“What a dreadfully nasty woman,” said Cousin Andrew. He was reclining in an armchair. He wore a cross between a minimalist kimono and a dressing gown. His flat combined all the isms of interior design with no protocol for precedence.
“One does the right thing, being a good chap and all. Right in the mo, one dives in and helps a downed individual. Then, one expects to be left alone after a firm handshake. Perhaps a gentle pat on the back accompanied by a ‘thanks, buddy, that was swell.’ Yet, it is not to be.” He got up from his armchair and started to pace the room in a circle. It was a circle that the Greek fellow who invented arithmetic would have been proud of.
“Now this creature, this swamp-like mass of chemical waste, wants me to go out with its niece. By the by, does the niece ever stop emitting those high-pitched noises, or is that her default setting?”
“I have only known her through her shrieks,” I replied.
“This depresses me even more.” Cousin Andrew sunk back into his armchair like the HMS Prince of Wales off the coast of Singapore. A symbol of imperial grandeur meeting a quiet watery grave. I told him as such.
“Andrew, you sink into that armchair like the HMS Prince of Wales off the coast of Singapore.”
Cousin Andrew stood up in a sudden flash. He does a lot of standing up from armchairs. I sensed a pattern. He paced the room in quick steps with an inquisitorial bearing. His circle slowly turned into an oval.
“You’re different Vanessa.”
“Well, I did start eating more vegetables. You know fibre is very important.”
“No, it’s not that. You’re more attentive. You’re smarter. Your wit has thought. You’re making the obscure World War II references of an amateur historian.” He brought his body close to mine in what I thought was an attempt to start the tango. “Ypres has got to you!”
“Nonsense!” I harrumphed like a Fifth Avenue socialite. “If anyone has got to anyone, it is me who has got to Ypres.”
“No, it is ‘I’, not ‘me’. If anyone has got to anyone, it is I who has got to Ypres.”
“Being spending time with her, have you?”
Cousin Andrew grabbed his forehead with his left hand, massaging it in exasperation. I have often seen Uncle George do the same. Removing his hand from his person, he spoke: “I’m beginning to think my assessment might be flawed.”
“No, you’re quite right. I’ve always been smart. After all, although perhaps not an eminent source, Madison has said so herself. That is how this whole affair started. Seeing expertise, brilliance, and skills, recognising innate qualities in my person, she embraced my counsel.”
“You mean to say this whole stroll by the lake with a free push into the water was your idea? Ypres did not help you in any way?”
“No, she did not! You must know that I am not dependent on the woman.”
“Evidently, otherwise the plan would not have gone so horribly wrong.”
“I’ll have you know that if you took your exercise in Central Park or Riverside Park with old and new money, instead of Prospect Park with trust fund subsidised no money, you would not have ended up in a lake. The chivalric instinct would not have overtaken you”
Cousin Andrew collapsed into his armchair with such a heavy thud that he nearly upset one of the isms at his side.
“I will not be lectured on where I exercise by a person, a petite bourgoise, who believes fashion trumps all else. A person who upholds Marie-Antoinette as a paragon of moderation.”
“What’s wrong with eating cake!” I retorted, or is it retracted? “You’ve obviously been enjoying a few cakes yourself!”
Cousin Andrew flew out of his seat like a fighter jet off the desk of an aircraft carrier. He glimpsed at his figure in the mirror. He did not see me notice.
He started pacing the room again, leaving behind nothing but silence, or as close to silence as Brooklyn can get. Nothing could be heard, except for the odd siren. No sounds, except for the constant honking. Not even a mouse, although one could hear the rats eating away at the sewer pipes. It was as quiet as it gets in the five boroughs.
Amidst this impregnable silence, broken only by the odd lorry barrelling down on an inattentive cyclist, Cousin Andrew paced. He paced in circles, then ovals, then a sort of curved hexagon. I could not readily bring a description of the next shape to mind. Ypres would know, I thought. I was just about to commit my thought to words (something I am very good at), when Cousin Andrew, mid-geometrical form, beat me to it.
“By the by, where is Ypres? Surely she can counsel a way out of this mess.”
“I was just about to ask you the same question. Not about Ypres counselling ways out of messes, I can do that with acclaimed prowess, about where Ypres is.”
We momentarily eyed one another like characters in a crime novel, convinced that the other was the murderer. I volunteered my assessment of the situation.
“She has no doubt retreated to the Park Avenue flat and awaits my return with refreshments at the ready. Knowing Ypres’s dedication to duty and embodiment of the feudal spirit, I am certain of it.”
“She is not in possession of that much of the feudal spirit if she fled the scene.”
“Ypres does not flee. She floats noiselessly from one space to another. In any case, we all dispersed once Madison’s aunt came to. At least we all tried.”
“Yes, I was not fast enough. Had my clothes not been soaked I could have made a quicker escape. Now I’m stuck with that meddlesome niece.” Cousin Andrew directed himself towards one of the two windows overlooking Bedford Avenue. The daylight calmly illuminated his face. For an instant, he appeared thoughtful. It was merely an instant. An instant of calm concentration. It is perhaps instants such as these which cause him to create installations that engineers prove to be unrealisable. The instant was soon gone. The brooding had evaporated slightly. “How am I going to get myself out of this mess?”
“Worry not,” I said cheerily, in a tone a philosophy professor of mine once called the nativity Voltaire warned against (I still have to have Ypres interpret that one for me). “I shall come up with a solution – after hours, of course. I must not neglect either Madison’s entanglements or my duties at UNDO. Not that the apartment you found me leaves much room for thought.”
Slowly retracting (I think I got it right) himself to his armchair, Cousin Andrew became voluble once more.
“By the by, how is UNDO? What’s it like, dear cousin, watching your youth pass you in menial drudgery?”
“It is not drudgery, and my youth is not passing me. It is ever present and stands the test of time. I’ll have you know that I am doing very important work. I attend very important meetings the professional staff choose not to attend, and do complex paperwork no one understands and write reports no one reads, all on their behalf.”
“Like all bureaucratic interns, you do the work of others while they claim the credit and the pay, when it is work well done. When it is work that does not meet standards, I am sure the urge to take credit evaporates, yet the pay remains as steadfast and high as ever. That is why I am a free agent. I have resisted the draining pull of conventional professionalism.”
“You appear, beneath that bohemian veneer, rather conventional to me.”
“Dear cousin, I accept the comforts of convention, not its constrictions.”
“That sounds very much like a bourgeois sentiment to me. Spoken like a true petit bourgeois.”
Cousin Andrew flew out of his armchair. He was readying himself for a rebuttal, framed as he was by two Klimt prints above each of his shoulders.
The phone rang. Cousin Andrew picked up the receiver.
“You have a rotary phone as well?”
He motioned for me to keep quiet. It was a rather elaborate and rude gesture, but universally understood, in that it had the intended effect. He stood and delivered a few nods, then hung up.
“It’s Ypres. She’s back at your flat and will have tea ready in half an hour. She apologies for leaving you, but wanted to catch a programme on NPR.”
“Yes, she’s been very keen on her NPR programmes since we’ve arrived in the Big Apple. Especially the history and current affairs ones. The flat is so small I can hear her listening to it all the time. That and her BBC Radio 4 podcasts.”
“That explains your sudden burst of eloquence and semblance of momentary intelligence. It’s not Ypres that’s getting to you. It’s public radio that is seeping into your conscience.”
With the greatest of self-control, I did not reply. I delivered the cold shoulder of the Manhattan debonair, and left.
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