Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Reading to the Faded - Part 2

It was the manservant, Jenkins, who reminded me of the service manager at a garage to which I used to take my Porsche, who phoned to tell me that the job was mine if I wanted it. He didn’t sound delighted. He referred to me in the third, rather than second, person — as “the gentleman,” rather than you, and palpably hated having to do so. He sounded as though he’d sooner be calling almost anyone, to say almost anything else.

When I reported for work the following afternoon, I could fairly perceive steam coming out of his nostrils, along with a profusion of fine hair you’d have hoped he might have trimmed. He led me into what I’d originally taken as a sitting room, but which I now understood to be the reading room, where Mrs. Tourneau greeted me like a long-missing favorite nephew. I was discomfited to think that I was the reason she was even more heavily made up than the day before, when I’d auditioned for her. I worried that I might have an allergic reaction to her perfume. Jenkins brought us refreshments — sherry and bon-bons for Mrs. Tourneau, tea and communion wafers for me — and I asked what Mrs. Tourneau was in the mood to be read. She laughed trillingly and said she thought we should get to know each other a bit before I began my actual reading to her. She assured me that I would be paid during this period just as though I were actually reading.

She had appeared in a number of plays I hadn’t heard of, but pretended I had indeed heard of, and in some equally obscure films, apparently most often as an ill-fated beauty intent on drinking herself into the abyss. I told her I’d seen, and very much enjoyed her performances in, a couple of the films, and hoped she hadn’t made up their titles to expose me as one who would say anything to get medical and dental insurance. I was much more comfortable when she changed the subject to her girlhood in Ireland. For no good reason, she recounted the weekend of Elvis Presley’s first performance there, and how she and dozens of the city’s most porcelain-skinned beauties had been inspired to remove their blouses and brassieres and run jiggling and giggling through the city centre to get the goat of the Bishop of Limerick, who’d denounced rock and roll as demonic in his abrogations the previous Sunday morning. “It was all in Latin, of course,” she recalled, “but we knew full well what he was on about.”

It occurred to me that all this talk of jiggling and demons might be intended to arouse me sexually. I desperately hoped that no such thing was the case, and was relieved far beyond the ability of mere words to express when she took a big swig of sherry and mused, “What shall I hear first?” But it was out of the frying pan and into the fire, as she revealed that, at the height of her career, she’d lived in dread of someone at a cocktail party or film premiere wondering what she thought of Beowulf or The Iliad, which I’d so hated having to read as a freshman in college. I swallowed hard and told her how much I’d been looking forward to rereading those myself.

About an hour into The Iliad, I realized with horror that I’d fallen asleep, but so too, thank God, had Mrs. Tourneau. She looked years younger when unconscious, and I’d have defied anyone not to find her demure snoring endearing. I had the idea of skipping to the end of the book, and telling her, when she awoke, that I hadn’t realized she’d fallen asleep, but then it occurred to me that Jenkins might be just behind the door, waiting to denounce me.

I will confess now that I hadn’t accepted the job just because of the meager salary and medical and dental insurance, but because I hoped Mrs. Tourneau might leave me a chunk of her estate when she passed on. It occurred to me that she might have intended to leave much it to Jenkins or Mrs. Jamison, or her dog, though none was in view, and that she might have nieces and nephews beyond counting. I could do nothing about the latter, but it occurred to me that the prudent thing might be to poison Jenkins and Mrs. Jamison at my earliest opportunity.

[Concludes tomorrow.]

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