Tristan and Isolde But Make It Queer
Lindsay Duguid recommends "Tristan," Lucy Hughes-Hallett's retelling of the medieval love story
INTRODUCTION BY LINDSAY DUGUID
Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s story “Tristan” is a witty modern retelling of the tragic myth of Tristan and Isolde. Set in present-day London in a sophisticated milieu of art experts, who live in the Little Boltons and picnic in Windsor Great Park, its first surprise is its detached slightly camp tone, which colours the banter between Mark, the art dealer, and his assistant/lover Tristan, and appears in the narrative’s play on, or subversion of, the original simple tale.The first meeting between the lovers, Tristan and Isolde, for example, takes place at Arrivals, Heathrow Airport: “Tristan said ‘I’m Tristan.’ Izza said ‘Isolde.’”
And from there the story unfolds with surprises and reveals, full of beguiling details and clever ironies, such as the love potion contained in the three little pink pills supplied by Bronwen, Izza’s assistant/lover, the telephone messages that provide alibis for the affair and a tracking app used by the jealous Mark. Descriptions of ordinary London offices and bedrooms make a suitably unmythological setting and there is a subversive theme of imperious art-historical judgements. Brief but telling visual details reveal character. Mark plans to impress Izza by appearing riding a Ducati in a whirl of black leather and hot metal. Izza’s pale floaty dresses and Bronwen’s neat denim outfits suggest their supportive partnership. Fey Izza, stalwart Bronwen, vain Mark, and dim Tristan are seen as far from heroic and their acts and motives are shown to be selfish.
Yet their story is also heartfelt. It respects the power of love as a strong force driving the action in a search for the burning, flying escape from reality it provides. Late in the story, the fires having died down, there is a fine description of two dogs leaping with joy which subtly suggests that sex is the important unavoidable element in the original romantic tale. Unlike most myths there is an after-story here in which the characters live on after the great love affair with the sly suggestion that it was, after all, “only a story.”
As in all the mythical retellings in her collection Fabulous, Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s skill in organizing her narrative’s complexities is equalled by her sense of humor and by her fine understanding of human feeling.
– Lindsay Duguid
Tristan and Isolde But Make It Queer
by Lucy Hughes-Hallett
“You’ll have to go and meet her.”
“Why? Is she a half-wit?”
“Her flight gets in at eleven fifty-five. Find her. Be sweet. Take her to lunch in Windsor––she’ll like that.”
“What makes you think she”ll like it?”
“Then bring her back here. Why are you being like this? It’s a question of politeness.”
“Why can’t she just get the train. Is she a cripple or something?”
“She’s physically perfect. As near to perfect as it’s possible to be.”
“What’s she coming for?”
“To marry me.”
“What the fuck? Are you joking?”
“No. This is real.”
“Why aren’t you meeting her then?”
“You know I can’t. Not with the Fair on.”
“You won’t miss half a day’s business for her, and you expect her to marry you.”
“It’s a pity but…We discussed it. She knows I have to work. She kind of likes it. She likes knowing her man is this big busy deal-maker.”
“She doesn’t. Nobody would. You’ve got to be there when she comes through the gate. Next to all the drivers with their bits of cardboard. You put your hand on the barrier and you vault lightly over it and you put your arms around her and lift her up so her feet are two inches off the floor and you bury your face in the side of her neck and she’s dropping things––passport, wallet, everything, the duty-free vodka, and you say…”
“She’s actually appreciably taller than me.”
“Oh. Oh. In that case I have to revise all my ideas. In that case you stand quite still at the end of the barrier and let her come to you, and she walks with long easy strides, she lopes, and she’s wearing a linen dress that’s like a coat and it billows out behind her and it’s unbuttoned at the front so that her legs are half bare and they’re burnished like bronze swords and she doesn’t wear jewelry but there’s a leather thong around her neck and when she reaches you she puts a hand on your shoulder and she dips her head and she bites…”
“Shut up, Tristan. She is actually a real person.”
“Yes? So? Where did I say she wasn’t?”
“She’s real so there’s no need to make her up.”
“I like making people up. The people I make up are much more amusing.”
“More amusing than…?”
“More amusing than you, you literal-minded old faggot.”
“No more cheek. And no more homophobic language. I’m getting married.”
“So you say.”
“And have you considered the possibility––has it crossed your mind for even one single second––and if it did would you give a toss about it––has it occurred to you that if you really are doing this thing, then you might be breaking my heart?”
“Eleven fifty-five. Terminal 3. Car keys on the hall table. Have dinner with us tonight.”
“With me and my girl.”
The things that Mark Cornwall bought and sold were––at least purportedly––very old indeed. Their monetary value was more closely related to their antiquity than to their beauty. His regular clients liked to hold an Egyptian basalt hawk, or an agate bull from Mesopotamia, and feel the centuries thrumming through the stone. No matter that the carving tended to be crude and the creatures depicted barely identifiable in the lumpen forms. You didn’t have to be superstitious to feel the potency of a thing that had been held and treasured and very, very gradually worn away by the stroking hands of generation upon generation of long-dead human beings.
To get the non-specialist buyers in, though, you needed some straightforwardly lovely stuff. Alabaster always looked good, so long as you knew how to light it (Mark’s tech-guy really, really did). Fragments of Roman wall-paintings for color. A Macedonian gold tiara for flash. Anything that had once been animate got attention. Mark had recently been amassing a stock of mammoths” bones. Dutch trawlers brought them up in their nets from the bed of the North Sea. Quite a few people were interested. The big draw at his stall at this year’s Fair, more popular even than the tiny silken shoe of a Han dynasty princess, was the shoulder blade of a bison scratched all over with twig-like bipeds––a three-thousand-year-old hunting scene depicted by the predator on a left-over part of the prey.
Mark was nervous, which was a condition so unfamiliar to him that he initially mistook it for oxygen-deprivation. “I’m going out for a breather,” he said to the intern. “Text me at once if anyone looks like they’re getting serious.” The intern had a vapid face, but there was something about the turn of her neck that reminded him of Izza and he felt the ground shift beneath him again. “Back in ten,” he said.
The park was full of football games. He stood on the temporary decking outside the Art Fair’s enormous marquee and watched groups of boys running, red-faced and determined, around and about each other. Viewed from above, he thought, they would have made swirling centripetal shapes, kinetic art. From his viewpoint they merely looked desperate.
Kurt was there––fellow-dealer, rival, nosey-parker. He started to say something. Mark knew in advance the tenor of it––some innuendo about the footballers––and wanted nothing to do with it.
“Congratulate me,” he said. “I’m getting married.”
“You?” said Kurt, as though the first person singular pronoun might possibly have applied to someone else. “I had no idea you and Tristan had got that far.”
“She’s called Izza,” said Mark. “I saw her at the Biennale. She’s arriving today.”
“Christ,” said Kurt. “You’re not serious? You are serious. But you’re not . . .”
“The marrying kind? Turns out I am. Tristan’s at Heathrow now, picking her up.”
“You sent Tristan?”
“Sure. They’re the same age. Nice for her.”
“But not so nice for Tristan. The boy must be devastated.”
“Oh well. He’ll live.”
Kurt looked at him for a couple of beats. “You are a reptile, Mark Cornwall.”
Mark said, “Hang on. I’m just a station he stopped off at.”
Kurt said, “On the whole I’d say an absence of vanity was a positive attribute, but this is callous. You don’t know the effect you have on people.”
“My oh my. Are you owning up to being besotted with me, Kurt?”
The two men each put an arm across the other’s shoulder, and they walked together back into the Fair.
Naturally enough, Tristan was expecting an androgynous being with a shaved head poised on a long etiolated body. Something not unlike the Ife terracotta deity (awfully late for Mark, but aesthetically bang up his street) that stood on the first-floor landing in the Little Boltons. Tristan wasn’t ready for the woman walking towards him, looking as though she was about to cry, or perhaps was already crying. He hadn’t imagined her to be someone he would ever get to know, so he had been staring at her shamelessly and without any kind of greeting on his face or welcome in his posture. She was pretty much right on top of him when she began speaking. On top, yes, because Mark was right, she really was tall.
“Do you get met at airports often? I never have. I’d never thought. It’s so difficult isn’t it, getting the right expression on your face as you come through those doors? Did you think it was me? Of course not. Obviously. How could you know? And how to handle the luggage. It’s so awkward. This is Bronwen. Mark said you live with him. He implied he had teams of ephebes and so forth to fetch and carry for him, but I’m not going to be surprised if they turn out to be figments. Are you one of legions?”
Which, if any, of her questions required an answer? Tristan said, “I’m Tristan.”
Izza said, “Isolde.”
Bronwen, neatly packaged in denim, was as compact as Isolde was wafty. She said, “You take this one, would you?” and passed him the handle of one of the two immense mauve metal suitcases she’d been trundling. “You brought a car?” He hadn’t expected another person. There was a lot about this encounter for which he hadn’t been prepared.
Isolde, if that was what she was really called, looked like a bride. Not that she was in a big white dress, although her clothes were much more in evidence, more in need of tossing and twitching and generally tending, than the sleek suits and close-fitting dresses of the women who hung around the gallery. It was more the impression she gave of being entirely, defenselessly, on offer that was bridal. Her face was pale and the skin on it looked damp, as though she had been newly peeled. Her lips trembled slightly as she talked. Her large pale eyes shifted and misted, suggesting she needed glasses, not to see with, but to provide protective cover. Tristan thought that she would never initiate a contact, a relationship, a love affair, but always wait to be found, and that sometimes the person who sought her out might not wish her well, and that she was aware of that danger. Ungainly, superior, nervous, she reminded him of a horse he sometimes groomed. He had many little jobs.
She said, “Where’s Mark?”
“Didn’t he tell you, the Fair?”
Evidently Mark had not told her.
Bronwen stood silently waiting for something to resolve itself.
Tristan said, “Mark thought you might like to go to Windsor, have lunch. He’ll be through by evening.” He was beginning to rather like the idea of an afternoon in the Great Park with these odd young women. “I brought a picnic.”
Again that look of imminent tears. He’d get used to it. It didn’t signal grief. Bronwen took over. “Let’s do it then. I can’t stand these places. You’re in short-stay?”
She set off in the right direction. He followed and so did Izza, talking in her breathy, curiously elderly voice, telling some story that, what with the recorded announcements, and the rattle of the suitcases” wheels, he couldn’t follow. Something about someone getting injured in Venice, and her nursing him, and Mark being tied up in it somehow. How trite, he thought. Didn’t Mark know that everyone falls in love with nurses? It’s fear that triggers it, and then euphoria at being still alive, and so you think some perfectly ordinary overworked health-worker is your delivering angel. And when you go back for your check-up you get a bit of a jolt to see how they no longer have a halo, just grey panda-rings around their exhausted eyes. His interest in exploring ways of altering his consciousness had occasioned quite a few trips to A&E. After his last little mishap he’d actually made a date with an anesthetist. Mistake.
The Great Park, where kings have been hunting down stags and damsels for two millennia, is surrounded by mile upon mile of suburbia, of pebble-dash semis and harsh, unweathered red-brick mansions with high walls and electronic gates and security cameras that crane their necks to follow visitors up the driveways like dispassionate predatory birds. Even inside the park there are clumps of housing scattered among the clumps of trees. But for all the way that modern Outer London has infiltrated it, the park is still a wilderness. It is not hard at all to get lost there.
“I think if we go that way we”ll get to the Long Walk,” said Tristan, who was prone to claustrophobia. He wanted openness and majestic scale, not fidgety changes of mood between pinewoods and pools of bracken and driveways leading to Tudorbethan houses in bosky glades. Bronwen went ahead the way he indicated, hands clutching rucksack straps. Her gait was as neat and purposeful as the rest of her demeanor. Would she, he wondered, be moving into the Little Boltons as well? He rather hoped so. Izza’s softness and scattiness was beginning to tire him. Her conversation was elaborate. She was clever, obviously. She made sure everyone knew that. But she was also, he thought, helpless as a baby, and needed almost as much attention. Bronwen, like a confident nanny, was quite brusque with her. It was obvious they adored each other. Did Mark know that Bronwen looked like being a part of the marital ménage? Did Mark know anything?
“So, when did you meet Mark?”
“Oh, we haven’t actually met.”
“But aren’t you…?”
“Getting married? Yes, it’s too impossibly silly, isn’t it.”
They were picking their way now between lightning-struck oaks, their charred and riven trunks festooned with irrepressible green. “He wrote to me about the accident, you see, and I wrote back, and long after there was anything for us to discuss these emails kept pinging back and forth. Very long ones from me because, as you may possibly have noticed, I am a babbling brook in human form, and laconic, witty short ones from Mark, and then just as I was thinking I really should stop wasting this man’s time with my reflections on this that and the other thing, he suddenly wrote, “I think we should get married, don’t you?” And he probably just meant it as a rhetorical flourish, but I thought Yes, Yes, and then we could carry on this conversation night and day and well…’the marriage of true minds.’ So, met, no, we haven’t yet. It’s actually kind of clarifying not to have any idea how he smells or to be aware of any of that mind-fuddling carnal stuff.”
Bronwen had found a perfectly circular dell and was sitting cross-legged at the centre of it. They paced around her, Tristan too agitated to settle.
“But marriage. I mean. Suppose you don’t find him attractive.”
“Oh, sex. Well. It’s not very difficult, is it? I mean guinea pigs do it all the time. Actually, guinea pigs are very clever, they can virtually talk. But llamas too. And God knows what. I’ve always been rather in favor of arranged marriage, haven’t you, it cuts out all that shy-making courtship. And failing a Pandar to arrange one for me, I thought let’s give it a go. I mean people manage to procreate, don’t they, without having felt they were drowning in the deep deep pools of a lover’s eyes or whatever. Haven’t you ever had sex with someone you hadn’t previously found physically attractive?”
Oh yes. Yes, he had. Tristan had done that often enough. He didn’t reply. He laughed it off. This woman might be verbally incontinent, but he knew how to keep his thoughts to himself. He spread his jacket gallantly, and when she folded herself down, ignoring it, he sat himself neatly on its denim square.
Tristan had brought sausage rolls and salmon quiche and cold asparagus and punnets of tiny tomatoes, yellow and red, and a bottle of rather good white and one of mineral water, and proper glasses to drink them out of (but only two because he hadn’t been aware of the existence of Bronwen––the women shared). For afters there was bitter chocolate and a bag of cherries. This is what Mark liked to have on a picnic, and Tristan had seen no need to vary the formula. Bronwen had brought three pale pink tablets. Fourteen minutes after they had taken them Tristan and Izza were deeply, ecstatically, helplessly in love.
Love swept Izza up onto her feet and blew her, a tossed veil, spinning around the dell. She wasn’t small but her movements were airy. She undulated. She drifted. Tristan danced after her. As Mark had sometimes observed (not always kindly) he was a natural-born partner, a lifter and catcher, a twirler and supporter of more sparkling beings. As the prince or woodcutter’s son kneels, his legs well-muscled in tights, so that the ballerina can use his thigh as a mounting block to spring up from, Tristan was obliging, reliable, gorgeous but in a boring sort of way. Mark, frankly, was not a ballerina. Too clearly defined as a personality, insufficiently ingratiating, too self-engrossed. Izza was much better in the role. She floated around Tristan. He was her core, the pole to her banner, the peg to her blown-away tent. She appreciated him. She could make use of him.
Bronwen narrowed her eyes and smiled and sang and drummed on the biscuit-tin for them until they withdrew into the bracken, whereupon she put on her headphones and lay back. The afternoon passed.
Mark liked keeping an eye on people. Izza had been less startled by his proposal of marriage than she was by his request for her consent to his following her on the where-the-hell-are-you app. Tristan, of course, he’d been tracking for months. As soon as the Fair began to fall apart into a multitude of champagne-moments he checked his phone. What he saw made him smile. He texted both of them, “Well done you found my favorite spot…hold on I”m coming.” Kurt dropped him home, and he took off westward on the Ducati. He was vain, he knew it, and vain enough to be amused by his own vanity. She probably thought he was a middle-aged smoothie. It would be fun, he thought, to roar into her life on the bike and carry her away in a whirl of black leather and hot metal. Tristan wouldn’t mind, surely. He could pack up the picnic and bring the car back. He really seemed to like the car. Mark thought he might give it to him. Why? A sort of consolation prize.
Bronwen stood up and positioned herself so that Mark had to turn his back to the hollow full of bracken in order to greet her, but the respite that bought the hidden pair wasn’t long.
“I was looking…” said Mark, nonplussed.
“Yeah. I came with Isolde,” said Bronwen.
The picnic things lay scattered. The empty bottles, the two glasses, the cherrystones that Izza had arranged in a triangle on a patch of bare ground as she talked.
“They went for a walk. Her and Tristan. I’ve been sleeping.”
The last statement was implausible. Bronwen was brisk as ever. Her irises had dwindled to pinpricks but you would still have trusted her to book a holiday for you, or to draw up a table-plan.
Mark dismounted ponderously. Roaring up is one thing, but you can’t just swing down from the saddle of a bike and stride off. There’s a lot of dragging and positioning to be done, and careful extending of the supporting leg. This other young woman needed to be absorbed into his planned future somehow––short-term only, he hoped. By the time his intended emerged from somewhere behind him, Tristan trailing her and doing that rather annoying thing with his thumb in his right ear, Mark was furious with himself for getting into this awkward situation. Why hadn’t he waited at home and greeted Izza with poise intact, and a good bottle chilling in the fridge? He needed someone to kick. “You’ve made a right mess, haven’t you?” he said. “This patch was pretty once, before you dropped all this crud around.”
Tristan, who knew what he was talking about, who had been trained up to Mark’s extremely high standards of litter-awareness, began to pick up the plates. Izza came forward and put out her hands, taking his, and said, “My life’s partner!” in a high warbling voice. He thought, She’s barking, and then, a moment later, She’s off her face.
He got them all home in the car. The next day he sent Tristan to retrieve the bike from the Windsor police compound. It took all day and some acrimonious exchanges of opinion and lots of money. At least it got the boy out of Mark’s hair while he accustomed himself to his bride.
Time passed. Love grew.
Mark’s love for Izza, because he’d been right. He’d first seen her when she was dithering about in the centre of the Campo San Barnaba. She hadn’t noticed him then, why should she, he was just another of the art-bods eating linguini with bottarga, one of the lucky ones who had got a table on the shady side opposite the church. He thought at once that she was fine and unusual and would need careful conservation work. He thought he would enjoy that. His companion knew who she was. Mark watched her. She looked tremulous and arrogant simultaneously, and the light reflected ripplingly off the canal accentuated her paleness as water brightens polished pebbles. Her hair was almost transparent. When the person she was waiting for arrived (in retrospect he realized it was Bronwen) she began to talk, to gush, not in the lazy colloquial sense of the word but like a spring after heavy rain. He saw that all her awkwardness, which was sexy in his eyes, came from the superfluity of words in her and that once she had someone to talk to she found grace.
Then their mutual friend Morris fell off some scaffolding while squinting at a frescoed ceiling, and Mark and Izza were the only people in Venice who were prepared to help the poor guy. (Actually it was Bronwen who sorted out the insurance.) So they had each other’s numbers, and they used them a lot. And then Mark made his reckless offer because he was bored of the life he had, and Tristan was proving hard to shake, and though they’d yet to have their first date he felt truly excited by her, as he had been by the Thracian cup––and look how well that had turned out. Once he’d got her, the sex was a pleasant surprise too––not because she was much of a performer but because her swooning disengagement from the process made him into one. He’d had women before, of course.
Tristan’s love for Izza. That was delirium. Astonishing. Chemically-induced to start with, and chemically sustained, but only because it was so utterly fantastic when they took the tabs together that why wouldn’t you keep doing it? Everything else faded out. Work, food, clubbing, clothes, movies, his thesis on the tension between the sacred and the secular in Renaissance depictions of the Virgin––all gone. It baffled him to remember how much time and energy he’d put into thinking about that stuff. All that was left was her––waiting for her, then being with her, then waiting until he could be with her again. In those waiting periods he was suspended, going through the motions, observing from very far away the manikin that was his everyday self, amazed at how trivial that banal self’s occupations were––evenings prattling nonsense with his mates, mornings in the gallery smiling and suave, and let-me- know-if-you-need-any-help. And then, like the tide coming in with a rush, it would be time to see her again and he’d be right there, present, in his skin, every receptor alert, talking back when she talked to him (Christ how she talked!) kissing when she kissed him, dying, just totally dying of the bliss of it, when she dragged him into bed.
Bronwen’s love for Izza. That was the strongest and truest. They all knew it. Bronwen couldn’t abide compromise. Her mind was lucid, her thoughts consistent. Izza was the most important person for her, and so it would have been ridiculous for her not to devote herself entirely to Izza’s care, Izza’s happiness.
Mark accepted her. She was an asset to the gallery. It was so rare to find someone you could rely on absolutely. She instigated the practice whereby, each afternoon when he was in London, between three and five, he went through everything with her: every acquisition, every enquiry, every sale, every contact that needed following up, every piece of research that needed to be incorporated into an object’s cataloguing. By the end of the afternoon he’d have made it through more work than he’d previously have done in a week, and felt light and free and joyful for it. As he left the gallery Bronwen would call Izza and, though they never picked up, the lovers, recognizing her ringtone, would haul themselves back from whatever circle of paradise they were in. When Mark got home, Tristan would be on the way out for the evening, waving to him from the basement steps (he’d moved down into the flat when the women arrived), and Izza would be upstairs, on the sofa in her study wearing spectacles, reading. Bronwen, watching over them from Cork Street, kept them all out of harm’s way and by the time she came home, looking forward to a run and a shower and an arthouse movie delivered to her by MUBI, Izza and Mark would be out (so many openings to go to) or cooking together and she could congratulate herself on another day during which her darling had got away with it.
Mark’s love for Tristan. That had always been a puny thing.No one missed it much.
Tristan’s love for Mark. The funny thing about that was it was still flourishing. So much so that Tristan longed to tell Mark about his rapturous afternoons, just as he’d been used to telling him pretty well everything that passed through his mind. Knowing that they shared a woman made him feel tender towards his ex-lover. It was a bit of an odd emotion, he realized that, but jealousy wasn’t any part of it. Whatever loving Izza felt like to Mark, it couldn’t come near to resembling what was happening to Tristan. He was flying. He was melting. He was burning. He was expanding until he filled the sky and dwindling until he was a pill she could hold beneath her tongue. Mark didn’t know how to cut loose. He was too good-looking ever to lose sight of himself. He couldn’t possibly know what it was to feel any of this. Tristan felt sorry for him. He would like to have shared a little of his felicity, but he knew that would have been cruel. His silence was all he could offer as a token of his love. Or loving-kindness, more like, nowadays.
Izza’s love. Who did Izza love? Did she love any of them? On the day of the wedding she had been luminous. It wasn’t only the dress, the layer upon layer of sequined grey chiffon, the floating sleeves, the skirts artfully tattered so that their diaphanous panels had no edges. That teary look, that made it seem she was never quite securely contained within her own skin, was more pronounced than ever. She walked in a miasma of glittering vapor, not that there was really a fog in the registry office. Beauty is as baffling as mist.
Mark, looking at her, saw treasure. Tristan saw a kind of nimbus into which he could fall and which would transport him, as golden painted clouds bear the Virgin up in depictions of the Assumption. Bronwen saw heartbreaking vulnerability. But Izza’s glass-pale eyes showed no sign of seeing anyone – only the fixtures and fittings. She leant down to Mark and murmured to him about the ferociously varnished yellow pine benches, about the fitted carpet which crackled with static electricity, about the registrar’s magenta lipstick. She was being funny, Mark realized that, but he was hurt. This was his life he was giving her. It wasn’t a joke.
She was soft. She was fine as gossamer. But she was also somehow impervious. Was there even perhaps something wrong with her? He didn’t really like to think this, but frankly wasn’t it a bit odd the way she had agreed so readily to marry a stranger? As though actually she couldn’t care less––as though she was so uninterested in anyone other than herself that any presentable man would do. “Shut up,” he told himself. “She’s beautiful. She’s the making of me. The new me. This is what I wanted. It’s great, isn’t it?” And, for a good long while, it was.
When Mark went to New York, as he fairly often did, or Dubai (he had a very loyal and appreciative client there), Izza began to drift into the gallery of a morning. She hadn’t wanted to work there. It was essential to her, she told Mark, that her professional life should be independent of his. But despite all the people with whom she went for coffee––she had a well- filled address book––none of the encounters led to any job offers that she considered worth her while financially or helpful in terms of her personal development. So she was often in Cork Street. She’d be on her way to the London Library, where she might find inspiration for something or other. Or she’d be meeting someone for lunch so she might as well drop in first. Or it was raining, so whatever she’d planned was no-go. Tristan would look around and see her and it was as though the dove that comes rushing down the golden shaft of light to impregnate the Virgin of the Annunciation had tobogganed down into his heart. The sight of her filled him up, to bursting point, with joy.
They stood about together. Bronwen had a chair in her little back room but, while in the gallery, personnel were required to stay on their feet. They were absorbed in each other, but they were also very attentive to walk-ins. They didn’t touch each other in public, or murmur endearments, or even look at each other too markedly, and their self-control generated a shimmering warmth. One visitor, after Izza had offered her fizzy water, and a hand-sheet, and had shown her the pre-Columbian crystal jaguar that seemed to pulse and emit sparks beneath the cunningly positioned laser-lights, put out a hand and said, “What’s happening to you, babe? Your aura’s like off the graph!” and Tristan, hearing, thought, Yes. She’s transfigured, isn’t she? I didn’t realize anyone else could see.
You know how this ends. Mark surprised them. It could have happened in any number of ways. Perhaps they were in the backroom, poring over a depiction of Lancelot and Guinevere, their shoulders touching, when he came in hours earlier than expected, having got fed up with the woman he’d been placed next to at the Met Gala dinner and taken a cab to JFK in time to make the red-eye. Perhaps Bronwen had a doctor’s appointment (even Cerberus’s eyes sometimes close) and wasn’t there to hear Mark as he called from the doorway, “I’m meeting Donatella for lunch in Le Bistro so I’ll go straight on home after.” Perhaps he said to Izza one night, “Is that a love-bite? You’ve not been doing it with Tristan have you?” (because he was familiar with Tristan’s ways) and she, thinking he already knew everything, told him straight out.
It could have been any which way. The point is––he found out.
Nobody died. Liebestod is actually quite a rare occurrence. But Mark was taken aback to discover that, for all his sophistication, and for all his varied sexual history which might, you would have supposed, have made him immune to anything as dully conventional as jealousy, he deeply disliked the condition of cuckoldry. Was it because it was Tristan, who’d been his lover, and his protégé, and his kind of son? Not really. He’d never been possessive of the boy before––there were plenty of nights in the old days when they’d gone their separate ways.
He was astonished by how absolutely livid with rage he was at Izza’s placidity. She never apologized. She moved around the Little Boltons, for days, packing up her preposterous quantity of gauzy dresses, talking serenely all the time about how love was a drug and an enchantment. She acted as if it was she and Tristan who were to be pitied when, as far as Mark could tell, they’d done exactly what they fucking well felt like without a moment’s thought for anyone else. What a cow. Once he’d been delighted by the theatrical way she dressed. Now he thought “blowsy.”
He didn’t throw things or slam doors. He didn’t cry. He didn’t let himself down. The only person he yelled at was Bronwen because in stories like this it’s never the perpetrators who seem loathsome, only the enablers who haven’t, poor things, had even so much as a nibble of the forbidden fruit.
The two women moved to Lisbon. Bronwen became a highly successful dealer in pre-Isabelline Iberian ceramics. Mark told people she’d picked up all she knew from him, but when he was being honest with himself (which he usually was––it’s what made him so quick and flexible as a businessman) he knew how much she’d taught him too. The gallery was much better run thanks to her systems. Izza became, in sequence, a junkie, a psychotherapist, a contessa, and then, to everyone’s surprise, a nun.
Time passed. Love, and its attendant jealousies and resentments, dwindled to a manageable size.
Mark and Tristan met in Kensington Gardens. They hadn’t seen each other for nearly a decade. Although there was a fifteen-year age gap between them they had arrived simultaneously at an appreciation of the pleasures of middle age: gardening, Schubert, dogs. Mark had a rough-haired Pointer (female), Tristan an Airedale (male).
The dogs sniffed each other’s backsides and at once they were deeply, ecstatically, helplessly in love. Their human companions stood watching them while they twirled and pounded the earth, celebrating the wonder that was the other, and the miraculous good fortune that had brought them together. The pointer performed clumsy earth-bound pirouettes. The terrier leapt up and down on the spot, yapping.
“Is this what it was like for Bronwen, do you suppose?” asked Tristan.
“Watching the two of us, you mean?”
“Being driven crazy by her. Yes.”
“So,” said Mark. “You’re suggesting that Bronwen stood in relation to Isolde as you and I do to Biscuit and…what’s yours called?”
“Good name. That’s where you live?”
“You’re asking am I available?”
“Dearest Tristan, no. No. I’m not. I’m not asking that. I’m a married man.”
“Yeah. I was at the wedding, remember. I handed you the rings.”
“And very lovely you looked. How could I forget? But no. Not that marriage. He’s called Brian. You?”
“The love potion worked for me. No one else has come close. I think about her every day. I was with someone for a while. Guess what. She was called Izza, short for Isabella. Not exactly moving on.”
“Yes. That stuck too.”
“Why did you let her go, then?”
Tristan looked out over the Round Pond. It was a late afternoon in September. The light was piercingly beautiful, silver-gilt and icy clear and loaded with the melancholy of summer’s passing and the irrecoverability of lost time. The dogs were now performing a pas de deux which involved Willesden’s lying flat to the ground, barking, while Biscuit made repeated lunge-and-retreat moves. “Shall we walk?” he said.
And so they walked and they talked and by the time they had passed under the bridge into Hyde Park, and called the dogs off when they tried to steal bread-crusts from a Japanese family who were feeding the ducks, and scoffed at the Diana fountain, and remembered the time they got locked into the park after an opening at the Serpentine Gallery and took off all their clothes and swam together, and kissed very carefully because they really really hadn’t wanted to swallow any of that soupy brown water, they were fond friends again.
“What happened?” said Mark. “Why haven’t we seen each other all these years?”
“Because I adored you and you dumped me. Because you’re a heartless bastard. And because then I betrayed you,” said Tristan, but he wasn’t very interested in that question. Instead he reverted to the earlier one. He said, “I think part of the reason I didn’t go after her was that she didn’t ask me to. But I can see now that was absurd. I was supposed to be the wooer. I wasn’t very confident back then. But also…She wasn’t the kind of person you could run off with. Insubstantial. Do you remember telling me off for making her up?”
“No. What did I mean by that?”
“You’ve forgotten all about me, haven’t you?” Now Tristan sounded really hurt. “It was a thing we did. I’d tell you silly stories about the people we met. It was fun. We didn’t really have that much to talk about so…Well. It was a private thing we had.”
Mark said, “And so?”
“I still do it,” said Tristan. “I teach. All the kids love stories.”
“What I mean is you were right. We both made her up. You more than me. You invented a woman you could marry. And I invented one who could whisk me up to heaven. You said she was real, but that wasn’t actually true.”
Mark considered. His memories of that time were full of hectic color and jittery excitement. It was when the dealership was really getting going. It was while he was with Izza that he had made his first sale to the British Museum. He remembered coming back from meetings, strung to the maximum tension with adrenalin. He remembered how her languor and her tallness had turned him on. He remembered very exactly how he had felt about her archaic vocabulary and the slow way she drew out her complex sentences, how he’d relished it as he relished the virtuosity of a glass-blower or, for that matter, of a football team playing perfectly in concert. He remembered her scent. He remembered how naked she seemed, far more so than any of the other people with whom he’d been to bed. The softness of her thighs. The blueness of her veins. She’d seemed pretty real to him.
“Now you’re making things up again,” he said.
“Probably,” said Tristan. “That’s what lovers do.”