Work

story about vanity

I am forty-five now, and have been getting work done since I was thirty. At first, I hesitated, because the face – my face, everyone’s – seemed too near the self to be meddled with. Those hollows at the temples, the mouldings of socket and cheek, are portals to the brain, the mind. And each wrinkle is part of a landscape. I considered Shakespeare’s verse on how the implacable fact of bone and death lies just beneath the flesh.

Once, my mother bustled me across Central Park to Bonwit’s, where the cosmetics counter, with its mysterious phials, looked like an alchemist’s workshop. But I did not offer this observation to my mother, who already believed I was too fanciful.

That day, she bought me a bottle of Youth Essence Elixir, a large pot of Radiance Replenishing Lotion and a small jar of Miracle Rejuvenating Eye Crème. I was twelve years old.

But of course everyone is doing it these days. When I was thirty, Dr Ohlberg said, ‘Polly, dear, there’s no number; no age. You start the moment you see a wrinkle. That’s when we start.’

We started with Botox. ‘Still working at the gallery?’ he asked while piercing my forehead with a stinging needle.

‘No; I’m not working anywhere now, really. Just reading and… things.’

He stood back and narrowed his eyes, either in concentration as he surveyed the results of his needlework, or with disapproval at my idleness. He himself had had Botox, making it hard to read his expression.

He gave me a hand mirror in which to regard my face, a funny face – elfin, with wide eyes. ‘You see,’ the doctor said, ‘that vertical line between your brows? It’s getting fainter. Already it’s a thing of the past.’

 

My father made heaps of money in pineapple juice. He started the company in 1950 and it prospered immediately. Perhaps the image on the label, of a tropical girl wearing nothing but a discreetly arranged lei and grass skirt, encouraged sales. In any case, I and my brother grew up in an atmosphere of careful money where pineapples were neither glimpsed nor mentioned. Each morning, we drank orange juice freshly squeezed by Lucille, our cook, while we swung our legs beneath the table, looked out over Central Park, and breathed in the smell of luxury, a smell composed of furniture polish, our mother’s Chanel No. 5 and the previous night’s candles.

Of course we did not know when we were small that our apartment smelled of luxury. Actually, it was only when I went away to college that I finally understood we were a privileged family. Growing up, I had been too painfully aware of my mother’s disappointment in me, and my father’s brusque indifference to almost everything besides his work, to notice how fortunately we were placed. Also, I was a dreamy girl, for whom feelings seemed more real than the material world.

My mother had wanted me to be a beauty, whereas I had inherited her own piquant face, the same astonished-looking greenish-brown eyes and pointy chin. Once, looking at me, she sighed, ‘My mother was a classical beauty. A pity that it’s Luke who takes after her. Boys don’t need to be so obviously beautiful. It’s almost… wrong, somehow.’

My mother started having work done when she was thirty-five. She came home one afternoon wearing dark glasses even though the weather outside was grey. Her manner was abrupt, and she did not speak to Luke or me. I sought her out later, in her bedroom, where I found her staring into the oval mirror of her vanity. Purplish threads were flaring out from around her eyes. Immediately she made me think of my rag doll with its stitches for eyes. I thought wildly that my mother’s eyes were coming unstitched.

‘Don’t get hysterical, Polly,’ she said severely, looking at me in the mirror. I saw then that not only purple stitches but also bruised lumps of skin surrounded her once-familiar eyes. I could not stop crying.

‘Stop, Polly. It’s nothing. It’s just I had my eyes done. You’ll have yours done, too, one day.’

 

I have never really worked, just as I have never really found a partner in love. Isn’t it Freud who says these are the crux of life: love and work? Well, I have glanced off the mark in both things. I love to read, though.

At forty-five, I have been an art gallery assistant (‘gallerina’), complete with strict hair, tight black dress and stilettos, and an editorial assistant at Vogue (same uniform). I have written public relations material for one of my mother’s charities (research into chronic depression). But nothing has really stuck.

I enjoyed being a patron of the arts for a while. In my thirties, there was a painter I loved desperately. He worked in oils, solid colours on square canvasses, only the colours weren’t solid: the golds had a kind of inward light like those sombre ikons in an Orthodox church, and his reds gleamed blueishly, like blood. I bought loads of his work and arranged it carefully on the walls of my East 63rd Street apartment. I introduced him to Lacy Fine’s on Prince Street. He took off, but without me.

One morning, slouching about my bedroom in the sullen way all artists seemed to cultivate then and perhaps still do, he said, ‘I feel I can’t relax here. Can’t smoke, can’t touch the perfect furniture.’

‘It would be hard to relax anywhere after all that coke you snorted last night. And of course you can smoke. You’re smoking now. As for my perfect furniture…’ I indicated the rumpled bed.

There was a silence, through which we could hear Natalie vacuum-cleaning the living room: an austere, almost reproachful sound.

The painter crushed out his cigarette in the Sevres dish on my bureau. I restrained myself. He said, ‘And why do you get your forehead stiffened up like that?’

‘My, you’re peevish this morning.’ I rose and struggled into my dressing gown. ‘Dr Ohlberg found a line there.’

‘A line?’

‘Yes; a line. A wrinkle.’

Before he could speak, I said, ‘Oh, I know your high-minded arguments. I am sure they’re all true. I am vain and silly. I am trying fruitlessly to prolong my youth. It’s frivolous, and anyway faces are beautiful as they weather and I shouldn’t pursue a false ideal of perfection. I know your arguments.’

He stared. ‘I don’t have any arguments.’ Another silence. ‘I don’t have any arguments,’ he repeated.

We looked hopelessly at each other. I had not wanted to say those things. I had wanted to say: I don’t know why. Perhaps it makes me feel self-possessed in some way I don’t understand, though I would like to understand. Perhaps because I am afraid…

He muttered, ‘Jesus, Polly,’ and at that moment I could have spoken. We were both almost naked. There was an empty champagne bottle on the floor beside the bed. He was looking at me with perplexity but also a kind of entreaty. I could have spoken honestly, only despite myself I cried, ‘Is it really stiff, my forehead? Dr Ohlberg says it looks completely natural.’

 

Now, at forty-five, I have not yet gone under the knife, but Dr Ohlberg continues to inject me with Botox every four months. I have had plumping acid put into my chin and jaw. Last year, Dr Ohlberg drew fat from my thighs and injected it into my cheeks and above my eyes. My friends say I look fifteen years younger than my age. So do they, I guess, though sometimes I think we all look ageless, but not in a good way. What I mean is, I fear we all have more or less the same face.

 

Yesterday, my friend Francesca, newly married to a famous novelist (she had been married before, to a famous Italian academic), invited me for drinks at her apartment on Park and 76th. Some of her new husband’s friends were present, including a woman of about sixty-five who had clearly wrecked her once-considerable beauty. You could discern this beauty in her eyes – immense, blue and burning – and in the pure lines of her face. But what a ruin she had made of that face! She smoked incessantly, was drinking endless vodkas, and was alarmingly scrawny even by the strict standards of our day. Her skin was tobacco-tarnished, and furrowed as an old tree. She spoke in a rasp, though her accent through the smoke was elegantly English. She fascinated me, but far more gratifying was the fact that I seemed to fascinate her.

‘Are you French,’ she asked, ‘or perhaps Italian?’

We were side-by-side on a sofa, momentarily alone though people had been hovering over her since I arrived. ‘No. I am mainly Irish.’

She blew a perfect column of smoke towards the ceiling. She was wearing a loose black dress, very plain but beautifully cut, and heavy black tights. No jewellery.

‘Funny. I’d have said French. You look Continental.’ She gave a small smile. ‘Actually, I am Irish, as well.’

Her spiritedness, or perhaps her bluntness, or the unabashed way she was knocking back those vodkas, made me feel I could be direct, too. ‘But you speak in a refined English accent. You must be a very privileged kind of Irish person.’

She rasped out a laugh. ‘Oh I am, my dear, I am. Very privileged. Barmy family: dissipation; suicide. The lot.’

I knew then who she must be: Lady Eleanor Greenwood from, as she herself had just said, a crazy Anglo-Irish family, heirs to a brewery fortune; most of them idle, dissolute and capricious. Eleanor Greenwood stood out from them for three reasons. She had married a renowned Jewish composer and divorced him; she no longer lived in an Irish castle but in New York; and she actually worked. She wrote novels; good novels. They did not chronicle life among the upper classes, like Evelyn Waugh’s. She wrote mainly about middle-class people in Dublin or London or New York, their loves and their children and even their dogs. To me, her work seemed touched with an almost visionary power, but, unfortunately, her title, marriage and colourful background had eclipsed her literary accomplishment, at least in New York where people are such fawning Anglophiles, including me. The fact that she was a genuine Lady was practically making me weak at the knees. But I was more impressed by the novels, and told her so.

‘My, my,’ she said, looking me up and down in a not-unfriendly way. ‘You have read me. I think even Norman,’ she indicated Francesca’s novelist husband, ‘hasn’t actually read me.’

Three women settled on a sofa across from ours, beneath the portrait of Francesca by Lakeland Whittaker. I knew them: Lolly Goldberg, wearing a raw silk suit and with her hair coloured a surprising brunette – almost every New York society lady is blonde. Also, she’d had it cut quite short and was sporting bold earrings: a new Lolly. Beside her were Kit Sutton and Babs O’Toole. All three were slightly older than me, and drinking champagne.

Both Eleanor Greenwood and I looked at them in silence until suddenly Eleanor said, ‘Every city is becoming the same. Globalisation. No frontiers. Good for business, I suppose, but untender. No scruples; just wanting and getting. One remembers loyalties to a particular place, and virtues like honesty and courage. During the War, we had no shoes. And my mother filched our food coupons and bought drink with them, for herself and her ghastly boyfriends. But everyone else in our world seemed so brave. And we were brave little things too, my brother and me, dancing barefoot on the lawns. Not that we were poor, mind you.’

I realised she was extremely drunk, but I was happy to be in her company even so. ‘Paris,’ I said. ‘Paris hasn’t changed so drastically as other cities.’

‘Hmm.’ She lit another cigarette. ‘And Rome.’

Kit Sutton said to her friends, ‘My ten-year-old niece is visiting from Canada. Canada; can you imagine? I took her to La Mirabelle yesterday and she was surprised that the ladies who lunch do not actually eat lunch.’

The others laughed. Babs O’Toole said, ‘Well, we do eat a little bit. Claude at Le Poulet Jaune knows to give me my four regulation asparagus – or is it asparagi?’

‘With vinaigrette, on the side?’ Lolly asked.

‘No, Lolly dear. A teaspoon of Hollandaise.’

Hollandaise?’

‘Honey, haven’t you heard? Butter and eggs are good for you – in moderation. I assure you, my children, hollandaise is the new vinaigrette.’

Babs said, ‘Ladies, don’t stare, but Vivian Browne née Bernstein is standing across the room, talking to that editor from the Something Review.’

‘Well,’ Lolly said, ‘A successful facelift. At last. Good for you, Viv.’

‘Don’t we know,’ Babs smiled. ‘Her first was such a disaster. Lumps and everything.’

Kit said, ‘The lumps weren’t the facelift, dear. The lumps were from the collagen thing she did with that doctor from Serbia or someplace. I told her and told her there is only Ohlberg. Go to no one but Ohlberg.’

I glanced to the side and saw that Eleanor Greenwood was listening intently, her mouth slightly open. She was even forgetting to drink and smoke. I was absorbed by Lolly, Kit and Babs, too, but also chagrined. I lived among those women; they were my society. But I was not of them. I submitted to Dr Ohlberg’s ministrations, as they did, but for a different reason. I was sure that my reason must be different from theirs.

What was my reason? While the girls chattered, and Eleanor stared at them with an amused look on her corrugated face, I considered my reason.

The word alchemy occurred to me, as it had when I’d gone to Bonwit’s with my mother. I wasn’t even sure what it meant. But I began to apprehend that I wanted a perfected face so I could fold myself within myself, and find repose. I wanted my face wrought into a shell or mask – yes, perhaps a mask. I wanted to look like myself only different; better. And yes, I did want to look young, but not like the me I once was; more like one I had missed – a fugitive me. A redeemed me.

Again, I glanced sidelong at Eleanor, who still seemed arrested by the conversation on the sofa opposite. Babs was saying, ‘Ohlberg is a high priest. I bow before him. He gave me a new neck and I could kiss his feet.’

I wondered why I wanted to fold myself within myself? I couldn’t figure it out, could only imagine a picture-perfect version of myself walking along Madison Avenue in an elegant cape, like a photograph from a 1950s fashion magazine, attracting admiration for my prettiness and poise, and keeping to myself the impulses of my raging heart.

 

This morning, Eleanor Greenwood invited me to lunch at La Maison Bleue.

I arrive early and am nervous, so nervous I order a martini which I never drink though I like the splendid glass and how dense and viscous the gin looks inside it. I am nervous because Eleanor is an actual Lady and a true artist. A few years ago, she published one particular short story about an ordinary working woman in London and this woman’s dog, and the dog’s death, and the woman’s grief but also her regret because she had not sufficiently cherished the love he had bestowed on her. How could someone like Eleanor, who grew up in a castle, create so beautifully both this woman’s milieu and her interior life?

Emboldened by the martini, I ask her as much. She is drinking vodka and lime, and wearing another loose, well-made dress, this time plum-coloured. Her whitish hair, brittle though profuse, swirls around her ruin of a face.

‘It isn’t hard, my dear. One must simply be curious about other people. Everyone’s life is extraordinary. And one must be curious about oneself, as well.’ She touches a hand to her thin bosom. ‘It’s all here. If one can bear to look at oneself, truly.’

Lolly Goldberg, in lemon-coloured Chanel, settles on the banquette next to us. She is wearing too much J’Adore. My mother always admonished me never to drench myself in scent before going out to a meal because it is unladylike to muffle the flavours of the food with your perfume (my mother, a working-class girl from Scranton married to a self-made pineapple juice mogul, was nevertheless an expert on deportment).

Lolly is accompanied by a man whom I recognise as a distinguished Southern writer. I am intrigued. New York socialites have been chary of Southern writers ever since Truman Capote betrayed us (our prattle; our mean-mindedness: it was all true) in that Esquire piece which was actually the first chapter of his new novel, and the ruination of his social life. But now there is Lolly, talking bouncily to this Southern writer who recognises Eleanor and bows slightly in her direction.

‘Have you ever had work done?’ I ask her suddenly, not knowing why. Clearly she hasn’t: that face.

‘Darling,’ she says, ‘I’ve worked all my life. I took up my pen at fifteen and haven’t put it down since.’

‘I didn’t mean—’

‘I know what you meant.’ The lemur eyes gaze at me.

The head waiter has appeared. I look hurriedly down at the menu. ‘The sole, please, just poached; no sauce. And spinach with lemon. No butter, please; only lemon.’

Eleanor orders cold sea bass with herb mayonnaise followed by a Black Angus steak, very rare, with sautéed potatoes. And we agree on a half-bottle of red Bordeaux for her and a half of white for me.

She gives her harsh smoker’s laugh. ‘I didn’t mean to tease you. Or perhaps I did. No; I’ve never had work done. Obviously.’ She lights another cigarette. At that moment, a prominent French philosopher walks over to a nearby table accompanied not by his mistress as usual – the mistress is actually a remote cousin of Eleanor’s – but by his wife. The wife has had a great deal of work done. She looks eerily beautiful, like a walking doll.

‘Well,’ I say, ‘I haven’t really, either. No operations or incisions or anything. Just, you know, injections.’

She was smiling, but now looks abruptly serious. ‘My dear Polly, the human face is a spiritual thing.’

‘Yes; I know. I agree. But I…’ I am on the border of telling her something or else falling silent. I plunge into the telling. ‘I prefer my own face worked on. For the obvious reasons – I would like to be pretty longer. I have failed at love but maybe a youthful face would give me more time at it: time to get it right. But you see, it’s also that I… I want a perfect face so that I can be separate from people. I can’t explain.’

Once again she is staring at me, and I seem to divine the reason she is such a fine writer. ‘You are explaining very well, actually. Why? Why do you want to be separate from people?’

Before I can think, I say, ‘I want them to admire my faultless outside self so that I can protect my inside self from their… cruelty.’

A waiter has brought her first course. She considers it, the pearl-white fish and dollop of sauce, the pretty garnish. ‘Have you ever been to a dive?’

‘A what?’

‘You know, darling. A really low-down bar.’

I name my painter ex-boyfriend. ‘We used to go to rough little bars downtown. Probably they’ve all disappeared by now. Gentrification.’

She bears down on her meal; she is as hearty an eater as she is a drinker and smoker. ‘Lovely fish, I must say, though I seldom come to restaurants like this. They’re too bloody expensive. And boring.’

It’s true: Eleanor Greenwood is not on the usual social circuit. Before yesterday, I had never glimpsed her at parties or restaurants. She’d probably accepted Francesca’s invitation only because of the novelist husband or that man from the Manhattan Review.

She favours me with another ice-blue stare. ‘Let’s go out to a wee dive, Polly, tomorrow evening if you’re free. Just the pair of us.’

 

The dive is downtown, of course, in Alphabet City. It is called The True Song. It is not thronged and smelly, as I had feared it might be. In fact it is a civilised-looking place, with wine bottles on display along the walls, but also books, real books like Faulkner’s novels, Auden’s poetry, Freud’s case histories and good dictionaries. So it is like a wine shop and a library in one, but on closer inspection I must admit that it is also dirty, as perhaps a dive should be, with nicotine-yellowed walls, a grubby counter and sticky tables. In any case, I am intrigued, especially by the barman, a young bearded guy who, I notice, washes and dries the glasses until they shine, as opposed to the filthy state of his bar in general.

Jazz is playing softly. The light is brownish and weak, but strong enough to read by. Three of the other customers are reading: a young man with scholarly glasses and the sleeves of his pink shirt bunched up above the elbow; a middle-aged man wearing a beautiful suit; and a very fat grey-haired woman. All three are alone at separate tables, as in an Edward Hopper painting.

The only other people are a bearlike man with a red beard and two girls, both sixteen or so, who may be his daughters, though one is very dark, with black blunt-cut hair and skin the colour of toast, and the other blonde and pale as milk. The barman brings to their table three plates and three knives, and Redbeard and the girls proceed to unwrap parcels of cheese and tear at a baguette from within its sheath, and to eat methodically but with relish. The girls are drinking Perrier, the man red wine.

And up at the counter stands a gay couple, one man handsome in a sharp-faced way, but his partner more than handsome, a fair-haired beauty like my brother Luke.

We move towards the counter and order our drinks. Surprisingly, Eleanor requests a pint of beer. I choose white wine, predictably, but for all that this place is a dive, it is a wine bar as well.

‘How goes it, Eleanor?’ the barman asks in an Irish accent. ‘How’s the family back home?’

‘Mad as Hatters,’ Eleanor answers, offering him a cigarette. ‘Always were, and always will be.’

We take our drinks to a table close to Redbeard and the girls. They are still eating industriously.

‘I’d like a coffee,’ the fair girl says in a foreign accent – perhaps German.

‘Coffee!’ Redbeard exclaims. ‘The coffee in this country is just brown water.’ His own accent is definitely, crisply, English. ‘I shall never understand how the Yanks can bear it. Besides, you’ve eaten practically nothing. I’m devouring all this lovely cheese by myself.’

But the girls have finished and are looking steadily at him while he continues to munch. At last, gulping down the last of his wine, he says, ‘I must make sure you both have money. Will you be fine for money, once I’ve left?’

The dark-haired girl replies, ‘We’re okay at the moment. Anyway, there’s always Aunt Noodle.’

All three laugh. In a low voice, I ask Eleanor if she knows anything about these people and the relationships among them. But she whispers that she has never seen them before.

We continue to drink and drink, and eventually more people come in and float to our table, and almost before I have registered it, we are invited to a party. The party is in an East Village apartment with beaded curtains for doors: there are only three small rooms including the kitchen which seems to serve also as a dining room, and a bathroom with (thank God) a real door. I cannot remember who is actually throwing the party, but a young woman wearing a scarlet kimono is chopping up vegetables and putting them into a pot. She is a singer, I suddenly remember from our rambling chat in the bar, and then, while she chops, she begins to sing in a low beguiling voice, and to move her hips and to laugh in between. The other guests besides me and Eleanor are a jazz saxophone player, a film lecturer at NYU and a New York Times journalist, all men.

I find myself talking to the journalist, who is even drunker than me. He says, ‘You look rich. Are you rich?’

I wonder if he is flirting or being hostile. Blearily, I consider the connection between hostility and flirtation. Next I decide he is flirting, but wonder if I am too drunk to flirt back. ‘In what way do I look rich?’

‘The clothes. That necklace. Your hair. And just… a kind of shine off you.’

‘The shimmer of money?’ I am genuinely interested.

‘Yes; the shimmer of money. Also you’ve done something to your face. I don’t know what, but you’ve done one of those things.’

I decide that he has been merely hostile all along, or perhaps he’s just one of those unpleasant people who regard viciousness as a form of wit.

He takes in my silence. ‘Hey, don’t sulk. Everyone is doing that cosmetic surgery stuff. I thought I might write a piece on how it has affected our perception of beauty. Like, what’s beautiful when forty-year-olds look twenty-five and twenty-five-year-olds look forty, and everyone looks basically the same? Want another drink…’ He frowns before remembering my name. ‘Want another drink, Polly?’

I surprise myself by saying yes.

When he comes back, we both stare across the room at Eleanor, lounging on a sofa, smoking and looking intently at the NYU lecturer who is moulding the air with his hands while he talks.

The journalist says, ‘Eleanor Greenwood is a great lady, in the old-fashioned sense and not only because she’s an actual Lady. Terrific writer.’

‘I know. I wish she were taken more seriously. If she weren’t an actual Lady, they’d probably focus more on her books. As it is, a lot of people probably assume she’s just a dilettante.’

‘You’ve read Eleanor’s books?’

‘Some rich people read books.’

He laughs, and seems to reconsider me. ‘Funny, I shouldn’t be saying this to a woman; a woman should be saying it to me. But, you know, Eleanor being an aristocrat… that’s not the only reason people ignore her books. It’s not even the main reason.’

‘What is the main reason? The fact that she’s a woman?’

He is still considering me in a thoughtful way. ‘Of course. She’s a woman who was a great beauty. She’s a woman who was married to a famous man and took famous lovers. In many people’s imagination, she’s the muse, or else the femme fatale or some other stupid archetype. She’s never herself to those people; they’re not conscious enough to admire her for her great mind or her great books.’

We are silent. He gives his head a good-humoured shake. ‘I’m sorry I said that before, about your face. None of my fucking business.’

‘True. I don’t know why I let you get away with it.’

‘Sorry,’ he repeats. ‘Anyhow, although you haven’t solicited my opinion, I really want to say that you don’t look artificial. Or not yet, but you may begin to, if you keep Botoxing or whatever.’ He pauses. ‘I know I’m being nosy, but I’m a journalist. So I’ve got to ask: why would an intelligent, attractive person like you choose to go down that plastic surgery road? To please men?’

This time, I am not offended. I find no malice in him. ‘I don’t know,’ I reply, ‘and I’m too drunk to examine the question.’

He laughs. ‘Are you a writer too?’

‘No, but I… I read a lot.’ I sigh in drunken self-pity. ‘I’m the real dilettante.’

Suddenly the air is fragrant with weed, though I can’t see who is smoking it. We are seated on two uncomfortable chairs across the room from Eleanor’s sofa. We haven’t had dinner yet. I look over my shoulder towards the kitchen and glimpse the singer, still chopping; her silk-sheathed hips still moving to her song. It is she who smokes the marijuana: I wonder how that will affect her cooking.

My journalist says, ‘You know Eleanor’s daughter died in the bath?’

I don’t quite understand. ‘The bath? Eleanor’s daughter? I didn’t know she had a daughter. Was the father her ex-husband?’

‘No; the father is that super-successful artist.’ And he names an English painter who is considerably more famous than my old boyfriend.

‘Oh, dear. And the daughter drowned? Or did she—’

‘It seems she ODed. I don’t know the details. But it seems she ODed on something and then decided to have a bath and… just drowned.’ He gives a harsh laugh. ‘Even you rich people can’t escape sorrow.’ He drags the back of his hand across his mouth, which is discoloured from the cheap wine we have been drinking. ‘I’ll tell you something. Life’s theme is loss, no matter how much money you have. Or how many chemicals you put into your face.’

‘Some things endure,’ I say faintly. I am thinking abruptly of Luke, of when he was in college and most of his friends were dead or dying.

Later on – I can’t remember how much later – we squeeze around the singer’s small kitchen table for a dinner of tajine and more wine, although Eleanor and the NYU man are polishing off a bottle of Dimple Haig between them. I have an impression that the general conversation has turned more lucid, as can happen when people are very drunk, as if an excess of alcohol produces a moment of extreme clarity before plunging you once more into the murk.

The sax player says, ‘The late forties are terrible.’

My journalist frowns. ‘The late nineteen-forties?’

‘No; no. The age. Mid-forties, you can still convince yourself you’re going through a late-youth crisis. But when fifty is just around the corner, there’s no escape.’

The NYU lecturer says, ‘But you can be young at heart. That’s not just a cliché. You can be young at any age. If you maintain your libido; not, you know, just sex, but a passionate curiosity about life, well, you’re young—’

Suddenly Eleanor rasps, ‘What’s wrong with getting old?’

The jazz man laughs. ‘Jeez, I’ll tell you what’s wrong: my back. Just reaching across the desk for a cigarette throws it out these days. I’m at the goddamn osteopath three times a week.’

The singer sighs, ‘And the wrinkles. Every morning there’s another one in the mirror.’

Eleanor shakes her head impatiently. ‘No, I mean what’s wrong with getting old? Why do you talk about being “young” in spirit? Why is youth a virtue?’ She looks levelly at me. ‘Why do you do those things to “rejuvenate” yourself, to look younger and younger as you age? What’s wrong with getting old?’

And then she recites some lines of Yeats, as somehow I knew she would: ‘When you are old and grey and full of sleep…’ She crushes out her cigarette and resumes the poem, and when she comes to the line But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you she stares straight at me: ‘But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, And loved the sorrows of your changing face…’ She swallows a mouthful of whiskey. ‘Even the sadnesses, my dears. Life is life. It is what we are here for.’

I want to ask about her daughter, who died in the bath. But even in my drunken state I realise this would be tactless, and so I refrain.

 

Over the ensuing months, we attend more bohemian parties, Eleanor and I. One evening, at our dive, an elderly theatrical couple, he sporting a white hat, she a flowing white dress, invite us to their extremely small apartment for supper. They rummage in their fridge and produce delicacies like artichoke hearts, avocados and quail eggs, which we eat on their minuscule balcony overlooking Tompkins Square Park. It is twilight, and the sky, blurred by dust and pollution, burns ash-red. We drink a glass of their ancient Calvados and are both faintly sick afterwards, but I don’t mind. I am happy.

 

In the autumn, Francesca tells me Eleanor is ill, and has been asking for me. I haven’t seen her in some time but everyone floats away during the dank New York summer (I myself spent August at Geraldo Henderson’s house in Sag Harbor), and anyway there was a rumour making the rounds that Eleanor had gone to visit family in Ireland. Only now Francesca speaks in a hushed voice and makes it clear that Eleanor is extremely unwell. She has moved from her lower Fifth Avenue apartment to a suite at the Sherry Netherland.

‘Why move to a hotel?’ I ask.

‘Because, darling, no one can afford a full staff anymore, except the super-duper wealthy. Even Eleanor can’t afford a full staff. But at the hotel she has a full staff as well as private nurses.’ She lowers her voice even further. ‘There’s nothing to be done. Apparently she has one of those IV things for pain but she isn’t having an operation. It’s too… advanced for that.’

‘Oh, God.’ A wail rises in my throat and I press a hand against my mouth.

Francesca says, ‘Polly, she wants to see you. Her secretary didn’t have your number but she called me and asked me to pass on the message. She wants to see you before, you know, before it’s too late.’

 

I feel like an intruder the first time I visit. A spacious room with a number of ormolu chairs serves as an antechamber, and there I wait, with a cup of tea, beside some rather illustrious people (a powerful art dealer; a New Yorker essayist; a literary biographer) as well as others I do not recognise. I assume all of them have known Eleanor for a long time. They look at me and smile, but I fear they see me for what I am: a minor New York socialite with a Botox-tightened face, a frivolous interloper among serious people who have worked hard and accomplished things.

Yet after a few moments, a woman who must be Eleanor’s secretary – she looks like a secretary with her severe glasses and dark dress – asks for me, and when I rise she beckons me into another room, a bedroom where Eleanor lies in an enormous white bed, her head bolstered by multiple white pillows.

I expected the room to be in semi-darkness but it is full of autumn light, made slightly yellow by translucent yellow curtains that billow from the tall windows. There are no hospital smells, just an odour of clean linen and eau de toilette. There is a pretty nurse adjusting something on Eleanor’s IV, a maid collecting teacups, and another maid arranging roses, to whom I give my own present of flowers. She smiles. I look at Eleanor.

‘Polly,’ she says, extending her hand, and at that moment I know this is the first person I have ever been loved by, or have loved.

 

That is not true, of course. I remember loving my parents in an earnest, baffled way. And there was a period during which Luke and I adored each other. But my adult life was fairly barren before I met Eleanor, despite the painter.

 

Eleanor’s ancestors made a fortune in beer, and they married aristocrats. Eleanor herself has always been balanced between a life of threadbare grandeur and the milieu of artists and bohemians. My father made a fortune in fruit juice. I also have lived between what people call Society and what they call Bohemia. Eleanor’s mother was cold to her, and so was mine to me. But there are great differences between us, and not just titles and castles; the greatest difference is the fact that she is talented and has worked. Whereas I may be talented at something, but it remains unrealised, for I have not worked.

 

I settle on the chair beside her, and clasp her offered hand. She looks like herself but greyer, and there are violet crescents beneath her eyes. Following my gaze, she says, ‘I have unnaturally large eyes.’

I smile. ‘Yes. They are lakes of eyes.’ I almost go on to say, ‘One could drown in them,’ but stop myself in time.

She says, ‘Funny; just before you walked in, I was thinking of my cat, Lola. Two years ago, she disappeared. After five days, she finally returned, looking the worse for wear I may tell you, and even a bit apologetic. But the point is, during her absence I was thrown into anguish. Anguish, my dear. I loved that cat, and when she went missing, I suffered. I said to myself: Eleanor, you fool; you have had several lovers, you have had a child, and friends, and many of them – including the child – have died. How can you be thrown into anguish by a cat? But it seems that love is love, and loss is loss. Would you be so kind as to give me a sup of water?’

I hold the glass to her lips.

After drinking just a little, she says, ‘Dear Polly, I am awfully tired. Could you come back tomorrow?’ She turns her head to look at the secretary. ‘Ask all those people to go away and come back tomorrow, would you? Tell them to come in the afternoon.’ She gives my hand a slight squeeze. ‘But you; you come in the morning when I’m at my best.’

 

The next morning, she rambles. Her hand in mine is very dry, and she moves her head restlessly on the pillows, though she insists she is in no pain. She says, ‘My beastly mother abandoned us in that creaking old pile of a castle. We were at the mercy of horrible nannies, a succession of them. Cruel, dreadful women, or else just negligent. My brother had rickets; can you imagine? We were heirs to a fortune and there we were with chilblains and rickets. Do you believe in the resurrection of the body?’

‘What?’

‘I rather do. But not the same body. After Christ is resurrected, he looks like a different man; Mary Magdalene can’t recognise him until he utters her name.’ She gazes at me from those great eyes. ‘You see, I believe we have a bodily presence after death, but not our ordinary body. It is our Blakean body, our shining one.’

Next day, I visit again, but she has declined dramatically since the morning before. She is asleep, and her face has turned yellowish, and her cheeks are hollow. She breathes with a rattling sound and gives a snort from time to time. The secretary, standing behind me, says in a low voice, ‘That look, when the cheeks sink into the face, it means… the end is near.’ I turn and she gives a brief smile. ‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to be tactless. It’s just… people in my family have died and so I know…’

‘You weren’t being tactless.’

I settle in the visitor’s chair, still warm from the director of the British Arts Council who had flown in expressly to see Eleanor. In the waiting room he had refused tea and had inclined his head, without speaking to the rest of us. At first, I’d thought him haughty but realised by and by that he was simply overcome.

Eleanor continues to sleep. I look at her. She has worked. She has travelled. The skin covering her closed eyes is withered. Her lashes are dusty. Her mouth is slightly open, which makes her look more helpless, more undignified, less like herself and more like a dying animal. Her wasted hands, which have written books, pluck at the neck of her nightgown. And I can see the bone through the onionskin of her cheek, shining like mother-of-pearl.

 

 

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