Dinner Along the Amazon


  She smiled and winked at me.

  “That’s a secret.”

  “But is he real? Will he really come for you some time? Please tell me.”

  Then she did this wonderful thing. She got down on her knees and put her arms around me and her head against me. I remember looking down at her hair underneath her hat.

  And she said: “Don’t worry about me.” Then she got up.

  “Now it’s time to go. Thank you for the flowers.”

  She picked up her suitcase and went in to say good-bye to my mother.

  “Do you want Neil to take you to the streetcar?”

  “No, thank you, Mrs Cable. I’ll be all right. It’s such a lovely day.”

  I think we both knew what she meant.

  I didn’t watch her go. Not at first. But then I ran out to see her before she turned the corner. Then she did—and was gone.

  Effie.

  So you can see what I mean. It still worries me. And that’s why I want you to be sure—to be sure to recognize her when you see her. She’ll look at you, just like she did at me that first day in the kitchen, as though you were someone she was looking for. But if she does, don’t be scared. This man, I don’t know who he is, but if it’s Effie he wants, then he’s all right.

  Sometime—Later—Not Now

  1950

  We’re over thirty now, Diana and I, but in 1950 we were twelve. It seems such a long time ago that I can’t quite connect it up to the world we live in today. Certainly, there seem to be no straight lines back to that time, only the crooked, wavering lines of spliced memory. We were peaceful children, then.

  No.

  We were placated children.

  Our world had been secured for us by a World War that closed in a parable of Silence. And so I think we were placated children—doped—by horror. And I only say it here because I think there was a crazy serenity to our childhood which you might not understand if you were not alive then. The adults we lived with walked around our lives very often on tip-toe, with plugs in their ears and with shaded eyes. So much of holocaust had happened that people acquiesced to reality without daring to look at it, because it could only turn out to be another nightmare.

  And so we grew up protected from all subtlety. We were quiet and with good reason. We knew the big things—life and death, period—but none of the small things. The best we knew was how to be still and quiet, which meant that we learned, excessively, not to know ourselves.

  My name is Davis Hart and I grew up loving Diana Galbraith.

  Her parents and my parents had been in the War together—which is to say that our fathers had served in the same regiment and that our mothers had spent the War wandering from army camp to army camp, sometimes taking us with them, but more often leaving us behind with a woman called Maria Tungess, whose grasp of discipline was still back in the “Child-in-the-Locked-Cupboard” era.

  When the War ended our fathers returned to civilian life, which was a life of absolute comfort supported by absolute money—got by absolute panic. People didn’t just want to be rich in the 1940s. They had to be.

  The Galbraiths owned a summer island and we would spend our vacations there like one family—my brother Eugene, my sister Maudie and me and Diana.

  I remember a day of the summer in question, 1950, when Maudie, Diana and I sat high up on a rock we called, for obvious reasons, the “Elephant’s Back.” Eugene, being older, was allowed to own a gun and he was elsewhere on the island trying to kill something. He was fourteen, then, and Maudie was eight—almost nine.

  My memory of this conversation starts with Diana flinging a stone into the water far below us and I look back on the whole scene as if I were that stone—looking upward—plunging down. I see us, high on our rock, through the shimmer of a surface I shall never be able to break open. And our conversation is as stilted and formal as something heard without inflection.

  “Mother thinks we’re going to get married,” said Diana, and Maudie laughed. “It isn’t at all funny. She really thinks so.”

  “Maybe we will,” I said. I was lying down with my hand over my eyes.

  “No. I don’t think so,” said Diana, and I sat up. I was hurt by the matter-of-factness with which she dismissed me from her future, and not at all by just the marriage question—which, naturally, had never entered into my thinking at that age. “In fact, I’m quite certain,” she went on, “I’m not going to get married at all.”

  “How do you know your mother thinks we’ll get married?” I said.

  “I heard her say to your mother. She said ‘when Diana and Davis are married…’—just like that. And Aunt Peggy didn’t argue about it, either. They both think it’s going to happen.”

  “What’ll happen to your children,” said Maudie, “if you don’t get married?”

  “What children?” said Diana.

  “Your children,” said Maudie. “Aren’t you going to have them?”

  “You don’t just have children, stupid. Doesn’t she know anything, Davis?”

  “I don’t think so,” I said, and lay down again.

  “I know everything,” said Maudie—and immediately refuted that by saying, “You’re not allowed to have your babies until you’re married. And if you don’t get married your babies die inside of you.”

  “Who told you that?”

  “Miss Tungess. She didn’t get married yet and she’s had seventeen babies die right inside of her. So far.”

  “You can’t walk around with something dead inside of you,” I said. “If you did—you’d die yourself.”

  “She flushes them down the toilet.”

  There was some kind of pause after that while we all thought about what might be floating around in the sewage system and then Diana said, “Anyway, the important thing is, I don’t want to know who I’m to marry at all—‘til I decide to get married. And so far, I’ve decided not to get married, so I don’t need to know anyone.”

  (She stands like a boy in my memory, wearing khaki shorts. Feet wide apart. Canvas running shoes. A pale yellow pole shirt with a hole over the point of one shoulder blade, and she pulls her braid over this shoulder and starts to undo it and then to do it up again: weaving, unweaving her hair. She is always preoccupied with some nervous gesture of this kind.)

  “If you don’t get married, what will you do, then?”

  “I’m going to play the piano. You know that. Go to Europe and go to France. I’m going to become a very, very famous person.”

  She wet the end of her braid in her mouth and looked at it closely.

  “As famous as Rubinstein,” she said after a moment, drawing the braid through her fingers. “As Rubinstein. As Malcuzinski—as Moiseiwitsch.” These names were magic to her. Incantation.

  “They’re all men,” said Maudie.

  “They’re the three greatest pianists in the world. That’s what they are. And I’ll be one of them.”

  I watched her carefully. As I’ve said, I was “in love” with her. I had loved her from the moment I realized she could be taken away from me, which first happened for about six months when we were seven years old. I didn’t want her to grow up to be Rubinstein, because I realized that being Rubinstein meant belonging to another world and to a lot of other people.

  Later on it was clear to me that Diana herself knew this about love—that she always had. But she never mentioned it because, as a child, (which I take to mean the period up until she was fourteen or fifteen) as a child, she was aloof from it. She was aloof not just from loving, but from being loved. I think that probably, out of her dark eyes, she stared at times at those of us who loved her and said to herself, “they love me” and knew it and was grateful—but she never would mention it to us—or to anyone. She was an only child—the only child of parents who were close to their money in the way that they might have been close to a preferred firstborn son. They loved Diana, but she came second.

  Diana had a very strict, very demanding father (we called him Uncle Ross)
and all her life she was nervous with the ambition to please him. The piano was her mother’s idea, for Mrs Galbraith had once had concert ambitions of her own. She started Diana early, and as it turned out, it was highly probable that a prodigy (or at any rate, a greatly gifted—even brilliant pianist) had been discovered. But she was not allowed to concertize, only to study. The concerts and the fame would come later, when they should, and in the meantime there was the promise of that—and the work.

  In many ways, like many people of talent, Diana only had power over one part of her mind—the driving part. Over the rest she exercised no power at all. Moments of incident came into and went out of her life, strewing about them the careless, thoughtless wreckage of all uncontrolled events. And there were times (this was equally true of her as a child as it was true of her as an adult)—there were times when it seemed that she simply did not care about events—while at other times, as you will see, it was as though the events, or happenings, within the emotional territory of her life were a complete mystery to her—guided, as they were inevitably guided, by outside forces—her mother, her father, her friends.

  But the “piano thing”—as we referred to it then—was of the driving part of her. It was the driving part. It was her ambition. Through it Diana became an unchildlike child. She had the features of a child, but not the mien. She had the voice, but not the words. She dressed like a boy, but there was no tom-boyishness about her at all. She was really more like an adult dressed up as a child—forced, for a while, to play the part of a child. But as a child she had no childhood. None that I witnessed. None that Maudie did, as her friend, and certainly none that her parents saw.

  And so on that day, on the Elephant’s Back, I heard about the future from Diana herself.

  You could tell—absolutely, once and for all—that it was her real ambition—the piano thing. You could tell that she really did mean it. She wasn’t dreaming about it, or just hoping about it. It was something that was going to come true. It was there, in her face, that day. It was in the way she held her hands out and in the way her feet were set right down into the rock. Diana was going to be famous and I knew it—and I knew, right there, that that meant I would not go on being a part of her life.

  “So I don’t want to know anyone now I may have to marry later,” she said. “I only want to know myself. And that’s all.”

  And Maudie had said, “But what about your babies?”

  And Diana said, “They’ll never happen, that’s all. Because I’m not going to marry.”

  And that seemed to be that.

  “They’ll all die,” said Maudie with a requiem tone that was rapt with thoughts of Miss Tungess and her flushing toilet.

  “No. They won’t die,” said Diana. “They just won’t happen.”

  It was her own epitaph.

  1958

  When I was twenty, Diana introduced me to a girl whose name was Tanya. Naturally, I fell in love with her. I fell in love with everyone Diana introduced me to. If they were close to Diana, then loving them would make me a little closer to her, myself.

  Tanya was a poetess. Not a poet, a “poetess.” She had straight blonde hair and a round, incredibly beautiful face. Her eyes were green and her only drawback was that she bit her fingernails. At parties—and in fact the first time I met her—she wore gloves in order that people shouldn’t know. But she had a good figure—round—and she had that face and her voice was marvellous, too. It was the sort of voice one imagines the French courtesans must have had—hoarse from too many pleasures.

  Tanya wore black stockings long before they were adopted by fashion, and her shoes had the highest heels I have ever seen. Aside from that, her style of dress could be described as “Mexican-Russian”—a lot of white with basted-on colours and eccentric things like shawls and capes. On some occasions she dressed as a man, but she was never without her stiletto shoes.

  I adored her. Leave it at that.

  She was at the University and she shared the same lectures as Diana, who by now was a student of languages as well as of the piano. I was not a student, myself. At that time I was an actor—the thwarted competition (I took the thwart to be my age, in those days) of Guinness, Olivier and Redgrave. Tanya, Diana and I were inseparable—and there was one other.

  His name was Brett Slatten and he belonged to Diana.

  Brett Slatten had a big head. I mean it quite literally, however much it could be said in the other sense. It was immense. It was the head of David, with hair like that—curly (black) and worn naturally—shorn ad hoc, never barbered. (“We’re going to a party…” snip, snip.) He had bad teeth, but that didn’t matter. He had a crooked smile. (I practised this smile for several weeks but it always came on straight.)

  Brett Slatten was the son of a Mennonite farmer, and his ambition in life, somehow, was to write the definitive biography of Hart Crane. I don’t think that I could sum him up with a better description than that.

  And so, as I say, we did everything together. Brett and I hardly ever spoke. Diana and Tanya did all the talking. We just stood there with them, smoking cigars, Brett looking incredibly Byronic, and me wishing that I did—thinking that I did—and probably looking more like Shelley after he’d drowned. (I had started to let my hair grow long just two days after I first laid eyes on Brett, but my hair is straight and the effect was somehow different. I was also the colour of paste.)

  In those days you could still buy beer in quart bottles. They were green, and Brett and I both wore dark corduroy jackets most of the time with great, wide pockets. At parties we would walk about with a quart of beer in each pocket and another in hand. It was the best time of my life. Drinking didn’t hurt you then. You never had a hangover. You could smoke until you couldn’t breathe and it didn’t matter. Sex was still something you expected to perfect, and it involved a lot of fun and a lot of excitement. Your bodies were clean and they were like walking laboratories in which you experimented with everything at length. The mind stretched wide, like elastic, as you encountered all knowledge, and it was all let in and it was all let out. You weren’t obliged to hold onto it. Your eyes never tired of looking and they were never shut.

  Until we met Jean-Paul.

  Jean-Paul was a French millionaire who wore carnations in the lapels of exquisite suits and who carried a cane and gloves and wore hats. He had great, sleepy eyes and he had been in an automobile accident.

  He was the first person we had met to whom anything of great physical consequence had happened. Part of his skull was missing and had been replaced with a metal plate. He drank pernod. We had never drunk pernod. We met at a party.

  Within half an hour of meeting, Jean-Paul had captured us and was whisking us away.

  “Steal a little something thoughtlessly on the way to drink,” he said, organizing our escape in typical French phraseology.

  Brett stole a bottle of wine and I stole five bottles of beer.

  We threw on our overcoats (it was winter) and we left.

  Jean-Paul led us to a Citroen parked haphazardly partly on and mostly off the street. It was the old kind of Citroen. Ugly and black.

  “My dear,” said Tanya, “he really is French.”

  “You refer to the way I park?”

  “No,” said Tanya. “I mean the Citroen.”

  “Ah!” said Jean-Paul. “I am more French even than that.” And he winced, as though in pain, and made a very Gallic gesture which suggested he was resigned to a burden of immorality too heavy to bear.

  This delighted everyone, naturally, and once he had passed around his cigarette case filled with Gauloises, we were absolutely his.

  For the rest of the evening we rode around in the car and went to several bars, some of which we’d never visited before. The waiters everywhere seemed to recognize Jean-Paul and we were given immediate and excellent service everywhere.

  Eventually, after we had made a mysterious stop at the request of Jean-Paul—at the bus depot—so that he could use the washroom (he must ha
ve been ill, because he was gone for almost half an hour) we drove off, singing gaily, to another party.

  At that party we all got drunk and I can only remember Tanya dancing a Russian dance and some serious-faced old man insisting that she was one of the Romanovs in exile. Asleep, we were driven by Jean-Paul to his house where we all awoke in various bedrooms the next morning.

  Sometimes, there is a day whose atmosphere you spend the rest of your life trying to recapture. Such a day was that next day in Jean-Paul’s house.

  First of all, perhaps it should be explained how it was that Jean-Paul lived alone in such a large, expensive house, in a city where he was ostensibly only a visitor. He let us know very little about himself, but he did say that he was here attending to some business for his father. His father was an outrageously wealthy man, Jean-Paul told Brett, and the wealth was in some sort of exotic, possibly intriguing business. Jean-Paul was often abroad, and this time he was to be here for two years. And so, he had rented this house from an interior decorator who had gone to Europe. Fair exchange.

  As houses go, it was the epitome of purchased taste. Most of the furniture was Empire and there was a lot of plum carpeting and velvet drapery everywhere. Rococo mirrors, Olympian paintings and Regency gew-gaws completed the picture. It had the charm of money and it had authentic atmosphere, but the latter, I am certain, was attributable to the presence of Jean-Paul and not to the ownership of the interior decorator. For Jean-Paul brought with him a collection of recordings, prints and books that were not entirely suited to the house and which became, for us, its predominant atmosphere.

  The music was the music of Bartok, Satie and Poulenc. The prints were of works by Klee and Munch. The poetry was the poetry of Rilke and the books were the novels and other writings of Hermann Hesse, Gertrude Stein and Guillaume Apollinaire. There were prints, too, from Marie Laurencin, drawings by Pavel Tchelitchew and photographs of Nijinsky, Lincoln Kirsten and Josephine Baker. It was all, as you can see, the cult of Paris in the twenties and early thirties, and from that moment we made it our own.

 
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