The heavy scent of lavender that lingered at the front door seemed more vivid to Henry, reminding him of the spring they drove to Provence. The sun was beginning to dip and Olive had begun to worry. They were expecting her aunt and uncle any minute. Charlie told Henry that he told Jasmine, his wife, he would call before they dined and took the side entrance that led to the courtyard.
Olive was setting the table when Henry had crept to her shoulder, lent down and kissed her neck. He kissed her with the fervidity of their youth. She felt transported to Barcelona, to Vienna, to Lisbon, when he would, unannounced, kiss her gently while they were perusing a menu, or she was taking a photograph, or after he had pulled out her chair. She turned and he was looking on her with longing, apologetic eyes. There was something infinitely comforting about the way Henry would look at you, as though it were only he and you, and you held his attention unwaveringly, with him hanging on each word you spoke, or move you made. He looked upon Olive, upon us all, the way we desired to look upon ourselves—he saw you for who you wanted to be and made you believe that you were unquestionably that.
Olive, taken aback, stared into Henry’s eyes. She had not seen him like this for a very long time and although she wished every day he would return to his better self, was startled by this sudden change of demeanour.
‘Henry…’ Olive muttered tentatively, ‘where have you been? Dinner is at seven and Rosalyn and William will arrive any moment. Did you get the gelato and vermouth? I hope you didn’t linger too long and have the gelato melt.’
‘Both here,’ Henry confirmed, lifting the canvas bag heavy with vermouth and gelato, ‘dinner smells incredible, darling. What have you made?’ Henry inquired, drawing in a deep breath of the fumes wafting from the kitchen.
‘Henry… what happened?’
‘Nothing happened,’ Henry replied, ‘we walked and talked and picked up the gelato and vermouth—’
‘Henry,’ Olive interrupted, ‘I’m being serious. What happened? When you left this afternoon, you were cheerless and now, somehow, you are buoyant. How can a simple stroll have had this affect?’
‘Perhaps it wasn’t the walk, perhaps it’s the fragrant lavender you’ve planted in the courtyard,’ Henry jested, attempting childishly to avoid the obvious conversation, ‘it has transported me to Provence, to balmy evenings drinking from Jean-Luc’s endless fountain of rosé, to our dawn drives, with you reclining in the passenger and I, looking at you and passed you to the limitless fields of lavender and realising that there was no marked difference in your beauty and that of the fields.’
‘How wonderfully romantic, Henry, but this morning, for months, in fact, you have had me in tears, so I’m not quite ready to fawn over your eloquence. I don’t know what you encountered on your walk, or what Charlie has said to you, and although I am pleased to see you like this—hoped, in fact, to see you like this—now that I do all of the anger I have had to suppress to spare you hardship feels like its at boiling point! How can you speak to me of Provence and its fields of lavender after the way you have been acting! I have been struggling for a long time in your absence, without your love or support or affection and I don’t understand how a walk, no matter how clearing or refreshing, can onset such a rapid change in somebody who has been completely disconsolate for months!’.
Olive spoke with unbridled exasperation but quietly so as to not alert Charlie. It was Henry’s turn to be taken aback and he stood there unnerved and upset by Olive’s castigation. He was aware of the strain he had placed Olive under, but due to her unending empathy and consequently, her silence, he did not fully appreciate how she had felt during these grim months.
‘I am so sorry, my love,’ Henry began, ‘I am bitterly disappointed in myself. I don’t know what pervaded me, but whatever it was, I felt helpless against it. I know that sounds ridiculous, that one is helpless against themselves, but I did feel that way, though that does not excuse my behavior in the slightest. I know these are only words and mean little until I make up for lost time, but I hope you’ll allow me to rectify my wrongdoing. I feel better, but don’t yet feel entirely myself. I know that in time I can be, but I can’t do it without you. I don’t know where I would be without you. I thought there was weakness in needing others, but I am beginning to realise that there is a great deal of strength in admitting that we do need others, that a life lived without accepting that truth is solitary and unfulfilled, and that only through accepting that we need others can we fully appreciate what it is to be human in all of its shared melancholy and elation.’
‘I am happy to hearing you expressing this sentiment, but I just need a moment to gather my thoughts. Will you please finish setting up the table while I finish preparing dinner.’ Olive spoke with elegance and compassion. Henry saw her bravery as an aura that radiated magnificently.
‘Of course,’ Henry obliged, stacking plates and silverware from the cupboards.
As Henry was completing the table, Rosalyn’s knock fell on the door.
‘Shall I get it, Olive?’ Henry called through the servery.
‘Please, my hands are full,’ Olive confirmed through a perfumed cloud of steam.
They were staying in Florence for a week from Prague as Rosalyn was in town to conduct at the recently built Teatro del Maggio Musicale. She had assumed the role four years ago when Emmanuel Villaume left for the Berlin Philharmonic. She had been conducting for thirty years and harboured an encyclopedic knowledge of classical music. She and Henry spoke fervidly on the subject, often sending each other records they thought the other ought to listen to. In recent months, Rosalyn had received no such gifts from Henry, though this did not deter her from sending any to him. She knew the state he was in from protracted conversations with Olive while she was in Paris. Most recently, she had sent him Max Richter’s recomposition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with a note that read: ‘Henry, nothing is perfect; even Vivaldi could be tweaked. Love, R.’
‘Buona sera, miei amici! Benvenuto!’ exclaimed Henry.
Rosalyn, Olive’s aunt, was astonished by Henry’s conviviality. Her expectation of Henry was pronouncedly different as per Olive’s description.
‘Hello, Henry!’ Rosalyn replied, embracing him, ‘how are you?’.
‘Very well, thank you, Rosalyn. How are you? When did you arrive?’.
‘Well as well, thank you, Henry. Last night, just after eight.’.
‘Lovely. Dinner is almost ready. Can I hang your jackets?’.
‘Please,’ Rosalyn smiled, handing Henry her cardigan.
‘William?’ Henry inquired.
‘Thank you, Henry,’ William said, bowing and handing his blazer to Henry.
‘Did you see Maciej in Warsaw for this blazer, William?’ Henry asked.
‘I did, Henry, great eye! Thank you for the recommendation. It’s Huddersfield’s seersucker. I had a suit made, but they work wonderfully as separates, too,’ replied William.
‘I can see that. Lovely choice of colour. The brown suits you.’.
‘Thank you, Henry. I was hesitant, but Maciej convinced me. He has a sharp eye for colour.’.
‘He certainly does. Shall we have apéritifs?’.
‘Only if you have that delightful vermouth!’ Rosalyn jested.
‘I’ll see what I can muster!’ Henry retorted slyly, ‘make yourselves comfortable, I won’t be long.’.
Henry entered the kitchen to the shocking sight of Olive sat in the corner, her arms wrapped around her knees, head low stifling her crying. This image unnerved him severely. He was devastated that this was the direct consequence of his actions. He sat beside her, pulling her gently toward him. She cried softly into his chest.
‘I am so sorry, Olive…’ he began, ‘but it doesn’t matter that I’m sorry. What can an apology mean in light of everything I have put you through? Empty words. Empty, late, worthless words. I can’t believe this is what I have done to you. Me, of all people! I love you so much and I have hurt you so deeply and I am ashamed. No matter what I was experiencing, you should not have borne the weight of my experience—’
‘Henry, please stop for a moment, I want to ask you something,’ Olive interjected.
‘Of course,’ Henry complied, ‘anything.’.
‘Were you really incapable of overcoming your melancholy? If so, why couldn’t I help you? I am filled with indignation, but also with confusion and disappointment that I was unable to remedy your ailments, not as your wife, nor your friend, nor your companion. Yet a short spring stroll can break the spell! How can that be? I sat with you day and night, comforting you, listening to you, caring for you, with little more than the occasional smile as gratuity for my unwavering support. Did it mean anything? How can twenty years of inseparability be so worthless?’.
‘Olive, my darling, those twenty years mean the world to me. Everything you have done for me, most particularly in these trying months, has never gone without deep, abiding appreciation, although I concede wholly that I displayed the antithesis and for that I will reprimand myself severely, perhaps endlessly as your sadness has onset in me something I had not previously felt, a shame I have never experienced. You are to me an angel and who dares injure an angel? I don’t know precisely how to express my experience in words, not at the least because I do not feel I have entirely escaped this, this… thing. I can only describe it as feeling trapped, observing my reality from the bottom of a well, incapable of influencing it, subject to a dark, paralysing grip I felt helpless against. I know, beyond any doubt, that without your fierce and resilient support, I would have been consumed entirely. You are, and have always been, my salvation.’.
It is at junctures like this that we experience the depth of human emotion that requires such grim circumstances to be invoked. When one presents the other a mirror in the form of themselves, reflecting their own pain as worn by somebody they love dearly. To be both devastated by one’s own selfishness and liberated by another’s compassion; to be falling and be caught; to be destroyed and be redeemed.
‘Henry, after everything that has happened, would you believe that I am still most upset to have seen you the way you were. If only you could have seen yourself! To have transformed from the powerful, empathetic force that inspired us all to better ourselves, into a man ravaged by the very intellect and emotionality that served him. Perhaps it’s our fault… we treated you as something adjacent to us, rather than one of us. But how could we not have? You were—are—larger than life. But even Jupiter orbits the Sun…’.
‘Even Jupiter orbits the Sun…’ Henry repeated.
‘We cannot escape our own existence, our best hope is to transcend it,’ Olive added, ‘and for so long you were transcending, we mistakenly believed that you had somehow escaped.’.
‘And for so long, I desired to escape and it was futile, as it should be. We are not designed to escape our existence, rather, we are tasked with attempting to understand it, navigate it, transcend it to serve others. To escape, I now realise, is self-serving, though it seemed to me for so long to be self-actualising. How our perceptions can shatter like crystal, leaving us to construct a new paradigm with little except what we now know to be misguided…’ Henry mused.
They were both tired. They looked at each other with a vague sense of accomplishment. Love had snuck quietly into the kitchen and sat with them.
‘We better get out there before they assume the worst,’ smiled Olive, her words heavy with cathartic relief.
‘I love you, darling,’ Henry said softly, ‘I love you and I am sorry, so very sorry.’.
‘I love you too, Henry. Now pour us vermouth before I faint from exhaustion.’
‘With pleasure, my love.’
Henry poured the vermouth for everyone and carried it out of the kitchen on a butler’s tray.
‘Exquisite!’ exclaimed Rosalyn, ‘it’s a crying shame Prague is dry of the stuff.’.
‘It is,’ responded Henry, ‘though, they produce such small quantities, I’m not sure it sells passed the border.’
‘Anything inaccessible is unbearably delightful,’ declared Rosalyn.
‘Is that so?’ Henry smiled.
‘Indeed,’ interrupted Olive, wandering in from the kitchen, ‘that’s why men never tire of women.’.
‘How wicked!’ retorted Henry, ‘and true!’.
‘Most things that are true are often wicked,’ added William.
‘Insofar as the truth itself is wicked for it leaves no room for imagination!’ Henry redoubled.
‘How aphorismatic, Henry,’ grinned Rosalyn, ‘it’s nice to see you in high spirits. You’re always terribly witty when in high spirits.’
‘My high is fuelled by spirits! Oh, how I’ve missed you Rosalyn, you remind me that Olive’s vivacity is not borne entirely of her own efforts. Who knew joie de vivre could pass down the helix?’.
‘All who joy would win must share it; happiness what born a twin,’ Olive recited, recalling Byron’s poetry.
‘And she quotes Byron! For a woman of design, she is intolerably well-read,’ Henry jested, ‘one wonders where she found the time between being a brilliant mother, inimitable architect and delightful wife.’.
‘It seems you rubbed off on me more than I gave credit,’ Olive quipped, realising the truth of that statement as she spoke it.
‘Thank God it stopped at reading!’ Henry countered, ‘anyhow, Olive has shucked the oysters and I’m sure I read somewhere the longer a shucked oyster sits, the longer the aphrodisiac affect takes to set in.’
‘Henry, darling, William and I are still waiting for our last round of oysters to set in!’ Rosalyn cried.
They all laughed heartily. The conviviality of the exchange infused the air with humour and kinship. A wave of serenity washed over Olive. She was still fragile, but the change in Henry felt true and she did not want to hold on to anger. It felt to her that he had returned from some protracted expedition. Henry’s seeming nihility had tolled Olive of unquantifiable energy, yet she persisted to support him in any and every way she could. Her strength inspired us all. She did not support him from a sense of duty, but rather from a depth of love we seldom witness. She loved him as though he were a genuine extension of herself, and she attempted to remedy him as one would remedy a broken wrist or torn hamstring; delicately and with limitless patience.
‘Henry, would you bring a bottle of champagne from the cellar, please,’ requested Olive.
‘That won’t be necessary, sweetheart,’ interjected Rosalyn, ‘we have not come empty-handed,’ pulling from her bag a flawlessly wrapped bottle.
‘You shouldn’t have, Rosalyn! You are our guests. I insist you retain it for yourselves,’ Olive asserted.
‘The pleasure lies in not having to, and yet doing so anyhow,’ Rosalyn assured.
‘Your eloquence is trumped only by your kindness, Rosalyn,’ Olive beamed.
‘I’m parched, would somebody sabre the champagne before I faint,’ Charlie joked blithely, walking in from the courtyard.
‘Where did you disappear to, Charlie’ Olive inquired, unwrapping the bottle.
‘I called Jasmine to ensure all was well, and then booked us a booth at Le Ménagère for the supper show.’
‘Sensational idea!’ Rosalyn trumpeted.
‘Who’s playing this evening?’ William asked.
‘Stefano Bollani is débuting his newest work, Que Bom,’ Charlie answered.
‘Oh, doubly sensational,’ Rosalyn passionately exclaimed, ‘it’s a charming record. I’ve taken to listening to a great deal of Bossa Nova and the like, it’s wonderfully—’
‘Rosalyn!’ Olive shrieked, interrupting, ‘we can’t accept this!’ It was a 1995 Charles Heidseick Blanc de Millenaires.
‘You most certainly can and will,’ countered Rosalyn, ‘we are celebrating this evening.’
‘What exactly are we celebrating?’ Olive asked, puzzled.
‘We didn’t want to tell you over the phone,’ Rosalyn began, ‘and, Henry, we knew you were grappling with your work and that you would have taken issue with the matter, so we were reticent to divulge.’.
Henry and Olive were intrigued. Rosalyn spoke with gravity and neither of them could imagine what news was to be delivered.
‘Anyhow, after I débuted my work in Prague, there was a post-concert party organised. As usual, we floated about the room, speaking to the mélange of guests, exchanging pleasantries, when we happened across an editor from Gallimard. She was a fan of the work and we spoke fervently, and sporadically, on assorted topics and eventually spoke of Henry,’ Rosalyn explained, speaking seriously yet excitedly, ‘she had read your work and expressed serious interest in having it translated to French and was keener still to have any of your new work published in French concurrent to English releases as well as having you tour the country. I divulged that you had new albeit unfinished work and, to your disapproval I’m certain, later mailed her the except from the manuscript you had sent over.’ Here, Rosalyn paused. She expected severe reprimand from Henry, though none came and he gently prompted her to continue.
‘She loved it, Henry. She wants you to fly to Paris at your earliest convenience to meet. She’s also dying to meet you Olive. She loved the new courthouses and when William told her you were the lead architect she was thoroughly impressed and keener yet to meet you both. Un couple charmant, she said you must be.’.
‘Oh my goodness…’ Olive muttered, eagerly waiting for Henry to respond. It had been the piercing feeling of unoriginality that had nudged him into inexorable anguish and to now hear that his confidential manuscript had been passed to an editor could yield a terribly acrimonious reaction. Moreover, he was acutely averse to discuss his work with those dearest to him, doubly so to discuss, let alone share, his unfinialised work with the literati.
Henry stood silently, staring down at his glass. His cogitation rendered time’s passing oppressively slow. He looked around the room. At Olive, at Charlie, at Rosalyn and William. He felt he was at some curious crossroad and his next action would have grand consequence. He inhaled deeply; all stood in interested anxiousness.
‘They want to us to fly to Paris?’ Henry asked, processing the information.
‘At your earliest convenience, she is incredibly keen to meet,’ Rosalyn confirmed.
‘What do you think, darling?’ Henry asked Olive.
‘I think you should do what’s right for you, my love. I will support you, whichever decision you make.’ .
‘Thank you, sweetheart. I’ll give it appropriate thought over the weekend. For now, let’s enjoy your wonderful company.’ .
‘Shall I uncork the bottle?’ Rosalyn inquired delicately.
Henry grinned cordially. ‘Yes, I think that’d be lovely.’.
They immensely enjoyed the champagne. Olive had prepared a delightful dinner. Following the oysters, they enjoyed an entrée of burrata with heirloom tomato and lemon thyme; the main was basil pesto casarecce that she had prepared fresh that morning, with basil picked from the garden; and dessert was her delectable plum and rosemary panna cotta. Olive had always cooked well, but had taken in recent years to truly applying herself and had begun hosting marvellous dinner parties. Rosalyn and William had exceedingly looked forward to dining at her table and were perfectly satisfied with her fare.
‘Olive, you have outdone yourself,’ William professed.
‘Absolutely!’ corroborated Rosalyn.
‘Thank you both, though the pleasure is entirely mine,’ blushed Olive.
‘What time does the show begin, Charlie?’ Henry asked.
‘Ten,’ Charlie replied.
It was quarter past nine.
‘Olive, why don’t you take Rosalyn and William for a drink in the salon, Charlie and I can clean quickly and then we’ll head off,’ suggested Henry, ‘there is Macallan in the decanter.’
‘Okay, darling,’ obliged Olive, migrating their guests into the salon.
‘I’ll start on the heavier items, Charlie, while you bring in the dinnerware,’ Henry decided, ‘but be prompt, please, I’d like to speak to you in the kitchen.’.
As Charlie gathered the dinnerware, Henry’s mind had returned to the pending decision. He was excited at the prospect, yet felt a familiar despair darkening the enthusiasm. Since boyhood, what excited Henry often frightened him, too. He had a disdain for deadlines and despised producing under pressure. This trait had forced his hand to turn down many opportunities, many of which he would come to regret. He worried that he was going to sabotage this opportunity for hollow, farcical reasons and wanted to ask Charlie a pressing question. He had finished the cookware and started on the dinnerware.
‘Charlie, can you dry, please?.
‘Of course. What did you want to speak about?’.
‘I’m worried, Charlie,’ Henry stated, ‘I’m worried that I am going to sabotage myself again. I’m worried that I am going to continue my life in this banal, unrelenting melancholy. I’m worried that I am going to alienate Olive beyond reconciliation. I’m worried that I have nothing original to say. I’m worried that I have had nothing original to say. I’m worried that I have lost too much of myself to regain—’
‘Henry,’ Charlie interceded affectionately, ‘you are a wonderful person, a wonderful husband, a wonderful friend, a wonderful writer. Your temporary, and it was temporary, forlornness is but a frame in the celluloid of your life. We can all fall, it is not whether you have fallen that is of importance, nor how far or long you’ve fallen, but that you decide to stop, that you decide to address Melancholy directly, understand it, respect it, overcome it, that is of singular importance. All else to the wayside. I know you are a perfectionist in the truest sense of the term. I know you feel as though the waters are too muddied to be cleared. But they are not. We all muddy our waters. Our reflection becomes opaque and we can lose ourselves. That is life. Life is imperfect. We are imperfect. You have written lines that have illuminated us all repeatedly. Your words ring truer now than ever. How astute and true your observation of life is. How disappointing to know that you feel unoriginal. You have introduced us all to original ideas—your ideas!—that we would not have thought in several lifetimes. You have been there for us in our darkest hours, with endless compassion and unwavering empathy. Your decline was intolerable for us. We all trusted it would pass, but at times felt we had lost you. You are not Icarus, nor Bacchus, nor Jupiter. Divinity belongs to the divine alone. We love you, Henry, and will support you ceaselessly, but you need to surrender to imperfection.’.
‘But are we doomed to be imperfect, Charlie, can we not become perfect, to make ourselves spiritual by detaching ourselves from action, and become perfect by the rejection of energy. Wilde said that. Do you think there is any truth in that?’.
‘I do. However, we as beings are imperfect. Perhaps he meant only our work can be perfect. A perfection that only lasts a moment. A perfection that is only ever designed to last a moment.’.
The idea was not novel to Henry. He, of course, knew perfection was unattainable. Yet he attempted to attain it. His fruitless attempts had disappointed and disillusioned him. He had anathematised his own nature and now came, through the support of Olive and Charlie, to the unavoidable realisation that we can escape anything except ourselves.
‘I have dedicated my whole life to the pursuit of perfection, Charlie… I never questioned it, I never saw a reason to, yet it has, without my knowledge, been my undoing!’.
‘I know, Henry. It was your relentless pursuit that inspired us to do the same. If it weren’t for you, I don’t think we would have striven the way we strove. Your pursuit was not wasteful nor futile, it was filled with purpose. You have so much yet to write. More now than ever. Chase your perfection, it’s a wonderful, worthwhile quest. But make it your perfection, not some objectified, unattainable standard.’.
‘Charlie, I love and appreciate you so very much. Thank you for your patience and compassion and thoughtfulness. You are a wonderful brother and friend.’.
‘Thank you, Henry. Merely reciprocating what you have done unquestioningly for us all.’.
At moments such as these, we find ourselves filled with a mixture of love, appreciation and belonging. It is this feeling that fuels the best of humankind, when we find ourselves suspended between our earthly and divine forms. Agape was the term the Greeks used to define what we can imagine to be this same feeling. The unselfish love we, in our suspended form, can envelope each other in.
‘Gentlemen, it is half-nine,’ William stated, striding into the kitchen, ‘we must make haste!’.
‘Allons-y!’ To the exquisite sounds of Bossa Nova!’ exclaimed Henry, grabbing Charlie tenderly by the shoulder.