At this time of year, Antibes is at its best. The almond blossom is out, the sea loses its darkness, the cold rains have mostly been swept mysteriously away, the mistral has cleared the skies and the geraniums are being planted out. There is a sense that the warm earth-life of Provence is beginning again aft er the longueurs of the winter. Behind the tastefully crumbling and slowly fading wall that protects the Villa Tubal from the eyes of idle passers-by and garish tourists, the three gardeners are busy. They are Algerian, with sad, stubbled faces. Sir Harry Trevelyan-Tubal likes to sit in the garden. He particularly likes the scent of the umbrella pines and the mimosa, and the wafts of thyme, which come on the mistral off the hillside behind the house. Good health is oft en attributed in these parts to the mistral.
Since his stroke, three years ago, he has difficulty writing, but every morning he dictates letters to his son, who is standing in for him at the bank, giving him his instructions and his advice. He also writes to old friends and to important fi nancial and political figures. His secretary, Estelle, types these letters and they are FedExed to their destination. Now, slightly dragging his left leg --- some days it is better than others --- he walks for the fi rst time this year along the gravelled path between the low box hedges to his spot on the terrace, where his breakfast is laid out on the blue Provençal pottery he favours for informal occasions.
On this terrace overlooking the cove and the boathouse beneath, Churchill once painted, watched by the young Harry. Despite the tardiness of his leg, he doesn’t at a distance present a fi gure of pity. He is elegantly dressed in a light-brown jacket, which has threads of a gold colour woven into it, so that it looks almost vibrant in this clear light; the jacket is paired confidently with plum-coloured trousers and two-tone deck shoes. On his head, partly hiding the thick grey hair, is a panama hat, just sufficiently irregular to indicate to those who care about these things that it is a Montecristi from Lock & Co., who have supplied him with hats for sixty years and more. Nothing in his wardrobe or indeed in the whole villa is vulgar or mass-produced or discordant. In some magical fashion, which doesn’t involve interior designers, the villa has reached this state of grace by increments.
The Trevelyan-Tubals are not so much at home with their surroundings as the masters of their surroundings. It’s as if inanimate objects, even landscape, are subject to their will and taste. And in a sense they are: the landscape, which now looks so natural, was created eighty years ago by Sir Harry’s father on a rocky and scrubby peninsula. Sir Harry’s breakfast has been laid on the table and the sunshade has been perfectly positioned so that the plates are in deep shade. Because Lady Trevelyan-Tubal is at Mulgrave House in Chelsea Square --- she’s been in London all winter --- Estelle, seventy-one, sits with him. She does not eat, but sips a café au lait cautiously, and keeps her notebook at the ready for his dictation. Once, many years ago, he told her that the way she drank annoyed him, and so she still sips with determined restraint. But she adores him, and has done for more than thirty years. The bank pays her salary and she has her own small house out of sight, behind the clay tennis court and its pavilion. This little house is itself built in the style of a Provençal mas.
Sir Harry allows her to dab his mouth when crumbs from his almond croissant stick to the foam that eating inexplicably causes to gather in the corners of his half-frozen lips. She has also become his interpreter, because not even his wife can really understand him when he speaks. Estelle doesn’t fuss or hurry him.
‘Did Julian reply?’
‘Not yet, Sir Harry. He is still in Paris at a meeting of the trust, and won’t be back until later today. Early evening, probably.’
‘Well, look, Estelle, I think we should get on with it, don’t you?’
He puts his coff ee cup down abruptly and it lands on the terrace, smashing, but he appears not to notice. She summons a maid, who is standing some way off , to clear the table.
He begins. She believes she is able to understand every word, although his voice is strangely distant – she used to think of a bird trapped in a chimney --- as if the words are reaching his mouth by a back route. Sometimes she is reminded of her brother Lionel’s telephone, made with a length of hosepipe and two baked-bean cans: she had to wait upstairs while he spoke to her from the back garden, his voice faint. He would break off to shout instructions. There are strangled yodelling notes in Sir Harry’s vowels, and a wind-instrument harshness in his consonants, so that the rhythms of speech have been scrambled en route from wherever speech originates. But she is used to it.
‘My dear Julian, the almond blossom is out and the…’
He points to the Mediterranean.
‘Shall I put “the sea, Sir Harry?’
‘Yes, yes of course “the sea.’
‘ The sea is…?’
‘The sea is calm and as blue as a…’
‘A duck’s egg?’
‘Duck egg. Julian, may I remind you that it has always been the policy of Tubal and Co. to look aft er our animals’ (she changes this to ‘customers’) ‘with the greatest possible care, because our livelihood depends upon the silken thread of connection which runs between us and them, and which continues over many lifetimes so that the bank, as I like to say, is in a sense a…?’
‘A living organism, Sir Harry?’ ‘A living organism, which depends for its very survival on keeping the lifeblood flowing. Our business…’
Estelle is happy to see him warming to his theme.
‘Our business is based on the confidence…’
‘Of our customers?’
‘Our customers, as my father…’
‘As my father, Sir Ephraim, was fond of saying. Too fond.’
He stops now and gazes out to sea where the first yachts of the new season have appeared, looking crisp and clean and hopeful.
‘Too fond. Th e shit. We are not running a casino.’
Estelle feels deep sadness. He has dried up. The old phrases have escaped in staccato fashion from inside his head and the supply is diminishing. She will tidy them up before sending them. Her sadness is not without an element of self-interest, because for the last thirty-two years she has been the pilot fi sh to his whale, swimming in his bow-wave, deeply but discreetly in love, and now she can see that the magnifi cent whale is beached. She doesn’t say it to anyone, but he has more or less been abandoned by the family. Young Simon is in the African jungle and Julian hardly ever visits and Fleur hasn’t been since Christmas. She seems to spend her days in the gym. She obviously finds her husband’s condition diffi cult to live with.
His eyes are still turned towards the Mediterranean. He sees, she thinks, only blobs of colour, like the Matisse of a view through a window to the port of Collioure, his fi rst purchase in 1952, which hangs in the front hall and which these days he oft en looks at for hours on end. She knows it cost him £4,900 and is worth some millions now. Twenty million at least. But he has absolutely no interest in the value of his paintings and only sells if he tires of a painter. Nonetheless she is logging them all in her spare time. The world for him has lost its infinite subtlety. His speech suggests that his understanding is not what it was, but she hopes that, in his brain, somewhere behind the portal where the words appear, he is still able to understand and appreciate these subtleties. He once delighted in surprisingly small natural things and events --- seasonal changes and moss on the path and birdsong and the bindings of books --- as well as the opera, the ballet and a day or two fi shing for salmon on the Tay or for trout on his stretch of the upper reaches of the River Test, where the waters are clear and the trout wary. Many of the bank’s clients have enjoyed the box at the opera and the openings of the exhibitions that Sir Harry sponsored. Julian doesn’t like the opera. He thinks it diverts attention from the real aims of the bank, which are the creation of value, and sends out the wrong message, in ways that his father doesn’t begin to understand. Before his stroke, his father had railed against hedge funds, apparently unaware that hedge funds were, for a while, responsible for a sixty per cent growth in their clients’ portfolios. That had made them a whole lot happier than a few nights watching men in tights leaping about at Covent Garden. Under Julian’s regime --- until recently --- the bank sponsored golf and a whole day at Ascot. Horse racing, of course, appeals to the Gulf States, but now, she has learned, all sponsorships are under review.
Estelle hasn’t told Sir Harry that the box has been sold. He still speaks of going to the opera and of taking a party to Glyndebourne. Estelle has the impression that Fleur is embarrassed to be seen with him, now that he stumbles and sometimes dribbles, and speaks in this strange, trapped-avian voice. She is much younger than Sir Harry, but then she knew that when she left the playwright to marry him.
Estelle looks at him as he stares out to sea. She wonders what he is truly thinking. Somehow, despite the tragedy that has taken him, he seems to retain his ability to be cheerful and also to choose unerringly what to wear. At a distance there is nothing of the invalid about him although close up the skin of his face has a sort of white, fungal bloom. Like an apple stored in a shed. He is too thin, so that as he sits his thighs barely disturb the plum trousers. Th ey look like the trousers on a marionette, lacking substance. Yet he seems serene. Occasionally, as he is dictating his letters to Julian, he becomes agitated. Now he watches a yacht tacking on the bay with approval.
‘We must get the . . .’
He points at the yacht.
‘The boat out?’
‘Yes. Tell . . .’
‘Tell Bryce that I want it out before Christmas.’
‘Easter, I think. I will make a note.’
‘Julian and the children want sail.’
He never forgets Julian’s name and Estelle finds this touching. At that moment one of the house servants, Antoine, walks over. He speaks to Estelle in English, because she has never learned much French.
‘Madame, there is a gentleman at the gate. He wishes to speak with Monsieur Julian.’
‘Who is he?’
‘He is the Russian gentleman who has bought Villa Floriana.’
‘I will speak to him.’
Estelle goes to the front gate. It is their new neighbour, Boris Vladykin, standing there in very large shorts. He is sweating and his breath smells of alcohol.
‘Good morning, Mr Vladykin.’
‘I want speak to Mr Julian.’
His face is broad and sweaty; the spring sunshine is hot.
‘He is not here, but he is coming soon. What do you wish to discuss?’
His English is poor.
‘I want to talk to Mr Julian about boat.’
‘Niobe is in the boatyard at the port for repairs. I don’t know anything more. Goodbye, Mr Vladykin. Mr Julian is coming down next week. He will know.’
She shuts the gate and walks back through the house and out on to the terrace. Vladykin rings the bell again, but she ignores him. Harry makes a noise, which Estelle interprets.
‘It was Mr Vladykin. I don’t know what he wants. He was wearing those ghastly shorts.’
Harry is disturbed. His face is fl ushed and his eyes are pained and restless. She wonders what Vladykin wants. She feels a spreading unease. The barbarians are at the gate.
Excerpted from Other People’s Money © Copyright 2012 by Justin Cartwright. Reprinted with permission by Bloomsbury USA. All rights reserved.
- paperback: 272 pages
- Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
- ISBN-10: 1608192733
- ISBN-13: 9781608192731