Going into the art gallery was merely a means of escaping the sudden rain. Charlotte had absolutely no interest in art ordinarily, something the gallery attendant seemed to be able to scent. Despite her friendly welcoming nod, the woman remained seated at her cherrywood desk and continued to read her detective novel. A clear signal that Charlotte was free to roam around in the place without being pursued to buy or leave. The worst of the downpour would be over in half an hour and then she’d walk the remainder of the way to the bookstore on Drammensveien.
Since it was a gallery that had offered the nearest shelter in her moment of need, she felt obligated to have a polite look at what was hanging on the walls. Being careful not to look at any of the paintings yet, she sat down her rain-soaked shopping bags near the door and hung up her dripping jacket on the coat rack. She would start at the beginning of the exhibit, and systematically see it all. The show seemed to have a theme of bullfighting. At first, she wasn’t certain if it was the work of several artists or just one. Then, moving from one painting to the next, she became more conscious of a single hand, an eye, a soul.
Twenty minutes later, she sat down on the pale birchwood floor beneath her favorite in the series and studied it closely. The sound of raindrops striking the windows echoed throughout the gallery, but she was in sunniest Spain. The yellow ground of the arena was a glowing bowl. Two men in sea-blue shirts, the bloodied bull dragged between them by a team of horses out of the arena. The heat in the color and flow of the animal’s blood! The rapt and passionate faces of the closest spectators. She said to herself that this wasn’t just painting, this was capturing life and enhancing the details so that the emotions of a moment were vivid. It was a kind of magic.
It was a long time before she noticed him, before she became aware of the man standing behind her. Glancing over her shoulder, she discovered that the man was not looking at the painting at all, but watching her look at it. She turned around fully and looked up into his face. He was fair, good-looking, not much older than she was. His gray eyes met hers levelly and there was no change in his expression. But her own pulse quickened and she felt the stain of discomfort creeping up her neck to her cheeks.
He spoke first.
“You like it, then?” He looked at the painting for a moment and then back to her.
“I think it’s … so real. Everything is alive. It’s almost better than real, actually,” she said, turning around to look again.
“You really believe that?”
She nodded and did not tum around.
“So will you let me paint you?”
“If I give you this painting in exchange,” he pointed at the wall. “Will you let me paint you and keep it for myself?”
‘’This is your … ?”
He gave the briefest of nods, as if she had only asked the most trivial question he could imagine.
“Do we have a deal? You did say you liked the painting. It would be a fair trade.”
Without waiting for an answer, he extended his hand to help her up from the floor. She had no idea if she actually liked this man, but she saw that he intended to have what he wanted. The fact that he wanted her to sit for a portrait was flattering. And she hadn’t realized it before, but she did want the painting. She accepted his hand.
“You still haven’t answered my question.”
She hesitated, stifling the easy answer ready on her tongue. Some instinct or intuition telling her that things were not as simple as they appeared, that this moment was not just about a painting. Something would happen, there would be consequences. When she finally did open her mouth to speak, no sound came out. She laughed nervously and he took her laughter as a “yes”. And they went on from there.
The two children played on the lawn behind the house, wrestling and chasing each other while a very young woman kept watch nearby, occasionally cautioning them but more often teasing. Mia’s abandoned straw hat lay in the grass beside an overturned wheelbarrow, alongside Markus’ football. Bits of sandwiches, cucumber, and cookies littered a blanket where a simple picnic lunch had been eaten by the entire family a few hours before. The laughter of the children and Mette, their au pair, carried out across the water to the boat. Charlotte, drowsy from the combination of lunch and the gentle motion of the boat dragged her hand lazily across the surface of the water, creating ripples and then attacking them with a finger. A low rumble erupted from the sky, threatening bad weather. Within minutes, the rain materialized and Charlotte watched as it swept across the far end of the lake as an advancing curtain, dark clouds bristling with thunder and lightning following close behind. Mette quickly collected the blanket from the grass, scooped up an armful of toys, and herded the children inside. Christian rowed in smoothly, bringing the small wooden boat back to shore just as the storm broke above their heads. Huge raindrops soaked them almost to the skin within moments. A violent summer shower.
“Race you to the house,” he said, tugging hard to test the line he’d used to secure the boat. If it was not secure, he’d have to swim out later to retrieve the boat from wherever it drifted.
Charlotte ran as though it were a real contest, pulling the hem of her dress up above her thighs and concentrating on lifting her knees to lengthen her stride. He stayed at her heels as they ran up the lawn and then surged forward with ease to cut her off at the foot of the stairs.
“Surprise. I win again,” he announced with a smug grin, blocking her path up the stairs.
“Only because the prizes are so good.”
“We'll see about that.”
She leaned forward to kiss his neck, just above the collar of his very white shirt and inhaled the grassy scent of the summer day on his skin. He caught her hands in his and held them. She felt the current of desire flow between them, so familiar and so stirring at the same time. It had been like this the first time between them — and the last. They tasted the rain on each other's lips and then hurried up the stairs and inside.
She woke up alone in bed and stretched out to turn the clock on the nightstand around to face her. Just after six. Mette would be finishing making dinner now while Mia and Thomas impatiently dogged her heels, begging to be allowed to help stir something or pour something. And whose turn was it today to be allowed to ring the old iron dinner bell at the side of the house? She hoped Mette remembered, or there would be a nasty quarrel until the matter got sorted out. Thomas was two years older than his sister, but Mia was twice as determined to have her way and nearly as tall as her brother so the odds were about even when they battled.
Charlotte got up and pulled a set of dry clothes from the wardrobe to replace the wet ones she’d peeled off and left in the bathroom sink. There was no time for a shower if she wanted to be at the table when dinner started. Dressed, she paused at the mirror to brush her hair into some basic order.
She walked lightly past the door of Christian's studio, not wanting him to even hear her pass by. Any contact with him would likely be unbearable. He was usually unbearable while he worked, so she made it a point not to be anyplace near him then. The entire household had adopted a similar code. She smiled as she saw the light on under the door as she passed the studio, thinking how schizophrenic Christian could seem even to those who knew him best. On most days, and on most occasions, he was calm, loving and thoughtful. But then, there were other times. The times when his work left no room for anything else in his life, not her, not the children, and certainly not the outside world. There was even the one time when she had bundled up Markus, while he was still their only child, in the middle of the night and fled to her friend Kristin’s when frustration and three days lack of sleep had sent Christian raving through the house screaming and overturning the furniture in the living rooms downstairs.
She had come back alone the next morning to find him asleep at the kitchen table. She dragged a mattress down to the kitchen, maneuvered him onto it and covered him with a blanket. When he woke up that evening, he had no idea what he’d done and was shocked to tears when she took him through the rooms and showed him the evidence.
So that was her husband. A man she had been married to for eight years, but who still had places within him she knew nothing about. She wasn’t sure how much of himself he knew completely, either. And there was no one to tell her the things she wanted to know. No brother or sister to divulge the secrets of his childhood to her. No one to tell her how he had traveled the route from boy to man. Something her mother had cautioned her about, marrying someone who had no one. Someone who had no intimate personal references.
“I like your Christian. He seems like a nice man. I think he loves you very much. But there are things that are hard to tell about a man without family,” her mother said a few weeks after the engagement, uncharacteristically candid for once. She insisted that his friends didn’t count. Only family counted. Only family inescapably knew. Then, as if afraid she’d overstepped some invisible boundary, her mother had quickly changed the topic to something to do with the wedding and Charlotte had forgotten the comment until her husband’s first violent rage over his work.
He was the only child of old parents, both well into their forties when he was born and both dead before he finished art school. But she thought she knew a great deal about them from living in their homes. In the house by the lake, an hour outside of the city and in the apartment next to Frogner Park, nothing had been changed. Christian had not done anything when he inherited them and Charlotte had not since she married him. He had given her free rein to do whatever she thought necessary, but she had not altered a thing. She liked the places as they were — colors, furniture, everything had been arranged with comfort and daily family living in mind, despite their old-fashioned formality.
Retaining the physical evidence of a past she knew little about was somehow reassuring. It proved something. That there had been a family here before that he had been a part of.
Mette was at the foot of the stairs when Charlotte reached the landing.
“There’s a phone call for you. A lady calling from Amsterdam who says it’s important.”
Charlotte picked up the phone in the front hall.
She listened carefully, the blood draining from her face. She sat down in the chair next to the phone and continued listening. Her only real contribution to the conversation when the time came was: “Yes, let’s meet in London. We’ll fly over together.”
He emerged from his studio late, well after nine, and gave her a half-smile as he entered the kitchen and went directly to the microwave. He pulled out the bowl of Mette's fish stew, grabbed a spoon from the drawer and began eating, not sparing the time to heat it up. She recalled he had hardly eaten a thing with her and the children at lunch. She saw an air of ease and satisfaction in his movements that told her he was happy with the day’ s work. Which made her even more reluctant to deliver the news.
“Leslie’s dead,” she said quietly.
He put down the bowl heavily and sat down next to her.
“Suicide. She shot herself. At her boyfriend’s apartment.”
“Jesus,” Christian dropped his head into his palms.
“It doesn’t surprise me. That’s the thing. It doesn’t even surprise me. Sofia called to tell me. We both talked like it was almost expected. She wasn’t surprised either.”
When Christian looked up, she could see that he was thinking of exactly the same thing she was. Last August. The two of them making love in the little summer house on the other side of the lake in the warmth of the afternoon, looking up at some point to find Leslie standing in the doorway watching them. All three froze, no one embarrassed, only gazing at each other. A single look passed between all three, then Leslie had stripped and joined them on the large bed. They spent the whole of the afternoon there, the three of them exchanging no words at all. Dressing when they finally heard the bell calling the children out of the nearby woods for dinner. They had not spoken of it. It was completely unnecessary.
They had all three been in bed, but there had been no further lovemaking. Only sex. As the three of them walked hand-in-hand back to the house, it occurred to Charlotte that Leslie had actually wanted to experience and be included in the lovemaking. That was what she had witnessed. That was what she had wanted from them. And they had not been able to give her that. Even while intertwined with her, she and Christian had really only been with each other. She had, ultimately, been yet another accessory like lingerie or massage oil, something to enhance their enjoyment of each other. And Leslie had sensed this. She packed after dinner and took the evening train to Stockholm. Leaving them. Leaving the emptiness she had found in the presence of their loving each other.
Neither she nor Christian had been able to understand why it had been impossible to give more of themselves. They had lain awake that night in each other’s arms in a guarded silence that neither dared to break. And they had never broken that particular silence.
Charlotte and Sofia filed off the plane and into the hot sun like creatures emerging from an undersea world of darkness into a bright surface existence. Cape Town. Somehow she could not see it. She could not see the place itself — only as a series of general impressions anyone could have gathered from a tourist brochure. Warm, sunny, teeming with life, the air almost spicy and seasoned with a saltiness. Four layers of color. Blue endless sky. Green hills, white and gold sand, and the blue of the sea.
The next day, they stood together in the warmth of the South African sunshine and prayed. Some prayed for Leslie by offering their own personal prayers, a chorus of background mumblings competing with the priest’s droning delivery. As if they were making a concentrated effort to intercede with God on her behalf and could not in good conscience leave her salvation in the hands of a robed stranger. Charlotte thought briefly of the hushed Lutheran services at home, where no one seemed to have much faith in the power of formal prayers and definitively not their own.
After what seemed hours of praying and bible reading in the relentless sun, Leslie’s mother took up a place next to the open grave as the men shoveled. The mourners were now to leave the family in peace. The departing people filed past the black-veiled figure beside the grave with a strained slowness as if respectfully resisting the urge to run. Some Europeans, mostly from Leslie’s London crowd. A few blacks. But they were mostly coloreds of precisely the same pale hue as the grieving family.
Charlotte could not bring herself to face Leslie’s mother again. When she had been introduced to her upon leaving the church, the woman had looked at her with eyes that pronounced her no true friend of her daughter’s. Eyes that said ‘’Then why didn’t you help?” and seemed to know an ugly answer.
But an unaccustomed weight in her handbag reminded her there was a thing that remained before she could go back to the hotel. She asked Sofia to wait with their car and driver, then Charlotte approached the sister, a stiff-faced, shockingly plain woman who had not shed a tear and seemed to be the anchor holding her mother tethered to a reasonable display of grief. While there was much of Leslie to be seen in the mother, Charlotte marveled that this woman could be related to Leslie at all.
She approached the sister and said a few words. They turned their backs to the proceedings and walked along slowly among the nearby graves. Charlotte removed a small purse from within her purse — no envelope had been large enough, and handed it to the woman.
“Leslie did me a favor. It changed my life. I owed her so much. I could never have given her money because we were friends. But I know that she would send money to your mother. So I just wanted her to have it. Maybe to open the dress shop Leslie talked about you opening with your mother. It should be enough.”
The sister said not a word. She nodded and accepted the money, and hurried away with it, as if in fear Charlotte might pursue her to take it back or as if she knew something Charlotte did not.
At ten o’clock, Christian emerged from the quiet of his studio and into the quiet of the kitchen. The children had long since been put to bed by Mette. As usual, he found his dinner on the glass plate inside the microwave and set the machine on. He went to the window and looked down at the lake, dark and glittering in the moonlight. He looked up at the stars and thought of Charlotte in a faraway place. At a funeral. Leslie’s.
So hard to think of her being dead. It was almost offensive. Such a beauty. He remembered the first time he saw her, five years before. He was standing in the hall of his schoolfriend Benedicte’s house in London and Leslie came through the door with three or four other people to join the party. She wore some kind of pale coat with a sable collar and beads of rain had collected on the tips of the fur that sparkled like crystals in the light. Then he noticed her face, a flawless pale gold complexion with deep green eyes and carefully painted cranberry lips. Dark and vivid. And watchful. Apart. Christian noticed that as she passed from the hall into the main room several women quickly came forward to greet her but completely without warmth, their eyes in conflict with the cheerfulness of their upturned mouths. So there was justification for this beautiful woman's distant manner, but he wondered which had come first, their hostility or her detachment.
From that first impressive glimpse of her, he had gotten the impression she was a woman of leisure — monied, spoiled, and well-accustomed to nestling in the lap of luxury like most of the other women invited for dinner that evening. But that was only partially correct. He soon discovered that while Leslie frequented a certain level of society, she had little money of her own. What she did possess was her exquisite physical beauty, an alluring presence, a pleasant manner that set most people at ease and ensured a steady stream of invitations, and a talent for moving from one hopeless wealthy man to the next with skill and timing.
At that time, she had been living with an Australian diamond dealer, an older man with the habit of collecting rare and beautiful objects. Some months after the house party, Christian saw Leslie in a dark corner of a fashionable Mayfair bar with the man tightly gripping her wrist, but Christian couldn’t tell if the man was hurting her or if it was just a game the two of them were playing so he didn’t interfere. Instead, he sent a waiter over to them with two drinks, anonymously. They hadn’t touched the drinks, but left shortly after. Christian had sat at his table long after their departure, trying to decipher what he had seen and thinking how it was a recipe for disaster for a beautiful woman to possess a wealth of naïveté, but no money of her own.
And it wasn’t the last time he’d wondered over the precariousness of her situation. What did she intend with it? The men she frequented were all dead ends from the beginning. They were mostly crocodiles with wallets who would chew, swallow, digest, expel and then move off from the waste that resulted. Then Leslie would go underground, vanish for a few months only to resurface on the arm and under the power of another of these men.
The one time he’d seen a man approach her in a genuine fashion, she had behaved in a confused and distant way, guarding even more of herself than was usual. Billy something or another was his name. A Belgian art dealer Benedicte had been desperate to introduce himself to Leslie. The man had been stricken at once and courted her all weekend during a gathering at Benedicte’s country house outside Stockholm. An attractive and thoroughly likable man whom Benedicte had known for years. Why couldn’t Leslie have married him, moved to Brussels, had a child or two and ended life as the wife of a man who adored her? But she had played as elusive as smoke with the Belgian.
Eventually, Christian understood that naivete was not what led Leslie to live as she did.
Neither Sofia nor Charlotte spoke very much about the funeral on the plane back.
Charlotte sensed that Sofia was as emotionally spent in her own way as she was in hers. They talked about their children for a while and about coordinating plans so the two families could meet before the summer ended. After the first meal was served, Sofia put on her eye mask and reclined to sleep, asking that she not be woken for any reason short of an imminent crash. A minute later, she murmured that she should definitely be allowed to sleep through that, as well.
While the other woman beside her slept as soundly as if she had not rested for a moment the few days they’d been in South Africa, Charlotte found she could not sleep at all. Uninvited thoughts coursed through her head like a river flowing back into itself. And still other thoughts hovered just outside her consciousness, awaiting their turn to enter. She thought of Leslie and Christian.
While Christian’s boyishly handsome face and athletic build captured the attention of a lot of women, Leslie had never been one of them. She treated him simply as a friend. Even now Charlotte couldn’t say how she’d known Christian himself had held little attraction for Leslie. She was under no illusions. Had Leslie wanted him, he would sooner or later have fallen to her. She was an extraordinary beauty and he was too much of a painter of beauty not to worship that. Being jealous of Christian’s admiration of Leslie’s face and figure would have been like being jealous of his admiration of a particularly dramatic sunset or landscape.
Somehow, those basic facts had made things simple. It was beyond her power, out of her hands. She had liked Leslie at once, without the foundation for jealousy or suspicion and the three of them were then free to enjoy themselves when they met in the homes of mutual friends or at various events or on the occasions Leslie turned up to spend a relaxing weekend away from London with them.
Charlotte discovered the deep connection between Leslie and Christian at the same time she realized she had an incomplete understanding of each of them.
A Saturday evening in winter. Leslie visiting for a week. The women had emptied two bottles of Italian wine over the evening as they sat in front of the fireplace gossiping and laughing. They were beginning to argue over which of them should risk going down the stairs to the wine cellar for another bottle when the noises started. A series of crashes — something was being destroyed or as if there was some sort of fight somewhere upstairs in the house. The meaning of the noises quickly penetrated the pleasant veil of alcohol shrouding Charlotte’s mind.
“It’s Christian,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. She hoped that this was one of his smaller outbreaks, that he would remain in his studio and rage only there. That was how it normally was — an hour or so of throwing things and maybe screaming, then silence.
Charlotte tried to gather her thoughts sufficiently through the haze of alcohol to form an adequate explanation.
“Sometimes he’s …”
She stopped speaking when she saw that Leslie was sitting straight up, poised on the edge of her chair, resembling a wild animal listening for danger in the woods.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, turning slowly back to Charlotte.
“I don’t know. It happens. He can be like this when the work is frustrating him. It’s not serious. It will pass. It’s okay,” she said trying to calm Leslie, not wanting her to be afraid. She had forgotten how this might seem to someone who wasn’t used to it, who didn’t know. She struggled to make her brain work, to find the right words to tell her.
But Leslie was suddenly up and through the door, walking as steadily as if she’d had nothing at all to drink. By the time Charlotte struggled to her feet and entered the hallway leading to the stairs, she heard the door to the studio open and close. She walked up and then along the long hall unsteadily. It seemed to take minutes. Long minutes where she stopped to examine the pattern of the wallpaper, laughed at her own drunkenness, forgot where it was she was going to and why it was urgent. Then the memory of the noises and Leslie’s face would creep back into her immediate consciousness.
Charlotte heard the murmur of their voices as she opened the door, but that stopped.
The studio was a mess of broken easels, fractured canvases and a host of other debris. Leslie and Christian sat on the oversized windowsill at the back of the room, like two figures on a stage. They did not turn to look at Charlotte there in the doorway. Leslie remained looking intently at Christian and he continued looking down at the floor.
Charlotte wasn’t sure how long the three of them remained like statues frozen in position. It was Leslie who simply got up and left the room. Christian lifted his head to watch her go. As Charlotte continued to watch him, he got up and began to restore the room to order.
Leslie had gone back to her chair and was staring into the fireplace. Charlotte lowered herself to the floor next to the chair. Her mind was just beginning to process the fact that Leslie had just done what she had never dared to do, she had gone in to Christian during one of his storms. And whatever she'd said had made some sort of difference. She had known something.
“You don’t understand, do you?” Leslie said to her. “Nothing that rides you and won’t let go. Lucky you. Safe within the lines.”
“What do you mean? Safe?” Charlotte tried blinking her eyelids to better focus on Leslie’s face. There was something there she had not seen before.
“I understand what happens to him. Where do you think those paintings come from? I mean the real ones. The ones that make you stand there with your mouth open because there’s so much life in them. He paints them when he’s closest to feeling like the world is closing in on him and wants to end him,” Leslie’s beautiful eyes looked down at Charlotte.
“You know what? I live in the place he only visits. He comes back, but I stay there. You know, I could settle down and live in a house like this with children and everything, if I wanted to. But I can’t. I want to be like you, but I can never do it. You could never teach me how to be that kind of happy. Just like I could never teach you how to survive my life.”
They sat in silence. Charlotte felt she should say something, but couldn’t get enough control of her thoughts to form words from them. She was trying to understand, trying to grasp what was important here.
“Charlotte? Have you ever asked yourself what men mean when they say they love you? Oh God, I’ve had too much to drink, but I’ll tell you … They are not worth it. They don’t trouble themselves about who you are. But you will never know this. Lucky.”
Then Leslie had helped her upstairs, undressed her and tucked her into bed. Charlotte’s final, blurry memory from that evening was Leslie arranging her hair on the pillow, as a Mia might do with a doll she was putting down in a toy cradle.
Reclining in her seat, Charlotte thought of the paintings on the wall in the largest of the living rooms of the house by the lake. There was the first picture of his she’d fallen in love with, the one with the bull being dragged from the arena. There was a small painting of Leslie that was so much a representation of her it seemed part of her spirit lived in it. When you looked at it, you felt as if Leslie were actually in the room. The third painting on the same wall was the portrait of Charlotte that Christian had asked her to sit for the day they met. The painting is his image of her, she has always told herself, uncertain of any resemblance at all. The woman he sees or wants to see, or some creature of his imagination. She pushed the thought away and pulled out one of the magazines she bought for the flight, forcing her mind to focus on the beautiful pictures of complete strangers.
But there was a moment when the thought came anyway: What did you try to buy with all that money?
Charlotte returned from the airport and entered the house without anyone hearing. She walked through the house and to the back door and peered through the glass. Mette and the kids were there, out beside the lake playing with radio-controlled boats. She walked to the other end of the house and listened at the door of Christian’s studio. She had to listen for several minutes, but finally, she heard him put down a brush and turn on the sink. She picked up her suitcase to take it up to the bedroom, but then set it back down again, leaving it in the hallway.
She liked the view from the dining room best. And the dining room had a liquor cabinet. She hesitated at first, then poured herself a gin and tonic and settled into one of the chairs along the wall of the long room. The first of the gin passing into her bloodstream was almost a delight to cry out loud from. When she finished the first glass, her mouth watered for a second. She mixed it without hesitation, smiling at the discovery of the liberty contained in doing such a small, unaccustomed act. Charlotte had long thought it a virtue, a duty to handle the rougher moments of life without anaesthetic. Now, she saw no honor in suffering, or in petty virtues. Petty victories over your weaker, lower self. What did they amount to? What did they prove?
She looked out across the lake, at the grass and sky and let her mind wander over unfamiliar internal landscapes. Places she did not normally go within herself. A revelation she found there: She had long thought Leslie childish in her transient precarious lifestyle. But she saw now that Leslie had been completely adult in her choices and acceptance of the resultant complications, while she, Charlotte, has been the sheltered childish one.
The empty glass was heavy in her hands. She longed for but refused herself the third drink. It would be too much, out of bounds. She must not forget herself.
She must be ready. Her wonderful children will come in the door with their smiling au pair and rush into her arms soon, her husband will come to their bedroom when he has finished work. He will hold her and make love to her and listen to whatever she has to say. Life will be good. She will be good. There is nothing to be afraid of.