Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Chapter 11


The telling sign that the fireworks were soon to commence was the dying sound of the jazz band which played from a platform built out from the ante-room on the far side of the house. The second sign was the gradual slowing of canap├ęs and finger food trays that wandered past. Freya and Francis had been dancing French rock ‘n’ roll and as the clarinets resounding notes faded away Francis kissed his wife’s hand and was greeted by the pocky-faced organiser, dressed in black tie and sporting an ear-piece which coiled to his collar and then was seen no more. He escorted Francis down to the bonfire whilst Freya mingled with the guests and gathered two by each of her arms and began walking gently towards the gardens, herding them in a gathering ball that she considered her flock. Francis could now be seen speaking firmly, his hands gesticulating in punctual movements, his index finger extended.

Despite being a battle song for the victorious Russians, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture was chosen to set off the fireworks, the slow forlorn cadence crackling over the powered amplified speakers which were strategically placed on stands within the garden beds. A small battalion of waiters in starched jackets descended into the gardens armed with trays of champagne. The guests stood within the prescribed perimeter of the bonfire which was marked with a yellow lined safety circumference. As the music built up through the air Clementine, Thomas and I followed the throng of guests who gossiped about the cost of these exhibitions and the kinds of permits required by the municipality in order to achieve these kinds of spectaculars. One of the elderly men twirled his moustache and pushed his spectacles further up his nose and remarked that this kind of opulence had never been displayed in Sydney before.

“I heard he made half a chocolate factory on the FX last year” said another guest in passing, not noticing us following up behind.

This gave Thomas a fantastic grin and caused Clementine to squeeze his arm more tightly.

When we arrived at the bean bags Robert was looking decidedly more confident and Marguerite’s hair had been re-positioned. He took flutes off the tray whilst a waiter stood patiently, passing them around to all and sundry. As the last of the champagne was removed from the silver tray the first fireworks ascended from a pontoon which had been erected in Rose Bay, a diminishing trajectory into the cold night sky and bursting forth in bright cracks and glows and streaks like wilting flowers. The clarinets, bassoons, snares, trombones, cymbals and horns all building the escalating sound which resonated with clarity from the numerous speakers.

Marguerite kept Robert by her side and I sided up to them to marvel at the sky which dazzled confused the guests who were not sure how to take this impressive display or wealth and privilege. As the abridged overture built up to its finale I noticed Anthony Geha hurrying with Taren into the garden, her heels removed as she ran with him. The night sky was now a garden of lights backed by the stars that seemed to twinkle solely for the guest’s enjoyment. The bonfire was lit, gathering its heat as its flames licked the dry timber dry three men unobtrusively stayed close holding fire extinguishers. Marguerite squeezed Robert’s hand and the fireworks finished.

The guests were handed marshmallow stick and as the fire crippled and fell, the straw man dead to a lonely death upon the pyre. The marsellaise played over the speakers but was cut short as Francis took a cordless microphone.

“Dear honourable guests, Prime Minister and friends” he said, “tonight I am proud to say that my wife has pulled off a marvellous festive event in a culture I adopted some twenty five years ago now. I think she’s done a fantastic job and I would like to thank her for the effort she has put in here tonight”. His voice was jittery though pleased. The crowd applauded and some even whistled.

“My children told me to speak briefly, so I would just like to say that this day marks the symbolic liberation of French and of course I believe this to be something we should celebrate here. We are a young country but it is important to me... to my family... that we should always remain liberated as a people and, so, I was all too happy for Freya to put on tonight’s party. Eat drink and be merry” he said and turned the microphone off.

The crowd applauded again and someone from the crowd called for Freya to speak. She moved towards her husband and he passed her the microphone.

“Merci” was all she muttered and this sent the crowd into a frenzy, they clapped all the more.

Francis grabbed the microphone from his wife and turned it back on.

“One last thing” he said “As you all know, Freya and I are strong supporters of the Salvation Army. We have invited a few Salvo’s to swing by later on, and, as they say ‘Please give generously’”.

A supper buffet was set near the jazz band stage and slowly the crowd moved back towards the popular scores of music being played, the buffet line regulating itself into a charming line whilst the more reckless, now tipsy, chose to stay and heat marshmallows by the fire.

Marguerite asked me to dance after she declared Robert a ‘wowser’ whilst he stood by the stone wall to the garden, his hands in his tweed jacket pockets, watching me carefully.

I pulled her in close to me, she craned her neck softly into my padded shoulder, her hair against my cheek smelling of the sweetest perfume, weakening my knees and rendering me helpless against her charms.

“Theo” she said, “What do you think of Cohen?”

“I don’t like him anymore” I replied.

“Don’t be silly” she said.

“I mean it, he’s destroying me and he’s hurting Thomas” I said.

“But he’s sincere and he’s clever. He’s even got that little scar of his which is so adorable” she said.

“It’s a fake” I said.

“What do you mean?” she inquired.

“I mean he did cycling. No-one ever took a knife to it” I said. My voice trembled.

“Marguerite, I have dreamt of you for so long. Why now?” I asked, the courage mustering from deep within my gutless soul.

“You don’t” she said, “you just have a lot of white noise in your head” she said and I stiffly turned her, swinging her out and back into my arms.

“How can you say that” I said with ferocity.

“Your loyalty lies with Thomas” she said and broke from my arms, lightly stepping back from the dance floor, her pink dress ruffling as she moved, her hand extending to Robert as his forlorn eyes drooped down and then raised themselves.

We re-assembled ourselves in a group twenty minutes later as the elderly guests took to the floor to dance to the floor, the clarinet announcing the haunting murmur of “Night and Day”. “You you you..” could be heard over the sound system as the beret singing Maurice Chevalier look alike beat his foot against the stage, the withered hands tightly clasping themselves, staring at each other, the faded beauty of yesteryear replaced with a deeper more evocative nostalgia. There was something so Gatsby about them in their old coats, their old smells and their misty eyes.

Again Robert gathered champagne flutes from a waiter and handed them around though he did not drink himself his but sided it against a lone column stand. The group now consisted of Clementine, Thomas, Marguerite, Anthony, Taren and I.

“I would like to raise a toast” said Robert, his accent becoming more and more gentile as the night wore on.

“To my first sighting of snow in less than a month and a wonderful skiing holiday with my new friends” he said then lowered his lips to the flute and sipped the champagne.

“Here here” said Thomas, “to the slush piles of Crackenback!” he exclaimed.

“Why don’t you stop drinking tonight Thomas” said Clementine but said not a word more after Thomas gritted his teeth.

“To old friends and new” I said “may we sort the wheat from the chaf on the mountain.”

We continued to converse whilst Thomas busily played with his curls and looked down toward the harbour which was now uneventfully black but for markers which flashed into the night. Robert moved closer to me, forcing me slightly away from the group.

“What is a ‘wowser’?” he asked.

“Oh nothing, she’s just being facetious. This whole thing kind of stinks of the decadence of the twenties so I think she was trying to use it contextually. Quite contrived. Don’t worry, you get used to it. It means a ‘party pooper’.”

“Oh, I knew that” said Robert scratching his head, “I knew I heard that somewhere before.”

“I am going to dance with Theo again!” declared Marguerite and she grabbed my hand as the song changed.

She lead me onto the dance floor, this time she was excitable, her brimming with the sheer possibilities of life and its endless magic and for the second time that evening, though for completely different reasons, I was at the whim of her charms. All that stood near regarded her presence; her youthful milky tea skin, her delicate opal sea treasures refracting golden light from their depths, her thin diamond necklace sparkling in the glow of lights; all coming together in a kaleidoscope of miracles and trickery.

“Come on Theo, dance, dance” she said spinning wildly about the floor and I elevated myself onto my toes and took the floor, a bull seduced by the toreador’s cape. I locked arms with her again, spread wide, and she slid down one arm and off to the side. The eyes of the party focussed on us as we finished to the song, a number of the guests clapping as she took her bow.

As I left that evening the smell of her stayed on my lapel. Taren had gone home with Anthony and I walked through the house alone, stopping to pull a creased book off the shelf. Freya touched my shoulder giving me a fright.

“C’etais une bonne soireee” she said.

“Yes, I had a fantastic time” I said.

“You danced very well” she offered as a consolation prize.

Marguerite walked past the two of us, Robert walking in tow. She let go of Robert’s hand and crossed the room to kiss me goodnight. It was an awkward moment, Robert remained silent and blank-faced; eventually she took his hand again, ascending the stairs toward the bedroom wing.

As I made my way down the drive I listened to the couples as they meandered through the evenings events, formulating their repartee on the gossiping phones of the Peninsula the following morning. One of the more refined women, a fashion designer turned magazine editor, was busy trying to coin the catchphrase for the night as her husband carried her coat, their driver waiting at the bottom of the drive.

“A winter’s soiree heated to a summer’s delight” she said and her pointy new nose twitched in the air, “The festivities knew no bounds as Freya MacDonald serves up a slice of France to the antipodeans she has come to know”. Here she turned to her husband, his amused expression nodding with its tortoise shell glasses.

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