Gerald and Rachel were still ill France, and Nick found himself almost resenting their return at the end of the month. The housekeeper came in early each morning, to prepare the day's meals, and Gerald's secretary, with sunglasses on top of her head, looked in to deal with the imposing volume of post. The gardener announced himself by the roar of the mower outside an open window. Mr Duke, the handyman (His Grace, as the family called him), was at work on various bits of maintenance. And Nick was in residence, and almost, he felt, in possession. He loved corning home to Kensington Park Gardens in the early evening, when the wide treeless street was raked by the sun, and the two white terraces stared at each other with the glazed tolerance of rich neighbours. He loved letting himself in at the three-locked green front door, and locking it again behind him, and feeling the still security of the house as he looked into the red-walled dining room, or climbed the stairs to the double drawing room, and up again past the half-open doors of the white bedrooms. The first flight of stairs, fanning out into the hall, was made of stone; the upper flights had the confidential creak of oak. He saw himself leading someone up them, showing the house to a new friend, to Leo perhaps, as if it was really his own, or would be one day: the pictures, the porcelain, the curvy French furniture so different from what he'd been brought up with. In the dark polished wood he was partnered by reflections as dim as shadows. He'd taken the chance to explore the whole house, from the wedge-shaped attic cupboards to the basement junk room, a dim museum in itself, referred to by Gerald as the trou de gloire. Above the drawing-room fireplace there was a painting by Guardi, a capriccio of Venice in a gilt rococo frame; on the facing wall were two large gilt-framed mirrors. Like his hero Henry James, Nick felt that he could "stand a great deal of gilt".
Sometimes Toby would have come back, and there would be loud music in the drawing room; or he was in his father's study at the back of the house making international phone calls and having a gin-and-tonic - all this done not in defiance of his parents but in rightful imitation of their own freedoms in the place. He would go into the garden and pull his shirt off impatiently and sprawl in a deckchair reading the sport in the Telegraph. Nick would see him from the balcony and go down to join him, slightly breathless, knowing Toby quite liked his rower's body to be looked at. It was the easy charity of beauty. They would have a beer and Toby would say, "My sis all right? Not too mad, I hope," and Nick would say, "She's fine, she's fine.," shielding his eyes from the dropping August sun, and smiling back at him with reassurance, among other unguessed emotions.
Catherine's ups and downs were part of Nick's mythology of the house. Toby had told him about them, as a mark of trust, one evening in college, sitting on a bench by the lake. "She's pretty volatile, you know," he said, quietly impressed by his own choice of word. "Yah, she has these moods." To Nick the whole house, as yet only imagined, took on the light and shade of moods, the life that was lived there as steeped in emotion as the Oxford air was with the smell of the lake water. "She used to, you know, cut her arms, with a razor blade." Toby winced and nodded. "Thank god she's grown out of all that now." This sounded more challenging than mere moods, and when Nick first met her he found himself glancing tensely at her arms. On one forearm there were neat parallel lines, a couple of inches long, and on the other a pattern of right-angled scars that you couldn't help trying to read as letters; it might have been an attempt at the word ELLE. But they were long healed over, evidence of something that would otherwise be forgotten; sometimes she traced them abstractedly with a finger.
From The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, pages 3-17.Copyright 2004 by Alan Hollinghurst. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. Reproduced by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing.
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