“My eyes are facing different directions, Ypres. It is an abomination.”
“It is barely noticeable as one of them is closed.”
It was bright and early Sunday morning. I was up at the crack of dawn at 11:00 (Eastern Daylight Time, since you’re dying to know) to inspect The New York Times. Ypres, with characteristic military precision, had perused the periodical (I think the word appropriate) after having purchased a paper copy from one of the Upper East Side’s remaining newsstands.
The object at hand was the picture printed in the vows section announcing my fictitious engagement to Madison.
The lighting was not the best in the utilitarian Park Avenue flat. It had evidently been designed by a begrudged Midwesterner in opposition to the Scandinavian School. Space, light, and air had not been upheld as paragons of interior design. I went over to the half window, a trip of one step and a half, to get better lighting.
“Yes, Ypres, ha. You see my left eye is not closed, it is squinting from the flash. It looks closed in comparison to the other which is bulging due to surprise. However, my eyes are indeed facing different directions. This is very upsetting. When was this picture taken? I pride myself on keeping my distances from auricular assaulters such as Madison.”
“I hired a photographer to take a picture while you were both at the West Berlin. He was to be incognito, and catch you in the best of light.”
“This will not do. We must issue a correction once this whole thing is over and Madison has recovered her allowance. Then, I can deny the engagement as a fiction invented by the press who follow my every move. I can denounce it as a curse I must suffer as the embodiment of fashionable cosmopolitan London living. A burden to my status as an aristocrat of the literary world. Then, perhaps, I can follow it up with an op-ed piece, calling on privacy for those who, like me, dedicate their life to selfish…”
“Thank you, Ypres, selfless altruism and public service. After all, I am a champion of public service. Shall we get started on a draft, Ypres? We will have to use American spelling for the correction. Most unfortunate, but we can go back to keeping our ‘u’ in ‘honour’ and ‘valour’ for the op-ed. The correction will be easy as the announcement was only confined to the American North East. Only an intrepid online scavenger would be able to find it. Am I right, Ypres?”
Ypres did not have time to respond as the telephone rang. She did her usually gravity-defying soundless shuffle and issued the customary greeting.
“It is Mr. Vasa.”
“Dear Uncle Edward! Perhaps he has volunteered to up my allowance and hasten my return to London.”
I took hold of the receiver with princely grace and used my BBC voice.
“Dear Uncle Edward!”
“Don’t you dare mistake me for that damn rake!”
I could tell from the familiar deep commanding voice that I was not dealing with Uncle Edward, but with Uncle George. It is the same voice he puts to good use at the rowing club. Orders out of his mouth carry over the Thames from Greenwich to Battersea without losing any of their elocution.
“Ypres misinformed me – a worrying trend as of late. What gives me the pleasure of this trans-Atlantic communication, Uncle George?”
“I was quietly sitting down to my pre-dinner Sunday reading of The Economist, when I came across your little announcement.”
“An announcement? Perhaps my publisher took out an advert for A Mayfair Conundrum?”
“It is certainly not an advert for your self-published frivolity! It is a paragraph announcing your engagement to an American. Furthermore, this American happens to be the niece of the leader of one of France’s major political parties!”
“What? Is there a picture?”
“I was surprised to see it there in black and white next to those announcements for vacancies that have already been filed but have to be published for transparency. Bagehot would be infuriated to see such an ad sully his paper! I have already received a message from Vic Charge at the French Desk, and the old boy is dragging me to lunch tomorrow with Stan Lee-Governor to discuss the matter. He fears you will inadvertently cause some sort of diplomatic incident that will fortify LaPeine de Mort’s nationalistic politics. Evidently he knows you well.”
“I would be happy to hear about your boys’ lunch with your Foreign Office friends, Uncle George, but I must know: is there a picture?”
“Yes, and a jolly bad one at that! What happened to your eyes? Were you caught up in a bar brawl?”
I froze momentarily until a tone brought back my attention. Someone was on the other line. I mechanically answered.
“Vanessa, darling, is that you?”
“Ella, darling! I am so glad to hear your voice!”
Good old Lanky Ella Lanesbury has always proved to be a steadfast friend, despite a tendency to knock things over. Fateful Vasanistas will remember her from the time her luggage befell me at Heathrow. I was relieved she was safely at the other end of the telephone line.
“Vanessa, darling, I’m calling from Paris. Just finishing up a pre-dinner apéritif by the Place Vendôme with some Parisian friends. We must have them round to London. Do you know Éric? You must meet him! He is fabulous and he will just be mad about you!”
“I shall make the necessary arrangements upon my return to Mayfair, darling. I’m held up on Park Avenue at the moment on business, you know on the Upper East Side by Madison Avenue and Fifth. It’s very exclusive.”
“Yes, I know. Your address was listed in the ads. That’s why I’m calling.”
“You’ve been reading The Economist?”
“No, Vanessa, I don’t have time for that. Surely The Economist doesn’t carry anything of interest to us. I’m referring to the ads in Le Figaro, Le Monde, Libération, and Paris Match. Éric kindly translated them. He says most of these papers don’t carry engagement announcements. Anyway, I’m just calling to congratulate you! I have to run off to Maxim’s, but we must celebrate once you’re back in London.”
I put down the receiver with measured care, stepping away from the phone like a plane crash survivor walking away from the smoking fuselage. I was dazed. So dazed that I had barely noticed that Ypres had picked up the phone once more.
“Hello Uncle George, sorry we were cut off previously…”
“If you ever call me by that dull civil servant’s name again I shall disinherit you on the spot!”
“Yes, Uncle Edward. Considering all the support I have provided and continue to provide, the least you can do is call me Uncle Edward.”
“You’re calling about The Economist, aren’t you?”
“What economist? I try not to deal with economists, they tend to make it their mission to keep the dismal science dim. I’m calling to offer you my congratulations. I saw that engagement announcement that watery valet of yours took out in The Times.”
“The New York Times?”
“No, The Times. The London one. The only Times that matters, I might add. I must say the photo is a bit off. Were you sneezing or had you just been hit over the head? And did you pay extra for the photo?”
“I’m afraid I must go, Uncle Edward. I hate to cut our conversation short, but I must talk to Ypres.”
Ypres stood behind me immobile. I began my monologue.
“Ypres, I thought we had an understanding, but apparently I was misinformed. I hope it was not deliberately. How many publications did you take out ads in?”
I regained my balance.
“Why, pray tell? Surely it was not to keep the news print industry afloat.”
“It appeared essential to convince Madame LaPeine de Mort of the engagement’s veracity. Despite being a devout nationalist, she moves in international circles. A targeted global campaign was necessary to reach that goal.”
“Ypres, consider this your second strike! You may now only speak to me to perform your assigned duties. You must refrain from any further shenanigans – and I use the word deliberately.”
The doorbell rang.
“Saved by the bell. You may answer it, Ypres, as it pertains to your duties.”
This she did with all the dignity of a maître d’ serving oysters.
“A telegram, Vasa.”
“A telegram? I have never received a telegram. I thought they went extinct along with shoulder pads. How could this be? Who would use a technology that has been obsolete since the last century?”
“Nonsense, you won’t get me with that trick again. In any case, neither Uncle Edward nor Uncle George would pay to send me a piece of paper, only a dedicated hipster…” I paused. The Vasa mind was at full steam ahead.
“Cousin Andrew, Ypres!”
I ripped open the telegram. I was, as usual, correct. It was an urgent message from Cousin Andrew. I left for Brooklyn at once.
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