William Boyd


The Spectator's short story for the holidays

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London is the first city of humiliation: London does it better than anywhere else. I should know, its latest victim. First my divorce — you would think, what with war in Korea and the death of King George — that the Times would have more newsworthy events to report than my decree absolute from my wife of 18 months. ‘Novelist Yves Hill divorces, confesses to adultery’. Of course I confessed — only to spare myself the further wounds, the death by a thousand cuts, of admitting to Felicity’s adultery with that zero, that nul, that parvenu nonentity Gerald Laing-Turner.

Yet after the humiliation of the divorce came the further humiliation of the publication of my fourth novel, Oblong (Dunn & Melhuish, 10s 6d) and the sudden, brutal auto-da-fé of my long-nurtured reputation. Does it seem crass to admit that I felt this last humiliation more keenly than the first? I am still an artist, after all: I have stopped being a husband. The pain I felt, the physical pain in my belly, as I read review after hostile, bile-charged review (why do they hate me so, these strangers?) still lingers. What is an artist to do in this ghastly situation? Why, go to Paris, city of artists, city of Degas, Proust, Larbaud, Jean-Paul and Simone. I took the boat-train that night, played records in my solitary compartment, dreaming of Paris and the Paris-cure. But the city was slow to work its magic, this time. First, there was the flaccid and embarrassing session in the maison de tolérance, followed by a melancholy solitary meal and far too much drink. Crapulous, angry with myself the next morning, I sat in the Café Flore contemplating a spitting glass of mineral water (liver salts fizzing within) and wondering vaguely about my life. Why do they call that potent liqueur eau de vie? Eau de mort is more apt. Why are paid women so understanding of a man’s temporary physical inadequacies? (Answer: relief). What was I to do? What was Yves ‘Humiliated’ Hill to do with his miserable life? Halfway through my fourth decade and all was ashes around me. Felicity and Gerald — good God — to be cuckolded by Gerald Laing-Turner.... How had the Times reviewer described Oblong? ‘A turbid, horizonless sea of utter tedium.’ And what had possessed George to give the book to Raleigh Maltravers, of all people? Somehow, one of Maltravers’s sentences came at once unbidden to my mind: ‘A talent so nugatory it casts not the faintest shadow.’ ‘Casts not’? ‘Casts not’ — what middle-class pretension. How could George let that go by?

I looked around the Flore and signalled for the waiter: time for some hair of the dog — a Fernet or a Dubonnet, I thought. Early June in Paris and the place seemed full of English tourists: what a loud harsh unpleasant tongue we have. And they were all reading English newspapers and magazines, no doubt containing further humiliating notices of my failed marriage and failed novel. I knew at once what I had to do: I had to work. I had to get out of Paris immediately and write something, anything. Anything that paid, that was. Rio, the Atlas Mountains, Shanghai — far away. I asked the waiter (a surly fellow) for some jetons for the telephone. He replied in English even though my French is fluent and colloquial. I had decided to call my agent, Findlay McHarg. Get me a job, Findlay, I would say: one that will take me away from here and will recompense my literary abilities handsomely.

Sainte Radegonde is a modestly sized provincial town and is the ideal starting point for one’s peregrinations in this most verdant and delightful of the south-western riverine valleys. It sits on the Dordogne a few miles east of Sarlat and is serviced by the autorail from Bordeaux (trains for Paris may be had at nearby Brive), contains three excellent garages, an adequate hotel (Hôtel de la Gare ***) and two large brasseries on the charming central square, La Place de la Republique.

‘By automobile through the Dordogne Valley’ by Yves P. Hill. The English Motorist, July 1952.

I was cross with Findlay. No, that is unfair. I appreciate his bluntness, his northern candour, I need it. But, really, the English Motorist? A 20 guinea fee and expenses of no more than ten pounds. Plain robbery: my fee would go to pay my extra expenses while I researched the article. ‘It’s the best I can do at this short notice,’ Findlay said. ‘The Oblong fiasco is still the talk of the town.’ He does not pull his Caledonian punches, dear Findlay.

I checked into the Hôtel de la Gare and asked for their cheapest room. I was working out a clever, developing plan. You are a writer of fiction, Yves Hill, I told myself, so why don’t you write some fiction? My room deserved its low rate: under the eaves with slanted ceilings, it was graced with a sagging bed squeezed between a chest of drawers and a table with a jug and ewer. The small dirty window was three feet from a chimney crowded with cooing doves (and crusted with dove shit) and a distant view of a washing line. On my way downstairs I noticed a maid airing out two grand rooms on the first floor: wide beds with padded headboards, panelling, painted armoires. I questioned the receptionist: I thought you said the hotel was full? It is: we await the arrival of the English guests, monsieur, he said with an odd sheepish, conniving smile as if I were party to his conspiracy.

I investigated the two brasseries on the Place de la Republique: the Café Riche and the Café Couderc. To my seasoned eye it seemed that the Riche had the better situation (its terrasse warmly illuminated by the evening sun) while the Couderc had the better menu. The Café Couderc even had a makeshift seafood stall where a burly young lad with a first moustache performed the duties of the écailler and was shucking oysters with frowning concentration — flair and nonchalance would doubtless come with time.

I took a Pernod in the Café of the Riche and let the setting sun warm my face. For the first time in a year I felt myself relax, forgot about the ill-named Felicity and her beau and their hideous new union, forgot about the savaging that my poor brave Oblong had suffered, and felt the balm of France seep through me. I sauntered across the square to the Couderc and engaged the young oyster-shucker in conversation. Do you have oysters every day? Nearly, he said with an expressive shrug, they come from Arcachon — it depends on the trains. I went inside, was shown to a perfectly acceptable table, ordered a dozen fines de claires and a bottle of the local Sauvignon Blanc, and began to think about my next novel.

What is the essential nature of the Dordogne? It rises in the Massif Central and flows west to join the Garonne near Bordeaux. The vegetation is northern; the light and air recall more southern climes. Travelling this meandering cusp of northern and southern Europe is a true delight, and surprises await the enterprising motorist at every turn.

The next morning I rose early and caught the local bus to Brive, where the sheepish desk-clerk had told me there was a good bookshop. There I bought three different guidebooks, all in French, that dealt with the Dordogne department. I had an abominable lunch (people forget how easy it is to eat badly in France) and caught the bus back to Ste. Radegonde. I read my guidebooks on the way, plotting my course from Ste. Radegonde down the Dordogne river to Bordeaux. What need of a noisy and noisome motor car, several nights in dreary provincial hotels, the bother of going up byways to seek out allegedly charming villages? These paths have been trod before — send your imagination, Hill, on your behalf, steered by your French guide-books. Stay in your mean room, enjoy your apéritif at the Riche and your simple, hearty meals in the Couderc, have your fee and expenses cabled to the post of fice. You deserve a paid holiday. If the English Motorist is that tight-fisted, what more can it expect?

From the arid, rugged high causses and sombre gorges the river descends and civilisation begins as it starts to wind through flat water meadows, walnut orchards and dense woods. Its character changes as we enter the Périgord Noir, so called because of the truffles found there, those knobbled, dark, delectable parasites — not to everyone’s taste, so muskily redolent of the earth — that grow on the roots of sturdy oaks.

In the Couderc that evening, Benoît, the young écailler, brought me my dozen oysters, open on the half shell, nestling in a gleaming bed of ice. He arranged the plate of bread, the cold butter, the little bowl of chopped shallots and red-wine vinegar neatly around them. He topped up my glass with chill Sauvignon Blanc. Bon appétit, Monsieur Hill, he said, with a tiny bow. I felt the seduction of France surround me again, its effortless, complex civilisation. ‘Merci infiniment, Benoît,’ I said and discreetly slipped him a 100-franc note.

What is it about the oyster and its curious, subtle narcosis? I drizzled lemon juice over them, added the tip of a teaspoon of shallots and vinegar to one, scraped the meat clear of its restraining muscle and forked it into my mouth, where I chewed the oyster, two or three bites (chewing is absolutely essential — the true oceanic taste is not otherwise released) and swallowed. A corner of bread, a swig of chill wine: it is a drug, and powerfully addictive, one could eat 100, 200 — some people do — but I always stop at 12.

I laid down my last shell. Closed my eyes for a moment, masticated. That taste.... I opened my eyes to see a tall man in a pistachio tweed suit entering the Couderc and looking around. He saw me and strode over. I recognised him instantly and felt a kind of falling, a nausea, as if I had driven too fast over a hump-backed bridge.

‘Yves Hill?’

‘Ah, yes?’

‘I’m Raleigh Maltravers.’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘Maltravers, Raleigh Maltravers.’

I allowed myself a baffled smile while my guts writhed like eels in a pot. ‘The name is vaguely familiar,’ I said, dabbing my mouth with my napkin, ‘have we met?’

‘We’re both in the same hotel,’ Maltravers said.

‘Simple but comfortable.’

Maltravers stroked his chin. For the first time I noticed he had a near-transparent blond half-goatee, a gesture at a Van Dyke beard but, oddly, no moustache. He gave a great exhalation, as if he had decided something very important.

‘I reviewed your novel Oblong. For Illuminations. George asked me.’

‘Really? I don’t take Illuminations. I hope you were kind.’

‘I was very severe.’

I shrugged, as if I had been told my train was five minutes late. This is what you must do: utter indifference is your best weapon. I thought my throat would close but I managed to say, ‘Oh, well, c’est la vie.’

‘That’s very white of you,’ he said, and offered his hand. ‘Professional standards, professional courtesies.’

‘What?’ I said, shaking his proffered hand, limply.

‘Men of letters. English men of letters. So I know I can ask you this particular favour.’

I was wordless. Maltravers leant forward and thrust his face at me. I saw he had a pliant, mobile upper lip, covering an overbite. I realised the half-goatee was an attempt at hirsute facial ballast to hide his weak chin.

‘The thing is, Hill,’ he said in a deep, confiding voice, ‘I’m not here. You’ve never seen me. We have not spoken. I am, so to speak, invisible.’

Oxen are still in general use in the fields and farms of the Dordogne, and many a shock awaits the daydreaming motorist as he rounds a corner and comes upon an ox-cart with its pair of oxen, apparently immobile, in the middle of the roadway. The ox-cart moves more slowly than a walking man but a good pair can plough as well as horses.

‘Oblong is an expense of spirit in a waste of shamefully useless reading time.... Mr Hill’s laboured symbolism, his banal profundities, engender a fatigue the like of which... toiling efforts at attaining a European philosophical dimension provoked hoots of incredulous laughter in this reader....’ Raleigh Maltravers’s long two-page review of my novel in Illuminations came to me, as I lay sleepless in the hot furrow of my bed, almost as if dictated. How could I recall every word? I listened to the doves shifting outside my window as the first lemony dawn light penetrated my thin, too-narrow curtains and I felt a form of pure sensation shiver through me — one that I had not experienced since early childhood. It was hate. I recognised it: unadulterated, grade ‘A’ hate. I hated Raleigh Maltravers, and I wanted to kill him, slowly and with agonising pain.

I slipped out of bed and washed my face in the ewer. Calm down, Yves, I said to myself, bide your time, everything will be revealed. Maltravers clearly needs your complicity, your absolute discretion: he must be very unhappy to ask a favour of a man whose book he has so recently destroyed. What is going on?

I spent the day in the Café Riche with my guidebooks writing up my vicarious journey down the Dordogne valley. I finished my article for the English Motorist by mid-afternoon, went back to the hotel, had a snooze, some sort of a bath, changed my shirt and crossed the square to the Café Couderc for supper. Benoît was shucking oysters with a panicked, panting energy.

‘The Englishman,’ he said, gesturing at the new tray. ‘Now it is 36 in ten minutes.’

Maltravers had the oyster-need, the oyster-craving, clearly, but far worse than me. He was sitting erect at a table under the big clock, waiting for his next dozen. But he was with someone, a woman, her back to me. I sat on the other side of the big room, half obscured by a pillar. When Benoît brought Maltravers his third plate I saw the woman excuse herself, stand and go to the toilettes. She was tall, in her thirties I would say, with a fine clear face and thick dark-blond untidy hair. I found myself immediately and powerfully attracted to her, and that had nothing to do with Maltravers. I watched him eat his oysters. Everyone has their oyster-foibles, and Maltravers liked to swallow his directly off the shell, freeing the meat first, dousing it with a liberal spoonful of shallot-vinegar and then slurping the oyster down whole, giving a little jerk of the chin, flipping his small pointed beard as he swallowed. There was something unpleasant — carp-like, lamprey-like — about the way his long upper lip seemed to enfold the oyster-bearing shell. He ate the dozen in astonishing speed, in under a minute, like a refugee frightened his meal was going to be snatched away.

The woman returned and they began talking, leaning intimately towards each other across the table. Like lovers.... It came to me as a revelation and I almost laughed out loud. Maltravers had handed me my revenge. ‘Thank you, Mighty Zeus,’ I said softly to myself, composing the short deadly letter in my head: ‘Dear Mrs Maltravers, Last week, your husband was in Ste. Radegonde, Dordogne, accompanied by a woman. Sincerely, a Friend.’ There was a Mrs Maltravers, that much I knew for sure, and I fancied there was quite a sizeable litter of Maltravers children, also. I felt a warmth spread through me, an inner calm, as I looked across the room at them. Maltravers ordered more oysters. Forty-eight — of course, the legendary aphrodisiacal qualities of the bivalve. What did that really very — not to say extremely — attractive woman see in the faintly repulsive, saurian Maltravers? Why should that man have her as his mistress? Still, I was about to ruin his life. Let him enjoy the last few days of the affair. But then another idea began to take hold of me, far more subtle and satisfying than a simple anonymous letter. My piece was written, my fee was telegraphically on its way to me, why not stay on in Ste. Radegonde and enjoy a well-deserved holiday while I dallied with Maltravers and considered whether I could elaborate a more intriguing outcome to this unhappy encounter?

In the Dordogne valley sudden storms driven inland from the Atlantic can erupt even in summer: the rain pelts down but we know the deluge will not last, the darkness will not endure. Look, the sun is out again, the hedges steam damply, and we can happily resume our journey.

It took me the rest of the meal to configure the details of my plan and I decided to let 24 hours elapse before I put it into practice. Maltravers and his lady friend drove off in a large Citröen car the following morning. I went for a stroll on the banks of the Dordogne as it flowed smoothly beneath the handsome old bridge that linked Ste. Radegonde with the northern bank. At lunch I went to the Couderc and spoke with Benoît. We talked idly about oysters and the excellent quality of those that came from the bassin at Arcachon. He had asked the patron to order more, he said, Monsieur Maltravers’s extraordinary appetite had to be taken into account. As I left him I picked, unnoticed, a large oyster off the pile he was ready to shuck and wrapped it in my handkerchief before slipping it in my pocket.

In my mean room I laboured to open the oyster with my clasp knife. Abominably difficult: wedging the tip of the knife in the hinge, I levered and swivelled the blade, gashing my knuckles badly on the rough surface of the shell, before the beast yielded and I separated the two halves. Beads of blood swelled on two of my knuckles and I watched a ruby drop fall from my finger on to the pewtery flesh. For a moment it sat there g listening unpleasantly before the saline fluid in the half-shell dissolved it. I placed the semi-closed oyster on the windowsill, covered it with a flat cap and went for an extremely long walk.

I was already established at my table behind the pillar, my meal over, when Maltravers and his lady friend came in after their day-trip. Something about Maltravers’s manner made me think he was in a state of some excitement. He called for champagne, an ice bucket, and of course he ordered a dozen oysters from Benoît. The first dozen went down in the usual minute, champagne was poured and I thought I detected a hand-squeeze between the lovers below the level of the tablecloth.

I paid and wandered outside. Benoît was in his usual semi-panic shucking monsieur Maltravers’s next dozen. He laid the half-shelled oysters on the round tray of ice, like the hour markers on a fishily themed clock. I said, by the by, that I thought the patron wanted him, and as he darted inside, I removed the oyster that was at three o’clock and replaced it with mine, the one that had been cooking in the sun on my windowsill all day. I glanced at the tray and I dribbled some ice-water on my oyster — it looked as plump and glossy as the rest. I sauntered across the square to the Café Riche where I ordered a Calvados and smoked a soothing cigar.

The motorist drives on, past Bergerac, and the lazy river widens as its journey nears the end. Here we are at the lower river, fertile and rich with its neat vineyards on the steep bluffs on either side. It was Delacroix who said, contemplating the Dordogne valley, ‘How shall I describe my pleasure in this place? It is a mixture of all the sensations that are lovely and pleasant in our hearts and imaginations.’

Like everyone in the hotel, I was awakened by the clamorous bell of the ambulance at around two o’clock in the morning. I went back to sleep almost immediately.

At midday, wandering over to the terrace of the Riche for my preprandial Pernod, I spotted Maltravers’s lady friend, sitting alone at a corner table, her back to the plate glass window, her eyes obscured by sunglasses.

I introduced myself. ‘Yves Hill, I’m a friend of Raleigh.’

We shook hands. ‘Parker Fitzgerald,’ she said, her slight American accent immediately evident. She invited me to join her.

Poor Raleigh: he had excelled himself in his high carnal excitement — five dozen fines de claire, before the magret and the cheese and the tarte tatin. Then in the night, agonising stomach pains, copious vomiting. Parker (it was indeed her Christian name) heard his frantic beating on the adjoining wall. The concierge was raised, a doctor called, an ambulance summoned. Raleigh was in the hospital at Brive, his stomach pumped empty, a full 20-litre enema, immobile, a saline drip in his arm, not to stir for at least another three days.

I winced and tut-tutted as I looked at Parker’s strong and elegant features as she related, with great expression, the various diagnoses and prognoses the doctors had given her and I wondered if it were pos-

sible to have an affair with a beautiful woman who shared a first name with the pen I wrote with every day. I decided, on balance, that it was. We agreed to meet for dinner at the Courderc later, after her trip to Brive to see poor Raleigh. Do give him my very best, I said.

We did not eat oysters that night, needless to say. We talked about books, plays, films, cities we knew. She was a young widow, intelligent and cultured (Raleigh had known her late husband, a composer), rediscovering her place in the world. I felt that honour — or professional standards, professional courtesies — obliged me to tell her about Mrs Raleigh Maltravers and the Maltravers brood and she disguised her evident shock with admirable indifference, though I saw a tear well momentarily in her eye. After our supper we walked down to the quai by the old bridge and stood under the elms and watched the black oily river slide by, limned by the lights of the town behind us. I knew I could have kissed her if I had wanted to and thought that she would have let me, but I decided to wait until tomorrow (we had made plans to go to Périgueux — shame to waste the hired car). As we stood there I conjured up the image of a pale and voided Raleigh Maltravers, groaning quietly in the hospital at Brive as his body tried to subdue or expel the remaining toxins lingering inside him. Was it my sun-stewed oyster that had done for Raleigh, I wondered? Or was it that bitter drop of my humiliated blood? No matter: perhaps he would prudently chew his oysters in future — if he ever dared let another one down his throat — the only certain way to tell if an oyster is bad. Parker and I walked slowly back to the Hôtel de la Gare. I kissed her hand in the lobby and climbed the stairs briskly, like a boy, two at a time, to my attic room.