(The Story Behind The Extra Guest Charity)
Myrrnah Langton cleared her throat as the call went onto voicemail. ‘I’ll be a little late – just an hour or two, no more.’ She dropped the phone onto the passenger seat, relieved that she wouldn’t have to explain her delay, and gathered her things from the back of the car. ‘This is it, girl,’ she told herself. ‘You’re here. No bottling it now.’
She took a long breath, holding it close as if reluctant to let it go. A sigh followed – an intonation of such bleak resignation that it took her by surprise. No-one had forced her to come after all.
The phone rang the moment she left the car. She glanced back at the passenger seat where it lay and paused, her key ring looped over one finger. If she went back now she might change her mind, drive off without finding what she had come for. In any case she didn’t believe in going back; it was a rule she had lived by for years.
Ignoring the phone she crossed the main street and stopped at a kiosk to buy a local paper. Celebrity Cook Returns to Hartridge, the headline announced. Book-signing today. Close by, a signboard in the shape of an arrow advertised a gallery. She walked briskly in the direction of the arrow, fanning her face with the newspaper. There was still time to get to the book-signing. She could see the gallery ahead of her now, at the end of a row of half-timbered cottages. It was a still day, hot and airless, and she stumbled a little on the cobbles, slowed down by her narrow skirt and high heels. She smiled nervously, aware suddenly that she had broken her own rule. After ten years away she had, at last, returned to Hartridge.
Upstairs the gallery windows were wide open; faded curtains hung undisturbed by any breeze and baskets of parched lobelias drooped in the midday sun. The shop, now under new management, was closed for lunch. There was a card in the window advertising a vacancy for a part-time assistant. Reading it Myrrnah caught her own reflection in the glass; a graceful girl, with well-cut hair and serious eyes; in the heat her cheeks had taken on the colour of ripe apricots.
She searched the display anxiously, eyes darting from one canvas to another, desperate to find there what she had come for. Tiny hedgerows in enormous mounts, scenes of foxhounds and horses and an extravagant painting of lilies in a china pot: nothing. She sighed and loosened her jacket. It really was unbearably hot. Her blouse was damp and sticky on her back.
Undeterred, she shaded her eyes and peered further into the gallery’s dark interior. A girl was reading at the counter, unaware of her presence and nearby, beneath a small spotlight, sat a woman of perhaps sixty-five. She appeared serene and unaffected, a pink cardigan thrown carelessly about her shoulders. Tiny hearts decorated the low scoop of her neckline and at her throat hung a small silver locket, also heart-shaped, which had fallen open to reveal a miniature self-portrait. Although no longer slender, the woman had a contented poise. As though no longer troubled by love, Myrrnah wondered; a compensation for lost youth perhaps.
It was an accomplished painting, almost life size. She narrowed her eyes. Careful brushstrokes revealed little lines and folds, shadows where the eyes had sunk. But there was also something oddly familiar about her, a sense of having met her somewhere, of some shared experience. And then it struck her: the woman in pink, though so much older, had the same serious eyes and apricot cheeks as her own. This is me, she marveled, in another thirty years, a plumper me with features that have begun to droop and hair that is no longer sleek.
Just then a siren pierced the stillness; with a single stroke it cut the day in half. For someone, somewhere that sound would signal the end of life as they knew it. Just as it had, for her, ten years ago…
They had been standing at the entrance to The Gallery, gazing blankly at the display. ‘Let’s go in,’ Myrrnah said, glancing up at the flat above, where a cloud of smoke escaped from the open window. ‘Lydia’s obviously having trouble with lunch.’
It was New Year’s Day and a small crowd of guests squeezed past them, armed with flowers and bottles of wine.
David Langton was staring into the distance. ‘Myrrnah, I’m leaving.’ Just at that moment a siren sounded and an ambulance turned into the cobbled street, its lights flashing. As it passed Myrrnah placed a hand on her chest, realising that for someone somewhere, things would never be the same again.
‘But you can’t. Philip will expect us.’ Silent now, the siren still echoed in her heart.
David stared down at his shoes. One of the laces, she noticed, had come untied. ‘Myrrnah, I really can’t do this. I’m leaving Hartridge.’
Lupin Mc.Innery had warned her about him from the start. They were unlikely friends, Lupin being twice her age, but she was very wise in her own eccentric way. She read the Tarot and was keen to give advice, especially where love was concerned. Her house was filled with obscure old volumes on dusty shelves, huge lumps of crystal and framed reproductions of Dali and Magritte.
‘He’ll be off, you’ll see,’ Lupin pronounced one day and selected a card from her pack. ‘Death!’ She crowed, waving the card before Myrrnah’s eyes as proof of her judgment. Then, seeing her concern, added: ‘But you will find love.’ She paused mysteriously then began a lengthy discourse on courtly love and the medieval tradition of pursuing the beloved. ‘Remember, never go hunting the hart.’ She tapped her chest softly. ‘Instead of looking for love, first be in love with yourself!’
Myrrnah looked up and noticed a new painting on Lupin’s wall. A white deer with startlingly human eyes stood out from the collection of prints. It was quite old and in a broken frame, its surface cracked, and it looked quite out of place with all the other pictures. It had come from an old aunt, thought to be mad, and passed down through the generations. Although intriguing at first it was not, as it turned out, an easy companion to live with: for there was nothing the White Hart missed, nothing those searching eyes did not see! It seemed, Lupin said, to draw everything to the surface, each secret thought, each hope, each uncomfortable memory. But seeing it, meeting it, there today, Myrrnah felt unusually happy, as though the hart had spotted her and was determined to stick around. She stepped from one side to the other but wherever she turned The Hart went too, following her every movement; and unaware, it seemed, of its own imminent fate. For soon the painting would be gone, stuffed into a box of paperbacks destined for Oxfam, something that Lupin would regret in the years to come. The hart’s image was, in any event, already etched in Myrrnah’s heart.
Outside the gallery she watched the back of David’s head as he walked away then turned mutely and went inside. At the back of the gallery a scruffy young man in enormous boots was cutting mounts. Hearing her enter he looked up from his work and smiled broadly. For a moment she stood perfectly still, caught in the searchlight of that extraordinary smile. He had rather golden skin, suggesting that he had caught the sun even though it was winter, and spiky blond hair that was black at the crown. As he returned to his work a pretty girl with cropped hair burst in through the door and, with a brief wave to Myrrnah, threw her arms around the boy.
‘Sal!’ The boy’s face lit up again.
Sally’s boyfriend has the face of an angel, Myrrnah thought, climbing the stairs to the flat above. She paused on the landing and watched the young friends in the gallery below. They were clearly untroubled by love.
‘So who’s the woman with the serious face?’ the angel murmured.
‘Oh that’s only Myrrnah,’ the girl replied. ‘Uncle Dave’s missus.’
The guests had assembled in a low-ceilinged room where Philip’s paintings filled the walls: bold abstracts and some loving but unflattering studies of his wife in handsome frames.
‘So where’s that twin brother of mine then?’ Philip greeted Myrrnah with a glass of wine in his hand. He wore a paint-spattered tee-shirt, his hair tied back in a rubber band. ‘Don’t tell me, too busy to come? Just as well – Lydia’s ruined lunch.’ He looked Myrrnah up and down appreciatively and she ruffled his hair, thinking how he couldn’t look less like his brother David with that ridiculous pony tail.
She glanced around the room at the others, feeling out of place. All those arty people: painters, sculptors, and a few musicians who had travelled up from London, strangers mostly, and she with nothing to say. She began to wish she hadn’t come.
‘Now, you’ll remember Matthew and Vanessa?’ said Philip. The couple nearby gave a little wave. ‘And you must meet Richard Austen; he’s our new framer, an old school friend of Sal’s. Not a bad painter either.’ He pointed to a self-portrait that Myrrnah recognised at once as the scruffy angel downstairs. ‘Sal should be back by now; I’ll give them a shout.’ He opened the door and yelled down the stairs. ‘Richard! Sally! Come and join us.’
Just then a flustered Lydia appeared, hurriedly pushing past her guests to reach them. ‘Oh, this wretched oven – thank God you’re here!’ She offered Myrrnah her cheek. ‘At least you’ll know what to do.’
She butted open the kitchen door and the two women disappeared together into a cloud of smoke.
Myrrnah peered into the fridge and pulled out a jar of olives. Used pans, some of them ruined, filled the sink. Every surface was littered with recipe books and abandoned attempts to interpret them; carelessly opened packages spilled their contents onto the tiled floor. It was chaos but at least in here she was safe, wouldn’t have to worry about David or offer opinions about paintings she didn’t understand. Here she was in her element.
‘Right, Lydia. Shall we start again?’ She opened a cupboard in search of inspiration and took down an expensive-looking bottle of vintage olive oil. She had given it to Lydia last year but it had never been opened. ‘By the way, David’s left me.’
Lydia stared blankly. ‘What! I don’t believe it – I’m sure he’ll be back.’
Strange, they’d never married, David and her, though they’d shared a house, a bed and even, by coincidence, the same name for years. Myrrnah of all people: capable, kind and with looks to die for! ‘He’ll be back,’ she said again.
‘Nope,’ Myrrnah snapped, tipping burned potatoes into the bin. ‘Some things just can’t be saved. Now just leave me to it, Lydia, and talk to your guests.’
Lydia hovered then obeyed.
‘Give me twenty minutes,’ Myrrnah called after her, ‘and I’ll rustle up something they won’t forget.’ Growing up in a small seaside hotel, she had always loved to cook. It was what she did best and she had discovered very early in life that whatever the crisis, cooking was always the answer. For some reason, the more stress, the better the dish; so today, lunch promised to be exceptionally good.
She surveyed the mess in the kitchen and began to clear a space. Inside however, the confusion was harder to clear. Things hadn’t been right for a while. Was it the stress of his job, she wondered, or another woman? Whatever the reason she knew he’d already left her months ago in a way.
A little later she reappeared with a huge bowl of pasta a la romana. A tray of little side dishes followed – olives, mozzarella, artichokes – and a bright insalata mista, all glistening with oil and lemon.
‘A masterpiece!’ cried Philip, admiring the perfect blend of colours. ‘Richard! Be an angel, will you?’ He passed a camera to the scruffy young man who obligingly captured Myrrnah’s impromptu creation.
Throughout lunch the guests discussed their latest projects: music, sculptures, photography, painting, and the recent exhibition at the Saatchi gallery. Sally and her friend were arguing good-naturedly about whether a messy bed or a pickled sheep could really be called art while Myrrnah sat quietly, wondering if soon she might soon slip away unnoticed.
‘But Rich, Hirst and Emin are so brave and original,’ pronounced Sally, ‘true reflectors of our time.’
The scruffy angel frowned. ‘Ah, but do they actually inspire?’ He turned his attention to Myrrnah. ‘It’s important, don’t you think – to inspire and not simply reflect? Whose work inspires you?’
They were all so intense. She had always gone for posters in wooden frames, colourful things from Ikea that brightened the room. Not their kind of thing at all.
What the hell am I doing here, she wondered, on New Year’s Day with my ex’s family and a bunch of people I hardly know? She glanced across at David’s empty chair where someone had draped a jacket.
‘I’m no artist,’ she began apologetically, avoiding the young man’s searchlight smile.
‘But clearly you are,’ Sally protested. ‘A culinary artist. People would pay a fortune for food like this. You should open a restaurant. Something different, with a twist.’
Richard nodded. ‘You could be the next Delia.’
Hearing them Lydia and Phil joined in. ‘Or Clarissa Dickson-Thingy.’ They all laughed, remembering the ‘Two Fat Ladies’ on the television.
‘A full English breakfast is the best cure for hangovers. The liver embraces it,’ mimicked Phil in a plummy voice. ‘I loved their style.
Myrrnah excused herself quickly and went into the kitchen to make coffee. Lunch over, it would soon, thank God, be time to leave.
‘A Happy New Year to everyone!’ Lydia sang as Myrrnah returned with the tray of coffee. She passed round dishes of Christmas cake and burned mince pies.
‘May it be unforgettable,’ said Philip, rather ambiguously Myrrnah thought, for certainly it had begun that way. Then he clapped his hands for silence and proposed a toast:
‘To the lovely Myrrnah: for saving the day.’
‘To Myrrnah,’ they all echoed, sipping wine.
Next he raised his glass to David’s empty chair. ‘Absent friends!’ He slurred drunkenly, spilling his wine as Lydia nudged him sharply. The moment passed and the talking continued.
Philip began flirting with a girl little older than his daughter but Lydia didn’t seem to mind. Occasionally he would glance back at his wife and smile as if to remind him self – and her – how lucky they were. They are close, Myrrnah thought wistfully; too close for petty jealousies. Openly affectionate, they would taunt each other mercilessly at times. But it was safe to do so. Myrrnah watched them now, envying their honesty and ease. But it had not been so with David. Together, they were awkward, their dealings polite and cautious. They spoke only of things they observed – the need for a new piece of guttering or the state of the garden since the last storm – but never things that were felt. That was no longer safe to do, it seemed.
Someone put some music on the hi-fi and one or two, tired of chatting, got up to dance. Myrrnah went to fetch her coat, her handbag slung over her arm. ‘You can’t go yet!’ Philip and Lydia chorused. ‘We need a group photo first.’
The scruffy angel took up the camera once more.
‘Do count me out,’ Myrrnah pleaded but he feigned not to hear. Then, as everyone gathered round and smiled for the camera, she jumped.
There in David’s seat, for an almost imperceptible moment, sat a small child. He seemed as surprised as she was to find himself in such unfamiliar company. But meeting her gaze he smiled – such a look of love it was – and held out an empty bowl. His eyes were familiar, not unlike the white hart’s. ‘So will you help?’ he whispered and instinctively she bowed her head, having the feeling there was something extraordinary she’d just agreed to do. At once the bowl began to fill with golden coins.
The camera was passed from person to person. ‘Damn, I blinked at the wrong time,’ said one. ‘I look drunk,’ said another. ‘But look,’ Lydia laughed. A spiral of white light hovered over David’s empty chair. ‘We have an extra guest.’
As she left, the angel touched Myrrnah’s arm in passing. ‘Did you see him then, the extra guest?’
She returned home to find that David had emptied his wardrobe. His car had gone too but the house keys were still on the kitchen table alongside a note (which turned out to be a check list of things to pack) and an empty coffee mug that he hadn’t bothered to wash before leaving. Still wearing her coat she sat down, unaccountably happy, and stared at the empty chair opposite her. The boy with the bowl still hovered in her mind.
The house had never felt so peaceful.
(The Story behind The Extra Guest Charity to be continued in Part Two…)