen in cheap suits. There were a few others like us --"

"White men, you mean."

"Yes. They were mixed in with the Africans, edging forward in this long line. There were as many women waiting along the wall at the other side of the room."

"White women."

"Primarily. I assumed we were braving the fumes to choose dancing partners. I'm not terribly particular who I dance with. I don't mind. I'll dance with myself if need be. For me, it's a little like bathing in public -- there's no room for embarrassment. At any event, I should have known there was something peculiar about the place when I noticed that the women were all wearing kimonos hanging open to reveal their bellies and breasts, and that the music was without form, although insistently rhythmic. In fact, there wasn't a band at all, only a phonograph playing somewhere at the back."

"Indecency is the aphrodisiac of the unwashed. So, what did you and --?"

"Robert."

"What did you and Robert do? Did you join in?"

"Only I did. Robert was waiting for someone, or so he said. At his insistence, I joined the Africans. They ignored me. I simply advanced with them toward the line of women. At some point early on, a woman was added in for me. The shoulders of the men on either side of me automatically guided me directly to her. I hadn't any choice. I was to dance with her. When we arrived face-to-face with our dancing partners, two things occurred, both gestures obviously familiar to my Negro comrades. First, my partner placed my left hand on her shoulder. Then she placed my right hand on her pussy, her very naked, very hairy pussy. And then she reached down and, much to my surprise, took out my cock."

"And did what?"

"Just as the others did, with the African gentlemen."

"Which was?"

"Bounced it up and down in her palm. Only, in my case, it didn't bounce."

"Too bad."

"It was only when I saw the appendectomy scar, recent and livid, and smelled the antiseptic on my fingers that I excused myself, which she didn't accept very graciously."

"Whores," remarked de Hauteville. "And among the foulest."

"By this time," Jerome went on, "the majority of my Negro comrades had already inserted themselves and were churning away like demons. The Fourcy, on Rue de Fourcy. No sign outside."

Effortlessly, it occurred to Jerome, he had succeeded in fully engaging the attention of this most supreme of egoists. Hugo de Hauteville a postal clerk? The idea that this dapper little man had ever played a subservient role to anyone Jerome now found preposterous. The rest of the afternoon carried on smoothly and Jerome agreed to stay for cocktails: de Hauteville was eager for him to meet Lady Duckworth, who had written the screenplay for Mr. Didot, and her very best friend, Count Sergei Lazovsky.

CHAPTER II

Jerome sipped his Calvados, while Hugo de Hauteville picked at the iced white grapes Dudu had set before them with their coffee. Having removed themselves to the brocade sofas tucked into one corner of the suite's largest room, they were, for the time being, content to commune in silence. Jerome was about to ask de Hauteville to tell him more about his boat when there was a loud knock at the door. Naturally, Dudu bounded in to see who it was. A large ruddy-faced gentleman in a badly cut suit teetered on the threshold to the hallway. He entered mumbling that he had thought he was supposed to be joining someone called Duckie for dinner in the Negresco's dining-room, but couldn't now recall if they had agreed that night or the next.

"It must be tonight," de Hauteville assured him. "Duckie and I have our usual appointment tomorrow night."

"We all flatter ourselves with the thought that we alone share the great man's confidences," confessed the man to Jerome, his painstakingly correct English -- he was obviously Russian by birth -- anguishing to absorb. He took several steps then turned to stare at Dudu, who lingered only long enough to silently work out what was required of him.

Jerome now observed the man more closely: he was enormous, with a trunk as large as a carcass of beef, however irritatingly delicate in his movements -- and feverish -- like an awkward highly-strung adolescent.

"I see the Count and Lady Duckworth one at a time and only one a day. They exhaust me," laughed de Hauteville, apparently enchanted by the idea of this perverse ritual. "You've known each other since childhood, haven't you?"

"We were brought up together," said the Count.

"They were thrown together by their families. Sir Dickie and the Count's old man had a very good thing going. Their little enterprise between St Petersburg and London flourished quite nicely before 1917. And years later, you two perfected the bond, didn't you?" De Hauteville grinned steadfastly at the Count.

Slumping next to him on the sofa, the Count only nodded, then glanced anxiously at the bottle of Calvados. It was apparent that he was suffering without alcohol, and Jerome was about to suggest that he join him in a drink when Dudu again appeared, however this time with a fresh bottle of champagne in one hand and a bottle of brandy in the other.

"Oh good. Thank you," gushed the Count, and pointed to the champagne.

"Room service must have seen you coming," offered Dudu, "they're good lads really, if you like that sort of thing." With a strident burst of laughter, he set the two bottles down abruptly on the table, and, de Hauteville waving him off with a grimace, pranced out to the balcony for a breath of cool evening air.

"For Duckie, Dudu sees to it that the liquor service is kept sufficiently well stocked with Gordon's gin," de Hauteville informed Jerome sternly, "and, for the Count, that cold baked potatoes and tins of caviar are never lacking in the hotel's kitchen. You see, both Duckie and the Count were largely ignored as children, but very badly spoiled. They hold in common the complimentary faults of unashamed self-indulgence and unchecked sentimentality. I appreciate these shared qualities, don't I, Sergei?"

"If you say so," answered the Count.

"Either might find him- or herself, " de Hauteville continued, "waking without sufficient memory of the later hours of the evening before on the daybed in Le Laboratoire Hugo, as I like to call that tiny room off to your left. But, gratefully, they will have found a moment's surcease from their wretched torments -- correct me if I'm wrong, Sergei -- in my companionship."

It was true, Jerome had to admit, Hugo de Hauteville was an excellent host, but what a load of blather to endure.

"There is no wealth as we once knew it," blurted the Count, as he reached for the brandy. "Banking today is such an undignified business!"

"Dignity shouldn't come into it," de Hauteville responded without emotion. "Banking is merely a tool for a man of vision, a man without the failings of ordinary men -- a man who can mingle with sultans and kings, like yourself."

"I was once such a man ... "

"That's what I just said."

The Count, breathing heavily, allowed the soupçon of Courvoisier he had dribbled atop his Böllinger to settle in the bottom of his flute. "The strength to shoulder such a burden of trust gracefully is an attribute with which some men are born and some ..."

"And some die," said de Hauteville.

"Only to be reborn in a better man," insisted the Count, too drunk to know what he meant.

De Hauteville once again focused his attention fully on Jerome. "Haven't you been wondering why I took up the camera so late in life? And why I've had such phenomenal success in so short a time?"

Resisting the temptation to make an altogether slack remark, which would have been his customary response to such rhetorical narcissism, Jerome replied, "I always thought it was because you identified so strongly with Guignol as a boy."

"A clever response, dear Lombardi, but not even close. When one looks at what actually makes a motion picture a motion picture, one sees tiny pictures all in a row, like postage stamps. During all those years in the postal service, I found the most boring aspect was not the tedium of being civil to the same citizens day after day, as one might expect, but the sameness of the stamps themselves: I longed for the stamps to tell a story. Each stamp, I knew, had a story to tell. But the stamps said nothing. So when someone presented me with a letter to send, I imagined the story behind the stamp. And that's how motion pictures are made: each frame is a single moment of a larger story, be it a tragedy, a comedy, or simply the mundane exchanges intrinsic to carrying on commerce. I always wanted to be the first person to make postage stamps tell a story."

Jerome had seen this sort of pomposity before, usually in the form of an anecdotal tutor. He had to say something, so he said, "Each one a window on the world."

"Isn't that it exactly," marvelled de Hauteville. "And, with regard to my phenomenal success -- and I have made millions for Gaumont and ABC -- when it comes to bums on seats, I'm a bloody genius!"

Jerome now knew that de Hauteville, as a producer with a reputation to uphold, would always favour his picture over any individual aligned with that picture, except perhaps himself.

"Your darker moods are far more interesting," de Hauteville was saying to the Count, in an absurdly grave tone.

"Yes, well, that's easy for you to say, your life wasn't stolen from you as was ours." The Count's hands closed tightly around his champagne flute. "We treated our people well. My papa was a pagoda of integrity and concern. On Christmas Day, the snow was swept from the paths to the workers' cottages so that he could deliver his many gifts to them." Jerome waited to hear the glass snap and see the Count's blood come trickling between his fingers. "And one gift was always meat for their table. This was unselfish. This was his kindness to them. Some of us have never known such kindness." The Count lowered the champagne flute onto the low marble table before him and covered his face. "My papa's golden watch, which he always promised me, my mother took it when he died."

"Here, take mine," whispered de Hauteville, gently lowering the Count's hands and pressing the cold oval of a serving spoon into his palm.

The Count jerked back, indignantly brushed the tears from his eyes, and, again reaching for the brandy, groaned, "It's not charity that I need, it's honour."

"Don't you worry, Sergei, we'll take care of that." De Hauteville now held the spoon up before the Count. At first, the Count was incensed, but when he saw the merriment twinkling in de Hauteville's eyes, he quickly calmed himself by singing, nearly inaudibly, a Russian lullaby.

Jerome would later learn that in the guise of Hugo de Hauteville's most dedicated patron, Count Lazovsky loomed large over the financial levering of each and every one of the maestro's productions. It was the Count's unfailing presence that gave the illusion of substance to de Hauteville's endeavours, especially with the banks. In fact, having fallen on hard times years before, the Count relied on Duckie Duckworth for his passage in life, and deeply resented it. Somehow, with Duckie as dramatist, the Count as illusory benefactor, and the indefatigable Hugo as impresario, they made each de Hauteville production a desirable event. By all and sundry in the business, they were regarded as a formidable trio.

"She just rang up from the lobby," announced Dudu. "She's looking for him."

The Count shrugged.

"Well, send her up," ordered de Hauteville. "Tell her there's someone very special I'd like her to meet."

It sounded to Jerome as if he already had the job.

"And see if the kitchen can't get that hors d'oeuvre organised¾you know the one I mean. Stop standing there staring at that fucking newspaper and get on with it!" Typically, de Hauteville gestured brusquely for Dudu to leave.

Dudu whistled in mock dismay, tossed the paper onto the sofa next to Jerome. "She sounded rather melancholy," he informed the Count, then bounded out of the room.

"Probably been drinking on an empty stomach," said the Count.

Jerome glanced down at the evening edition of Le Journalier Nice. The front page featured a story on a monkey called Joey and the miracle of the nine infant females -- human females, no less -- he had recently impregnated in Marseilles. The mothers-to-be, it said, were maturing at an ungodly rate. In fact, the Gambetta child already had a luxuriant head of hair. Jerome read on. Bishop Feydeau of Marseilles had denied the families, all devoutly Catholic, the right to medical procedures which would relieve the infant females of their beastly burdens. He said such procedures would be tantamount to mass murder and that the impregnations were God's will. Naturally, the dutiful families had retreated and set about preparing for the blessed events to come. Jerome marvelled at the handsomeness of the monkey's owner, a man called Reynolds Fontana. In the photograph, the columnist, for that was Fontana's profession, was posed casually with his pet at a festive occasion in Bermuda where, the caption said, he had been given Joey by the daughter of the British Consul. To Jerome, now squinting at the photograph with unrelenting fascination, the Consul's daughter, who appeared to be no more than seven or so, also appeared to be pregnant. The little girl was smiling and, even though the photograph was in the usual dreary shades of grey and black, unquestionably casting a celestial light on the scene. The monkey was still on the loose.

"Have another bite," said de Hauteville to Lady Duckworth, the Count silently looking on. "I ordered them specially for you. Northumbrian grouse. Aren't they delicious? They're meant to be from the fells around Hadrian's Wall, near Greysteads. At least, that's what I was told."

Jerome had been so absorbed in his reading that he had hardly noticed the arrival of de Hauteville's latest guest. To his right at one of the damask-covered side-tables, with de Hauteville drawn up by her side, sat one of the oddest women Jerome had ever seen. Her tiny slippered feet barely touched the floor, while her torso filled her winged chair like an ornamental pear. Atop this delicacy wrapped in bronze satin perched her head, a disconcerting bauble of flesh wobbling on the withered stem of her neck.

"They're a bit underdone, even for me," said the woman, holding a wet pinkish strand up before her. Attempting desperately to focus on her fork, she watched as it fell and went clattering off the edge of her plate. "Oh Hugo..." Oblivious to the others, she began softly weeping.

"The tiny bird made you cry." De Hauteville reached out and warmly clasped her hand.

They now had Jerome's undivided attention. When Lady Duckworth glanced down, she appeared alarmed, not comforted at all. Her pale round face wilting, she concentrated her gaze on de Hauteville's bronzed knuckles. "My father had a hand like that," she whimpered.

"He must have taken care of them," de Hauteville whispered, obviously pleased that his manicure had made such a good impression.

To Jerome's eye, de Hauteville's hand, in its perfection, most resembled a disembodied bit of statuary -- the hand of a dead patriarch perhaps, which did make a kind of sense.

"Dickie collected little metal hands," said Duckie, and lay her head on the table.

Jerome went to her assistance, and de Hauteville gestured for him to carry her into the small adjacent room referred to earlier as Le Laboratoire Hugo. With her face only inches from his, Jerome was compelled to observe the strange wistfulness in her eyes. As discreetly as he could, he arranged her on the daybed, lastly removing her shoes. Her feet were like cold mashed potatoes in his hands.

"You're Lombardi," she managed.

"Jerome."

"Oh, just Jerome." She rolled onto her side, shifted her feet. "Here, have a sit."

He positioned himself on the edge of the daybed and glanced around the room: it was piled high with papers and cardboard alligator filing envelopes.

"Big game hunter," remarked Duckie.

"They're meant to look expensive."

"Ridiculous."

Jerome could feel her gaze.

"I know all about you. I've studied you," she said.

"And I've studied your screenplay."

"I'm your writer. You should be nice to me. And always talk to me about anything to do with my writing -- not Hugo -- OK?"

Jerome looked at her and smiled.

"You're adorable," she whispered.

"Perhaps I should see how the gents are getting on."

"Then come back."

Jerome watched as she crooked her arm under her head, knowing she would follow his progress out of the room. Lady Duckworth had, it seemed, recovered her wherewithal in the briefest of moments.

CHAPTER III

Dozing next to Jerome on the sofa, the Count mumbled to himself in several languages. Although each tongue was distinctly different, it was impossible to tell whence each had come. De Hauteville found this fascinating too.

"Chinese, I think," he said.

"I would have said Portugese," Jerome replied.

"Confront the nectar," the Count seemed to say.

"Boyhood holidays in the Urals," remarked de Hauteville.

Jerome would have said he had just heard French, which was of course the language in which they were speaking.

The Count came to full consciousness with a start.

"Bull's bollocks," he said with tremendous authority, then licked his lips.

"Back in London," suggested de Hauteville, and Jerome concurred.

Eventually Duckie emerged from La Laboratoire Hugo, made her apologies -- a writer's mental fatigue -- and summoned the Count from his repose. Jerome said farewell, promising to meet her for tea, and the two wandered off, Duckie relying heavily on the Count for support, toward the door. Although determined to achieve the bearing of a gentleman, the Count sadly was incapable of doing so. At the door, de Hauteville embraced each. Without venturing into the hallway to say his good-byes, he watched until they had found their way to the elevator, then returned to Jerome.

"As terrifying a compliment as one might behold," he laughed. "And who really knows what they get up to?"

"Not very much, I should think," Jerome replied.

De Hauteville excused himself, promising to return forthwith, and Dudu appeared briefly to close the French doors onto balcony. Evening was settling in, the sky no longer vibrant with the sea's lavender halo. Jerome took the opportunity to reflect on his writer, as Duckie had called herself, and her very best friend, as de Hauteville had called the Count.

Undeniably, there was a brutality about the Count that some women might find attractive -- Jerome had seen this sort of thing ad nauseum -- and Lady Duckworth, it seemed, was just this sort of woman. But Duckie had her own peculiar charm too. She had an uncanny awareness of her inadequacy as a woman, knowing this inadequacy to be an asset, especially where ridiculous men were concerned. Earlier, Jerome had watched with despair as Duckie had sombrely forsaken her wrap, baring her pudgy white arms, as the room had grown colder. It wasn't exactly love binding the two together, of this Jerome was certain.

"I once had a penchant for the company of the immature," said de Hauteville as he settled himself once more. "This was during my apprenticeship with Gaumont in London, and Sergei and Duckie were among the laggards I used to drink with at the Fitzroy Tavern. You may know it."

"Everybody in the business knows it."

"Not just our business, writers too."

"Yes, I know, writers too."

"Good. At any event, our blundering Count was so convinced of Duckie's genius that he flattered her with a stipend-money she could have had from her father, if she'd had the cheek to ask. This was to keep her until her first book of poetry came out. Sergei was convinced her brand of preciousness would be of permanent significance. What's one to say? At any event, Rhymes without Rhythm was finally published on her 27th birthday by Bell & Gong Ltd. This would have been September 1923. I remember the party well. Duckie used the pseudonym Alice Alworth and all her old school chums went dancing around like horrible little brats singing Off with her head! The dark secret was she'd paid for it herself -- Bell & Gong was a vanity press."

"My impression is that many of our finest poets have been obliged to go that route," argued Jerome in the hapless woman's defence.

"But the Count never knew. That's the point -- everyone else knew, but not Sergei." De Hauteville shook his head. "What a sap."

"Perhaps her poetry is too modern," Jerome went on with his argument, "perhaps she doesn't care if her contemporaries applaud her efforts. Why should she give two shits whether people like us read what she writes?"

"What sort of people?"

This was a tricky one.

"Well?" said de Hauteville. "Sorry to be so insistent, but I am curious."

"People who cater to the public, if you see what I mean?"

"I do. Not an unworthy pursuit in life though, now is it?"

"It's what we do."

"Indeed. Let me put it to you this way -- Duckie hadn't the gifts of an Edith Sitwell, or even a Nancy Cunard. Being her confidant, I recognised this before anyone. Her poetry is altogether forgotten today. I did keep one of her efforts though, scribbled in an advanced state of inebriation on a paper napkin. She'd slipped it between the pages of a Georges Auric score I'd been carrying around with me. I presume it relates to the war."

De Hauteville then, to Jerome's astonishment, recited the two verses:

Extremities of desire fed by
the fickle threat of death
we prowl the subterranean
breathing smoke of distant flesh

drinking the pleasures of the river
from room to room to room
our swift union in the darkness
sings its own sickly tune.

"I have revealed this effort only because it does bring an undeniable immediacy to her failings, not because I in any way endorse or condone such sensationalism rendered with so little care." De Hauteville laughed and refilled Jerome's glass. "She's much better at dialogue, thank God. Lady Duckworth -- it's hard to believe, but she once had the blush of a fine English rose. Sergei would have happily sacrificed everything but his title, and nearly did, to keep her."

"So, it would seem, he loves her."

"Oh, he loves her all right," snapped de Hauteville. "But I can tell you, she doesn't love him."

"I take it this sorry union has subtle benefits for you."

"What you're suggesting is that this knowledge enables me to compromise them to some degree." De Hauteville popped another grape into his mouth and bit down on it with relish. "You're absolutely right. You see, Sergei hasn't the ability to formulate a code of morality."

"You've lost me."

"It's the Count who keeps Duckie at loose ends, not me. This evening was only a foretaste of what you're bound to witness over the course of this production. Believe it or not, Duckie's the sane one -- well, not altogether sane, she does have some very serious problems due to inbreeding -- but the Count, he's mad as a hatter. Used to procure adolescent prostitutes for me, when we were in London together. On a Thursday evening, a light sometimes shone in the attic window of the house at the corner of Osnaburgh and Longford -- I occupied the uppermost rooms, you see -- this meant he was expected to bring a girl between closing-time and midnight. When the Count left the pub before last rounds, myself being conspicuously absent, everyone knew Sergei would be scouring Soho for some poor little thing who might appear sufficiently waif-like in a dim light. He's absolutely mad. And she's -- well, you've seen her. "

These revelations, imparted by de Hauteville with such sterile glee, stirred in Jerome a strange empathy for Duckie and the Count. It was an empathy he sorely distrusted but, wanting always to be kind, he would be determined to honour. They were, he concluded, de Hauteville's lepers, two lost souls, their neuroses revealed like flesh dangling, stinking, from their limbs, their sores anointed with their own sorry tears.

"You'll be fine," said de Hauteville, "just as long as you stay on Duckie's good side. If she considers you an artist -- one worthy of her respect -- she won't be able to do enough for you. Anything. Misbehave and she'll get you out of a jam. She's pulled some strings for me. Duckie believes extraordinary people should have their crimes voided. No, I'll go one better -- she believes that the misdeeds of certain perverted souls are the intrinsically forgivable sins of all humankind. Think on that one."

Jerome put down his glass. He had drunk enough. "And your affection for them is boundless."

"We all have our weaknesses."

De Hauteville accompanied Jerome to the elevator. They stood in silence, waiting. When the elevator arrived, the maestro took Jerome's hand. "They've always been an embarrassment. But they're mine, aren't they?"



The streetlamps along the Promenade des Anglais went on, smothering the celestial aspect of the Baie des Anges in artificial light. The shadows of the palms rustling overhead reached down like talons to rummage through the chalky figures posed randomly against the sea. As he leant into the breeze, Jerome's profile cut its angles against the broad white bust of the weeping matron, presumably now a widow, who stood inches away.

"Can I be of any comfort?" he offered, tasting quite suddenly the residue of de Hauteville's Calvados lingering at the back of his throat.

The woman didn't respond, perhaps not having heard him.

"Losing the one you love most dearly is as solitary and terrible a sentence as any of us shall ever receive," said Jerome, now close enough to breathe in the aroma of the woman's lilac-scented bath powder.

"It's not that," she replied, "I'm about to be a great-grand-mother."

"What a happy event," said Jerome, cheerily.

"But it's not," she sobbed.

Jerome softly patted her shoulder with the reticence any gentleman would show in such a situation. She was encouraged to go on.

"You see, my granddaughter is having the child of a monkey. And my granddaughter is but a baby herself."

"The miserable lout," intoned Jerome, feeling the need to pass some judgement on the matter.

"She's too little to have a child --"

"Unless of course the baby is very little itself," offered Jerome, in earnest.

"I've seen those horrible little monkeys that people carry around in teacups and the like -- they're positively dreadful," said the woman, and wrapped her face in her hands, her hands already tangled up in several handkerchiefs. "And if they take the baby from her," she wailed, "they may take her life with it -- oh, poor little Coco!"

Jerome stared at the woman, imploring her to say more.

"Oh, you fool," she shouted, "that's my granddaughter! Coco's her name! The monkey's called Joey!"

As there was nothing more to be said, the woman clutched up her skirts and lurched off, blubbering.







All images courtesy of Marcus Reichert
with special thanks to Anya Varda

Read the next installment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marcus Reichert is the author of three novels, including the cult classic Verdon Angster, and several screenplays. The first neo-noir, Reichert's film Union City was hailed by Lawrence O'Toole, film critic for Time magazine, as "an unqualified masterpiece." He was given his first exhibition of paintings at the age of twenty-one at the legendary Gotham Book Mart and Art Gallery, New York, home to the Surrealists during WWII. American critic Donald Kuspit has written of his Crucifixion paintings that 'both Picasso's and Bacon's pale in comparison.' Marcus Reichert's film works are held in the Archive of the Museum of Modern Art, New York and his writing and a selection of books on his work are available from Art Books International, London. A book of Reichert's photographs, with text by Stephen Barber, is in preparation.




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