Excerpt

Bitter Orange

Claire Fuller

October 9, 2018 
The following is from Claire Fuller's novel, Bitter Orange. Frances Jellico finds a peephole under a floorboard in Lyntons, a dilapidated mansion where she's researching architecture, and gets increasingly and dangerously entangled with Cara and Peter, the glamorous couple who live in the rooms below hers. Claire Fuller has written three novels, one of which won the Desmond Elliott Prize. She lives in Hampshire.

They must think I don’t have long left because today they allow the vicar in. Perhaps they are right, although this day feels no different from yesterday, and I imagine tomorrow will go on much the same. The vicar—no, not vicar, he has a different title, I forget—is older than me by a good few years, his hair is grey, and his skin is flaky and red, sore-looking. I didn’t ask for him; what faith I once had was tested and found lacking at Lyntons, and before that, my church attendance was a habit, a routine for Mother and me to arrange our week around. I know all about routine and habit in this place. It is what we live, and what we die, by.

The vicar, or whatever he is called, is sitting beside my bed with a book on his lap, turning the pages too fast to be reading. When he sees I’m awake he takes my hand, and I’m surprised to find that it is a comfort: a hand in mine. I can’t remember when I was last touched—not the quick wash-over with a warm cloth, or the flick of a comb through my hair, these don’t count. I mean properly touched, held by someone. Peter, possibly. Yes, it must have been Peter. Twenty years ago this August. Twenty years. What else is there to do in this place except count time and remember?

“How are you feeling, Miss Jellico?” the vicar says. I don’t think I’ve told him my name. I take in Miss Jellico, roll it around inside my head like a silver ball in a game of bagatelle, letting it bounce from one pin to the next until it drops into the central enclosure and rings the bell. I know exactly who he is, but his title, that remains elusive.

“Where do you think I will go? Afterwards?” I spring the question on him. I am a difficult old bird. Although perhaps not so old.

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He shuffles on his chair as though he has an itch in his pants. Maybe the flake extends under his clothes. I don’t want to think.

“Well,” he starts, bending over his book. “That depends . . . that depends on what you . . .”

“On what I?”

“On what you . . .”

Where I end up depends on what I confess, is what he means. Heaven or hell. Although I don’t think he believes in those places, not any more. And anyway, we’re talking at cross purposes. I could drag out the conversation, tease him, but I decide for now not to play.

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“What I mean,” I say, “is where will I be buried? Where do they put us when we leave this place for the last time?”

He slumps with disappointment and then he asks, “Do you have somewhere in mind? I can make sure your wishes are passed on. Is there anyone you’d like me to tell, anyone in particular you want at the service?”

I am quiet for a time, pretending to consider it. “No need to hire a crowd,” I say. “You, me, and the gravedigger will be enough.”

“What faith I once had was tested and found lacking at Lyntons, and before that, my church attendance was a habit, a routine for Mother and me to arrange our week around. I know all about routine and habit in this place. It is what we live, and what we die, by.”

He pulls a face—embarrassment? awkwardness?—because he can tell I know he isn’t a real vicar. He is only wearing the get-up—the dog collar—so they will allow him to visit. He has asked to see me before and I have refused. Now, though, with our talk of graves, I am thinking about bodies: those which are below the ground and those which are above. Cara and I, sunning ourselves at the end of the jetty on the lake at Lyntons. She in a bikini—I’d never seen that much of someone else’s skin all at once—and me daring to lift my woollen skirt above my knees. She reached out until her fingers touched my face, and she told me I was beautiful. I was thirty-nine when I sat on the jetty, and in my whole life no one had ever said I was beautiful. Later, when Cara was folding the tablecloth and putting away her cigarettes, I leaned over the green water of the lake and was disappointed to see that my reflection hadn’t changed, I was the same woman, although for a while that summer, twenty years ago, I came to believe her.

More images come then, one superimposed on the next. And I abandon chronology in favour of waves of memory, overlapping and merging. My final look through the judas hole: I am kneeling on the bare boards of my attic bathroom at Lyntons, one eye pressed to the lens that sticks up from the floor, a hand covering the other to keep it closed. In the room below mine, a body lies in the pinking bathwater, the open eyes staring up at me for too long. The floor is puddled and the shine of wet footprints leading away is already disappearing. I am a voyeur, the person who stands at the police tape watching someone’s life unravel, I am in the car slowing beside the accident but not stopping, I am the perpetrator returning to the scene of the crime. I am the lone mourner.

Judas hole. I had never come across that word until I came here, to this place.

How long ago?

“How long?” I must ask the question aloud because a reply comes from one of the Helpers. No, not Helper; what’s the name for her? Care Help? Assistance Helper? My wasting disease has eaten away more than flesh: it has taken any memory of last week as well as the names and titles I was told an hour ago, but it is kind enough to leave the summer of 1969 intact.

“It’s eleven forty,” the woman says. I like this one; her skin is the colour of a horse chestnut I might have picked up in late September and discovered in a jacket pocket in early May. Louder she says: “Only twenty minutes till lunch, Mrs. Jellico.” She pronounces it Jelli-co, as if I might be a manufacturer of puddings: Mrs. Wagner’s Pies, Mr. Kipling cakes, Mrs. Jelli-co’s . . . what? I have never actually been Mrs. Jellico; I have never married, I have no children. Only here, in this place, do they call me missis. The vicar has always called me Miss Jellico, from the first time I met him. The vicar! I realise my hand is empty and he has gone; did he say goodbye?

“Twenty years,” I whisper.

The memory of my first sight of Cara stirs me: a pale, long-legged sprite. I hear her shouting outside on Lyntons’ carriage turn. I stopped cutting up my bathroom carpet and crossed the narrow corridor to one of the empty rooms opposite mine. Under the attic window, a lead-lined gutter edged by a stone parapet was packed with decaying leaves and the sticks and feathers of ancient pigeon nests. Far below, Cara was standing on the dry fountain in the middle of the carriage turn. The mass of her hair was the first thing I noticed—almost solid with its dark, tight curls and centre parting, hiding all but a strip of her milk-white face. She was shouting in Italian. I didn’t know the words; the closest I have come to understanding Italian is the Latin names of plants, and most of these have faded now. A test: Cedrus . . . Cedrus . . . Cedrus libani, cedar of Lebanon.

Cara’s bare feet balanced on Cupid’s thighs, while one of her hands gripped the robes of a stone woman as though she were trying to wrest them from her, and in the other she held a pair of flat ballet pumps. I winced at the damage she might be doing to the already marked and chipped marble. I half hoped the fountain might be a Canova or one of his pupils, although I hadn’t yet examined it properly. Cara was wearing a long crocheted dress and, I was certain, even from my distance, no brassiere. The sun had nearly set on the other side of the house and her body was in shadow, but her head, where she tilted it back to look up, was vivid. I knew her already: hot-blooded and prickly, bewitching; a flowering cactus.

I thought she was shouting at me, up in my attic. I have never liked loud sounds, harsh words; I’ve always preferred the quiet of a library, and back then I couldn’t remember anyone raising their voice to me, not even Mother, although, of course, things are different now. But before I could reply, though goodness knows what I would have said, the sash was raised in one of the stately rooms below mine, and a man stuck out his head and shoulders.

“Cara,” he called to the girl on the fountain, giving me her name. “Don’t be ridiculous. Wait.” He sounded exhausted.

She shouted again, arms waving, mouth working, fingers pressed together, hands pushing her hair over her shoulder, where it didn’t stay, and then jumped off the fountain into the long grass. She was always nimble, Cara. She came towards the house and went out of sight. The man vanished back inside, and I heard him running through Lyntons’ empty and echoing rooms, imagined the dust rising and settling in the corners as he passed. From my window, I saw him burst out of the front door onto the carriage turn just as Cara was pushing a bicycle at a trot through what was left of the gravel and simultaneously putting on her shoes. When she reached the avenue, she pulled up her dress and jumped on the bicycle like a circus acrobat jumping onto a moving horse, something I could never have managed then and certainly not now.

“Cara!” the man called. “Please don’t go.”

“My wasting disease has eaten away more than flesh: it has taken any memory of last week as well as the names and titles I was told an hour ago, but it is kind enough to leave the summer of 1969 intact.”

We watched her, he and I, swerve around the potholes along the avenue of limes. Pedalling away from us, she let go of the bicycle with one hand and stuck up two fingers in reply. It is difficult to recall the exact emotions which accompanied those sightings of Cara, after everything that happened. I was probably shocked by her gesture, but I like to think that I might have also been excited by an anticipation of my own reinvention, of possibility, of summer.

The man walked to the gates, which were eight feet tall and rusted open, and struck his palms against Lyntons 1806 coiled in the ironwork. I was intrigued by his frustration; had I witnessed the end of their relationship or a lovers’ tiff?

I guessed that the man was about my age, ten years or so older than Cara, blondish hair flopping over his forehead, and a way of holding himself as though gravity, or the world, had got the better of him. Attractive, I thought, in a worn-down way. He shoved his hands into his jeans pockets and as he turned towards the house he looked straight up to my window. Without knowing why, since I had every reason to be there, I slid back into the room and ducked below the sill.

Lyntons. Just thinking the word raises the hairs on my arms like a cat that had seen a ghost. But the Ward Assister . . . not that . . . a new white woman I don’t recognise, with a white plastic apron covering her uniform, sees my open mouth and an opportunity to feed me a spoonful of overboiled broccoli. I press my lips together, turn my head, and let another earlier memory come.

Mr. Liebermann’s handwritten directions: a scrawl of place names, arrows, and minor roads. An English market town, a church, a cattle grid. I struggled off the bus at the stop before the town and walked back the way I had travelled, to a narrow lane with tufts of grass growing along the middle. On the paper, Mr. Liebermann had written Stop here for the view alongside an unnamed track that turned in beside a derelict lodge, although I learned later that he hadn’t been to Lyntons himself. I suppose he thought I would be driving, but I have never held a licence, or had a lesson, never driven a car. I put down my two suitcases and considered leaving them under a hedge and returning for them later. I was hot in my raincoat—easier to wear it than to carry it—as I rested, leaning on the dented estate railings to catch my breath.

A mile away, beyond the parkland dotted with mature specimen trees, the house—Lyntons—balanced at the top of a green bank. It extended back into shadow, but the view I had was of wide stone steps leading up to a magnificent portico where the afternoon sun buttered eight immense columns which rose to a triangular pediment. I could have been looking at the English cousin of the Parthenon. To the left of the house, the sun reflected off the panes of the glasshouse Mr. Liebermann’s letter had promised, while behind the buildings the land rose steeply to wooded hangers—a geographical feature of that part of the country: ancient woodland clinging to the sides of steep scarps which twisted and turned for several miles. Close by, a stream trickled through water meadows pockmarked with the imprints of cows’ hooves, until it was hidden between overgrown bushes and shaggy trees. I glimpsed the glitter of a lake, and although I couldn’t see it, I imagined the place where a bridge must cross the water. I had a thought, a shiver of excitement, about what kind of bridge it might be, given the age and style of the original house and what I had read about it, but I hadn’t voiced the possibility to anyone. There wasn’t anyone who would have listened, not then anyway.

In my bed, in this place, I think of bridges, and crossing water, and the ferryman, and wonder if I will have a premonition of my death. For all I know, everyone does—a bird inside a room, a chained fox, a watchful hare, a cow giving birth to twin calves—but only the unlucky recognise it for what it is.

Another Assister Carer, the friendly girl with the acne—Sarah? Rebecca?—combs my hair. She’s younger than the others, I can’t see her lasting long, but she’s gentle and she doesn’t do the inconsequential chatter as most do. When she’s finished, only a few strokes required now, she holds a mirror up to my face and I am shocked all over again at the woman who stares back: her sunken cheeks, the mottled skin like tea stains on parchment, the scraggy neck. In the mirror, the woman’s mouth opens and I see pale gums receding from yellow horse teeth, and as I recoil, my arms flail and the mirror is pushed away. The girl’s grip is weak or she doesn’t expect any strength from me, and in her surprise she lets it go. It hits the end of the bed, although of course it doesn’t break but goes spinning off across the room. The girl is telling me to keep still, to calm down, to lie back, but now she isn’t so gentle. A warm wetness spreads under me and she presses the buzzer and I hear the squeak of rubber shoes on linoleum in the corridor. A sharp stab of pain in my arm and once more I am in the attic at Lyntons.

I am in the attic at Lyntons, and when it is obvious that the man has gone back indoors I finish hacking across the middle of the bathroom carpet with my botanical sample knife. It was a beautiful knife, the handle curved to the shape of my palm, and the blade wide and short; I liked to keep it sharp. I don’t know where it is now.

In a corner under the window I pushed my fingers down next to the skirting board and pulled hard enough for the carpet to snap off in quick jerks, releasing a cloud of dust, and pitching me backwards from my squatting position onto my bottom. A layer of other people’s skin, particles of desiccated insects, and plaster from the cracks in the ceiling settled over my face and hair.

The carpet was patterned, light-brown squares and reddish circles. At the edges it was grey with dust, and around the toilet bowl it was stained a poisonous yellow. I tugged and heaved and rolled the two halves over themselves into the middle of the room, exposing the floorboards beneath. The bathroom was large—three paces from bath to sink and the same from window to toilet—and must once have been a maids’ bedroom. From the centre of the low ceiling a dusty lightshade hung on a plain flex. I didn’t care how frightful it was, the bathroom and the bedroom next door were mine, for a summer at least.

There was a rap on the door to the attic at the end of the corridor, and I stopped, still on my hands and knees, hoping if I stayed motionless for long enough the person would go away. Sometimes, in the past, I had longed for company, but now, as someone literally came knocking, my thoughts scattered, and the beat of alarm at the idea of talking to a stranger pulsed in my throat. The knock came again, and while I was levering myself up on the lip of the bath, I heard the door open and then the man I’d seen running after Cara was standing in the bathroom doorway, a little breathless from taking the spiral staircase.

“In my bed, in this place, I think of bridges, and crossing water, and the ferryman, and wonder if I will have a premonition of my death. For all I know, everyone does—a bird inside a room, a chained fox, a watchful hare, a cow giving birth to twin calves—but only the unlucky recognise it for what it is.”

He studied me, and I realised my botanical sample knife was in my hand and Mother’s silk scarf still covered the bottom half of my face, tied there to keep the dust from my mouth.

“Hello?” he said, taking a step backwards. Closer up I thought he looked sadder, more handsome, the lines in his face smoothed out.

I pulled down the bandana, swapped the knife from one hand to the other and back again, uncertain what to do with it.

“Sorry,” I said, because I knew the word would be expected.

“You must be Frances?” He held out his hand. Perhaps I seemed confused, gauche, because he added, as though I might myself have forgotten, “You’re here to survey the garden architecture for Liebermann?” It was a moment before I took his hand, dry and as large as mine. I let it go quickly. “Peter,” he said, introducing himself. “I’m sorry I wasn’t around when you arrived, but it looks like you’re making yourself at home?” He smiled, laughed almost, at the knife in my hand. I met his eyes and looked away, focussing on his lips, full for a man. His attractiveness made me feel all the more cloddish.

In one of his letters, Mr. Liebermann had explained that he had also commissioned someone to report to him on the condition of the house and its fittings. I had been expecting Peter but hadn’t given him a thought, or if I had, I’d imagined him to be elderly and alone. “Sorry,” I repeated, holding the knife behind my shorts—wide men’s shorts from the Army & Navy store. “I was cutting up the carpet.” As well as apologising I had learned that it helped to state the facts when I couldn’t think of anything to say.

“I didn’t see your car.” While he spoke Peter’s hands moved, circled around each other, pointed, illustrating his words.

“I came by train and then the bus,” I said. “The number thirty-nine. It was twenty-eight minutes late.” From his expression, it seemed I’d said too much, had maybe been rude. It was so hard to get it right, the way other people had conversations, back and forth with no effort. I wondered, not for the first time, how it was done.

“You should have sent a telegram,” Peter said. “I’d have been happy to collect you from the station.” He looked past me into the bathroom and carried on talking. “And sorry you had to hear all that, earlier. There’s no missing Cara when she’s in one of her moods. But you mustn’t worry.” I hadn’t been worrying, I wondered if I should have been worrying. “She’ll have gone into town. She always comes back.” He laughed again. It sounded as though he was reassuring himself. “What are you up to in there?” He pointed. “The attic rooms are rather dingy. I think an old retainer must have been living in them, a nanny or a butler. Nothing’s been looked after. You should see the mess the army left, graffiti like you can’t imagine.”

He came into the bathroom and looked about without any sign of embarrassment. “Army?” I said. I knew all the ways to keep the other person talking.

“Lyntons was requisitioned. Forty-Seventh Infantry Regiment. Americans. Apparently, Churchill and Eisenhower discussed the D-Day invasion in the blue drawing room. Goodness knows what a mess they made of the gardens. The soldiers I mean, not Churchill and Eisenhower, although you never know. Anyhow, you’d better prepare yourself. Liebermann did suggest that you have the rooms downstairs. They are grander, and I was hoping that Cara and I would be staying in the town but, well . . . my circumstances changed.” He smiled. I liked him for talking so I didn’t have to. “There’s only this bathroom and ours downstairs fully working. I hope you don’t mind too much being up here in the attic.”

I saw him staring at the two halves of rolled-up carpet.

“There was a smell,” I said.

In his final letter, Mr. Liebermann had enclosed a key to the side door with his directions, together with instructions to make my way up to the attic rooms. When I’d opened the door at the top of the spiral staircase that first time, the stink had punched me on the face: a reminder of those last few days nursing Mother. A mix of boiled vegetables, urine, and fear. “I didn’t think Mr. Liebermann would mind if I took up the carpet.”

“Oh, he won’t mind.” Peter flapped a hand in dismissal and went to the window, still talking. “Liebermann has no idea what’s in the house and what isn’t. He sent me an inventory, but nothing matches. There was meant to be a neoclassical chimney piece by Wyatt in the blue drawing room, but there’s just a gaping hole. The grand staircase which was supposed to be marble inlay is definitely scagliola, and now that the damp and mould have had their way it isn’t worth saving, but the upsides are that the cupola is magnificent and I found dozens of bottles of wine in the basement that aren’t listed.” He winked and then bent, hands on knees, to look out of the low window. “Probably corked, mind you. The inventory could be for a different house. I’d assumed Liebermann had visited before he bought Lyntons, but now I’m not so sure. Did you find the bedding we put out for you?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “What a view.”

My two rooms were on the west side of the house, just below the roof and chimney stacks. It was a floor of a dozen or so rooms leading off a corridor that ran north to south. All the west-facing windows looked out onto a glorious view over Lyntons’ ruined gardens, the paths hidden by overgrown box and yew, a tangled rose garden, fallen statuary, and the ravaged flower beds, to the parkland, the mausoleum, and, beyond, a dark treeline and the hangers in the far distance.

“Have you walked around the grounds yet?” I asked. “Or been to the bridge?” I wanted him to say that he hadn’t so that whatever was there would be mine to discover alone, while at the same time I hoped he would tell me that he had seen the bridge and it was Palladian, so that I no longer had to brace myself for disappointment.

A Palladian bridge: understated architecture built to join two banks. Most often topped with a temple: stone balustrades and columns, pediments and colonnades under a lead roof, with coffered ceilings and statues. A water-cooled summer house open at either end, and built by the wealthy to stroll through or ride their carriages across. The bridge I imagined rose above the lake and spanned it with five elegant arches, while a spectacular open-sided temple grew upwards from the balustrades. The whole would be satisfyingly symmetrical, but with fine and intricate carvings on the keystones. It wasn’t just a bridge, a means to move from one bank to the other, but a place built for love, for assignations, for beauty.

Peter straightened. “There’s a bridge, is there? I keep meaning to go down to the lake for a swim but I’ve had plenty to keep me busy in the house, what with Cara and the wine cellar.”

He kicked at one of the rolls of carpet and laughed. “Getting rid of a couple of bodies, are you?”

__________________________________

From Bitter Orange. Used with permission of Tin House Books. Copyright © 2018 by Claire Fuller.




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