Fiction | Mystery | Politics
A political ghost story
It began on a hot afternoon in early summer, at a delightful spot I had grown fond of over the years and had even come to think of as in some way ‘mine’. You could describe it as a resort of a modest kind, frequented mostly by weekending couples in search of tranquillity, and with a very fine view. The lake that lost itself in the distance, the green hills. The green the result of careful and assiduous irrigation—because, as everyone knows, the land had been allowed to fall into ruin. There were vineyards and fruit groves. From the quiet restaurant that overlooked the slopes there was nothing to disturb the eye—no unsightly buildings, no snaking roads, no people, even. I remarked to my companion that the setting was perfect. I had not taken her there before. I was expecting a compliment to my taste. She agreed in a lukewarm way: it was clear that the place did not enchant her as, on my first visit, it had enchanted me. I was at once irritated. I said to Madame, with rather less ceremony than I usually employed, that we would like tea and cakes, and she invited us to go on to the terrace. I could tell that she was both pleased to see me and slightly surprised at my manner. We went out to the terrace. It seemed to me for the first time that it was unpleasantly exposed to the sun.
We sat at one of the small tables. There was music playing on a radio inside; it was Bach’s Italian Concerto. There had been nobody in the restaurant when we came through, except a pale waitress in a black dress and white apron half-concealed in a doorway. The restaurant was spacious; the lakeward view and large windows always put me in mind of the dining room of an ocean liner. In the gaps between the windows hung nineteenth-century watercolours of a pastoral landscape. I had never looked closely at them, but I imagined them to be representations of the countryside around the resort. They were done by Europeans, of course. Local artists could not have produced such work. The tables were immaculately laid with white linen and crystal.
Madame herself came to take our order. As always, I was humbled by her great age and her dignity. It always seemed to me utterly incongruous—utterly inappropriate—that she should be standing beside my table while I sat at my ease. I did not know her history but I could guess it. I should be standing in her presence. Goodness knows, however, what she would have done if I had scrambled to my feet. I think she would have been alarmed. I would have done anything rather than bring alarm to those ancient, bright eyes.
In this political ghost story, Anita Mason plays with the ambiguities torturing a museum curator whose certainties unravel as he wakes up to the true nature of the society he lives in. Tightly written and wry in its delivery, the book asks disturbing questions about identity (both personal and historical), about repression and how we justify it, about manipulation, and about the nature of time in a country in which the past keeps the present captive
I asked for a pot of tea for the two of us and a selection of cakes. Then, on impulse, I asked her also to bring some preserves. I don’t know why I did this. One does not normally eat preserves with cake. But Madame made the most exquisite preserves and would bring them to the table in tiny china saucers containing only a spoonful or two, each one the pure deep colour of a jewel, a feast for the eyes as well as the palate. Perhaps, having failed earlier, I still wanted to impress my companion. Madame suggested that she should bring some toast and butter, with which the preserves were normally served, so that we could appreciate them more fully, and I agreed.
When Madame had gone, we turned our attention to the view. I pointed out a fishing boat setting out across the lake, and remarked that the fish that was landed locally was said to be the best in the country. Leyla said that surely fish was fish, and that what mattered was how quickly it was got to market. Frowning, I explained that that was not so: the shores of the lake were particularly rich in minerals that were washed down from the hills, and these minerals fed the micro-organisms which were then eaten by the fish. All this was nonsense and I had made it up on the spot out of pure annoyance. She appeared to consider it, then said, ‘Is that so?’ in a tone that plainly indicated that it wasn’t.
The pale waitress brought our cakes. They were on a silver two-tier cake stand and looked spectacular. Madame had made them all with her own hands. The best, I had found in the past, was an apple and ginger cake topped by a small circle of cinnamon-dusted icing. However, what I was waiting for was the preserves.
After a short interval, the waitress re-appeared with a generous pot of tea inside a quilted tea-cosy, a jug of milk and a basin of sugar lumps. She placed these on the table between us and, beside the sugar, a pair of antique sugar tongs. The tongs had an elegant taper and cruel little claws. I picked them up and examined them with appreciation.
‘They’re English,’ I said. ‘Georgian.’
There was no comment from my companion.
‘Tea?’ I suggested.
I poured it. The cups were bone china, naturally. Tea should not be drunk in anything else. Certainly not Darjeeling. I have milk with mine, just a drop. I have never taken to lemon. My eyes drifted once more to the citrus groves. Citrus had become a major export in recent years. I recalled that there were no citrus groves in the watercolours in the dining room. There were flocks of sheep.
The pianist was taking the Andante too slowly.
Madame brought the preserves. There were five, arranged in a circle. Delicately she indicated each one and told us what it was. The pear, the quince, the greengage, the strawberry, the blackcurrant. It was like being re-introduced to a circle of old friends. Her pride was evident. Rightly, I thought. The preserves glowed: ruby, emerald, topaz, some of them speckled with tiny dark seeds. After such a past, to have created this. I saw, suddenly, what a tremendous achievement it was: the gracious house, the imposing restaurant, the glorious view, the little pots of jam. How hard she must have worked! But that was not the point at all. To have overcome … what we all know has had to be overcome, but what those of my generation have not had to face. Perhaps could not. I know when to admire, and I did admire. I smiled my admiration up at her, and the unlooked-for thought came to my mind that she had put on weight.
Anita Mason is an English author and former Booker Prize nominee. She has published eight novels, including The Illusionist (1983), The Racket (1990) and The Right Hand of the Sun (2008), as well as short stories and journalism. Her first novel . Bethany, was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1981. Her novels range widely in subject matter but have in common an interest in the ideas behind alternative communities, the corruptions of power and the way the past shapes the present
After Madame had left us, we sat quietly for a moment and I raised my hand to shade my eyes from the sun. It was extremely bright on the terrace: light glanced off the vermilion blossoms in the flower tubs, off the flakes of mica in the paving, off minuscule pools of water left on the stone by the watering can, off the luminous lake.
‘Are you all right?’ asked Leyla. She seemed concerned.
‘Yes, thank you.’
I had left my sunglasses in the car. I had expected us to be having tea in the dining room. I had forgotten Madame’s insistence that tea and coffee be taken on the terrace.
I helped myself to a piece of toast and considered the preserves. The quince, perhaps? Leyla was deliberating over the cakes.
‘The apple and ginger is good,’ I said, pointing to it.
She took it, rather surprising me, since she seemed to be in a contrary mood. I took a spoonful of the quince jam and transferred it to the edge of my plate. I spread a little butter on the toast and added a topping of quince jam. I waited for a few seconds in anticipation, then took a bite from the corner of the toast.
It was like eating cardboard. Cardboard spread with something disgustingly sweet. It was all I could do not to spit it out. Like a drowning man I reached for my tea. It was hot, and that was about all that could be said for it.
I sat back, conscious that my breathing was rather laboured. Blast the sun, which was too fierce. Blast Madame, who was so finicky about what was eaten where. I drank more of the tasteless tea. I shouldn’t have ordered Darjeeling. But then, I remembered, Madame only offered Darjeeling: that and a range of herbal teas that I found insipid.
A feeling of exasperation swept over me. The restaurant was too grand by half, the fuss about having tea and coffee on the terrace was ridiculous, the establishment was run along rigid lines by a matriarch who brooked no challenge to her authority: the little waitress looked terrified. On top of everything, the jam was too sweet.
I was horrified by these thoughts. To dispel them, I took a spoonful of greengage jam and put it straight into my mouth. It was disgusting.
I poured more tea and gulped it. I could feel sweat springing out on my forehead. I needed to get out of the sun.
‘Max, are you sure you’re all right?’
‘I’m perfectly fine,’ I said. ‘How is your cake?’
Perhaps, I thought, someone else was doing the cooking. But I knew they were not. She would not allow it.
‘It’s quite nice,’ said Leyla.
Savagely, I took a cake from the stand and bit into it. It was a confection of scent and sugar. I took another. It was the same. I took a spoonful of strawberry jam.
‘Max, I think we ought to go.’
‘In a minute,’ I said, and swallowed the jam. I have always hated strawberry jam. When I was a child I suffered from migraines and my mother would crush an aspirin into a spoonful of strawberry jam as a remedy. I have loathed it ever since.
A tightness I had not felt for thirty years was gathering above my eyes. I made a great effort and called for the bill. The frightened waitress came, looking frightened. I paid and we went to the car. As we passed through the dining room I was conscious of Madame’s eyes following us, full of reproach, from a shadowed alcove ...
A political ghost story
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