My fictional story, Dancemoon, has never been previously published. The location, but definitely not the people, were inspired by many happy stays in Tuscany with my generous friends, the King family.
‘We’re dancing to the moon,’ said Arthur, moving, it has to be admitted, a little stiffly like the old man he was.
‘Oh, darling,’ agreed Poppy, although her eyes, often out of control (they were large and blue) sidled towards Gary who was, admittedly gay, but perhaps not irremediably. ‘And what a moon!’ she added because, after all, Arthur was her husband, probably her final husband.
‘I think I’ll regain the fire,’ said Arthur puffily. ‘The fire that warms the heart. The heart that warms the blood.’
Poppy, still swaying, watched as he sank comfortably into a large armchair. She thought he talked too much – she’d noticed this fault on their first meeting – but it became particularly obvious at moments like this when bodily expression was the currency. Or should be. Flinging her arms above her pretty head, she swung round in Gary’s direction.
Unfortunately, he, too, was sinking into the upholstery. That’s the trouble about gays, thought Poppy bitterly. They consort with too many clever older men who, like Arthur, think words can compete with the moon!
Abruptly changing tack, Poppy glided out of the French windows and onto the terrace where the moon was even more spectacular.
The music reached her quite easily and she swooped about for some time, the moon and its lugubrious smile as good a dancing partner as any other.
It was when she paused for a breather that she noticed a dark shadow on the parapet, near the end where the fig tree grew and beyond that the mountains on the other side of the valley and beyond that the open sky. The figure was hunched and human, she thought, bending forward with the suppleness of her recent exercise, most likely a fellow houseguest. Certainly, male.
‘Neal,” she said, knowing at once this was not his name but nevertheless confident he would appreciate the attempt at recognition. He was not a prominent member of the house party, more a fill-in owing to the presence of twin sisters whose husbands had died within two weeks of each other and were, understandably, in need of cheering up. The gays might have dealt with them but unfortunately their host had met with an accident. Doug Appleforth, who owned this beautiful Italian farmhouse now bathed in moonlight, although not dead, had been taken to the local hospital with a gunshot wound. So his wife, Poppy’s dear friend, Edie, had informed her guests without explanation and Poppy had not thought it tactful to question. Neal (although that was definitely not his name) must have been rustled up at short notice to drink the lunchtime champagne in sweet blue bottles and the dinner champagne of very well known brands.
‘Harry,’ said the shadowy figure in a depressed voice.
‘How interesting!’ exclaimed Poppy, with her voice like a trail of stardust. She had only briefly used it for anything but attracting husbands and the highlight of that far-off stage career had been a review which included the phrase, ‘a trail of stardust’. ‘You don’t have the look of a Harry.’ Folding chiffon round her like butterfly wings, she sat beside him.
‘I was Henry till yesterday. Then Edie called me Harry, by mistake probably and now everyone calls me Harry.’
‘Edie is a brutal woman. Brutal and bossy.’ Poppy took Henry (or Harry’s) hand in a manner both proprietorial and flirtatious. His skin seemed to shiver a little which she took as tribute to her powers. ‘I shall tell her tomorrow that you are Henry.’ She peered in a vain attempt to see his face but the moon was behind him and his features remained indecipherable. ‘Why are you sitting here?’ She asked as an after thought, with a slightly irritable note in her voice. She dropped his hand. Perhaps he was a hired waiter, come out for a fag break and not a guest at all.
‘Watching the fireflies,’ he said, turning his head round and, indeed, she could hardly help seeing a bright point of light dancing out of the sky and towards the trees. Mysteriously, despite years of home parties in villas in France and beach homes in the Hamptons, and converted farmhouses in Italy, Poppy had never actually seen a firefly before.
‘There’s another,’ pointed out Henry.
‘I am wonderstruck,’ whispered Poppy. And, for whatever reason, she was.
‘Of course the moon is the real thing,’ continued Henry in his flat voice after they had sat for a few minutes in awed admiration at nature’s grace. ‘The moon is so big and unctuous and demanding.’
‘I don’t think the moon can be unctuous and demanding,’ Poppy had taken time to deliberate. ‘Are you a writer by any chance?’ A sigh met her words and now the profile of her companion was palely illuminated. He had a beard, she saw with surprise, not long but not short either and a slight look of the House of Windsor. Perhaps he was royalty, she wondered wistfully. She would like to meet a royal person. Arthur would like it too, she thought, remembering with self-congratulation, the existence of her husband. Although she quickly spoilt such wifely virtue by hoping he had gone to bed. It was late after all; they had completed dinner ages ago and it was, ages more since the moon had come up and they had begun dancing. Quite possibly everyone had gone to bed.
‘How did you know I was a writer?’
‘You said three adjectives in a row. No one except writers bother with adjectives. E-mails have quite killed modifications of that sort. Adverbs have gone too. Apart from “fastest”.’
‘That’s not a word at all.’ The writer, because he seemed to be accepting the label, sounded distinctly less amicable as if, for all her charm and sympathy, (or perhaps because of it) he did not wish to discuss grammatical usage in the twenty-first century.
If Poppy had not been so restless and bored and the moon had not been so large and the fireflies so numerous – they were whisking about now quite uncontrollably – she would have left, but instead she decided to be curious. ‘You have a strong look of the House of Windsor,’ she said, smiling pinkly although the moon gave her lips a bluish shade.
‘Oh, God, is that all you can say!’ He was suddenly as petulant as a spoilt child.
She saw that the beard which might contain a hint of red, hid a fiery temper, unless he was trying to impress. Some weak men – and she had clearly identified him as weak, strong men do not watch fireflies –assume that a rough tongue makes them seem more manly. Even a strong man like Arthur had been inclined to make the same mistake in the early years of her marriage until she had pointed out how it turned her off.
‘Who invited you here?’ she asked, not as a reproof but gently because she was used to categorising new acquaintances and the darkness and the moon, not forgetting the fireflies, were confusing her antennae. ‘Did I see you on the tennis court this afternoon?’
‘What?’ Poppy looked into the darkness but the figure had slipped sideways so as to almost merge with the parapet. Could he really have said ‘bollocks’ to her? Lady Spencer-Cole, wife of Sir Arthur Spencer-Cole, who might have been Lord Cole if the Conservatives had hung on a little longer. Although of course she could hardly be more Lady Cole than she was already.
‘Care for a drink?’ the writer had returned to the upright and was holding out a bottle of the good evening champagne.
‘Did you just say “bollocks” to me? You know Edie does not approve of swearing.’ To her surprise, Poppy found herself giggling. Edie, who long ago had been quite a coarse kind of American, now prided herself on her refinement and kept her house a swear-free zone. Poppy wondered for almost the first time who had shot Doug or whether it had been a self-inflicted wound. She noted idly that Henry was now swigging from the bottle, allowing bubbles to snare in his beard. She would leave if he became drunk. She couldn’t bear weak and drunk men; they reminded her of her unfortunate second husband who, in order to make things terminal, had also become a diabetic.
‘Please don’t go.’ He put down the bottle and raised an imploring arm. ‘I’ve been trying to talk to you all day. You’re never alone, do you know that? Never. I despaired. But the moon has drawn up together. You danced out to me.’
The intensity of this speech flattered Poppy who had once been used to such enthusiasm but found, recently, respect had taken out the gush. And yet it was odd that such an ordinary young man – perhaps in his late twenties – should wish to speak to her quite so much.
‘Have we met before?’ Her smile was winsome.
But he was evasive, standing and walking once more to the far end of the parapet where the shadows of the fig tree were darkest. ‘I asked Edie to invite me.’ His voice was muffled.
‘That’s no answer,’ Poppy noticed her skin was becoming cool. ‘I might go in now.’
‘Oh, please don’t do that! Wait, I’ll start the music again.’ He rushed clumsily past her and soon the sound of Frank Sinatra singing crept stealthily into the moonlight.
‘You are old-fashioned,’ she commented a little flirtatiously when he reappeared.
‘Can I sit by you?’
‘It’s not my parapet. Tell me, how do you know Edie?’
‘I didn’t till yesterday. I was in Italy and a friend of a friend gave me Doug Appleforth’s number so I telephoned.’
‘How odd Edie should invite you to stay. I suppose you’re not famous by any chance?’
‘I thought not. I’m seldom wrong about that.’ Poppy felt a certain nostalgia creep over her; it was the moon and the pale-faced stranger staring at her so avidly. ‘Edie and I have been friends since way back when. She knows all my secrets.’ She rethought and murmured to herself, ‘Well, all except one.’
Henry seemed suddenly flushed despite the blue light of the moon. ‘She does now!’ His voice was declamatory and he would have taken Poppy’s hand if she’d not snatched it away.
‘What can you mean? You’ve no idea what I’m talking about.’
Henry put his head in his hands as Frank Sinatra, rather too clearly for Poppy’s liking, began to sing: ‘That’s Why the Lady is a Tramp.’ She was beginning to feel bed with Arthur was best put off no longer.
‘Are you crazy!’ she hissed.
‘Do you know why Mr. Appleforth went to hospital?’ he mumbled though his fingers, irritating Poppy further.
‘He was wounded,’ she said briefly, as if that were explanation enough and saw the young man’s large eyes were fixed on her again.
‘Edie wounded him with his shot gun because I told her something she didn’t like.’
‘You? You!’ Poppy stood. ‘You nothing young man! You failed writer who uses too many adjectives! You creep who entertains middle-aged women in the moonlight! You, twerp! You had something to tell Edie that caused her to shoot her husband of thirty years? Rubbish!’
‘She didn’t aim to kill. Only to wound. It’s quite a small wound. I visited him in the hospital this afternoon. Frankly, I think he’s lying low.’ His expression remained humble but had gained, nevertheless, an air of determination. ‘Will you dance? Please. If we could just dance we could sort out everything.’
‘Dance?’ He was standing beside her now with a pleading but insistent expression. She could have laughed in his face – he was hardly taller than she – but instead she sighed, ‘Oh, if you like. You’ve worn me down. No-one ever wears me down, but you’ve quite worn me down.’
He put his arm round her at once and they began to sway gently together. She felt his body, so much warmer than hers. The fire of youth, she thought with a pang of jealousy. The moon seemed to have entered her veins, cooling her blood.
‘Hold me closer,’ she cried.
‘I can’t do that.’ He became agitated. ‘No closer.’
‘Don’t worry, Henry.’ She stamped her feet. ‘I have no designs on you.’
‘You know who I am then?’ He whispered the words and his mouth was near enough to her ear to make them vibrate. ‘You’ve guessed?’
Poppy considered for several more beats before speaking. ‘My dear boy, I know who you think you are but why should I believe you? Perhaps you are crazy as I mentioned earlier. A lot of people are these days. Or perhaps you’re a fortune hunter after Arthur’s money? And I’d like to point out to you that Arthur knows nothing about it. And never will. It was before his time. Years before his time. Do you understand me?’
The young man seemed devastated by her harsh tones and although he still held her in his arms and swayed to the music, his whole body became rigid. ‘You know, then, that I am…?’ His voice faded. ‘That I am…’ he failed again.
‘My son.’ The words bounded delicately off the parapet up to the moon and back again. ‘Of course there is only one thing that Edie doesn’t know about me and didn’t know about Doug. Dear Doug. It was only a fling, you see, when my unfortunate second husband was drinking himself into his grave. Just to cheer me up, really.’ Poppy let drop her arms abruptly and then, just as abruptly, put her hands tight round Henry’s face and stared at him intently. ‘You don’t want a relationship, do you? Oh, God, I couldn’t bear that, the long lost son, adopted as a baby, come to dangle at his aged, let’s say ageing, mother’s knee. Or perhaps you want to reproach me? You want me to crawl, at your knees, humbly beg forgiveness… Confess that I was not cut out to be a mother, that the father was married, his wife my friend. Weep as I recall the my suffering when I gave my baby away…’
‘No! No!’ Henry interrupted her. Tears sparkled in Henry’s eyes, like grounded fireflies, they trickled down his cheeks.
Poppy noticed the music had stopped again but a bird had begun to sing with vulgar trills somewhere the other side of the valley.
‘I only planned to see you. I promised Edie not to say a word. She’s perfectly happy now she’s wounded Mr. Appleforth whom I hardly think of as my father. I have two perfectly decent parents back home. It was just when you danced out to me in the moonlight…’
‘I wasn’t dancing out to you.’
‘…you were so incredibly beautiful. My mother. My exquisite mother. And I had to. I mean I just wanted one dance. Just one dance with you. My mother.’ He had stopped crying, the tears already drying because, after all, despite the moon, it was a warm night.
Poppy came to a decision. He was a handsome young man after all. Perhaps a writer. She flung her arms above her head and gave one of her internationally famous smiles. Could this strange sensation be happiness? She was certainly feeling quite light-headed and her heart was pounding the blood into her veins.
‘Put on some music, Henry dearest. Henry. My long lost son. You are right. We must dance and then afterwards you will slip back into the shadows from whence you came. Back to the bosom of your decent parents.’ As he stood staring, she pushed him a little, a gentle shove of mother to son. ‘Henry. Do you know, I am pleased to see you? I am. I am. And I am happy. But quick, quick before Edie comes out with a gun.’
Henry hurried. He put on music with a wild throbbing beat and came out to Poppy who was already swirling about the tiled floor. He caught her hand and began to dance himself, showing surprising rhythm and agility.
‘This is glorious!’ cried Poppy before she became too breathless. ‘Glorious,’ she repeated, twirling so hard that her chiffon draperies flew out like pennants.
‘Glorious,’ echoed Henry. And the music throbbed; the bird sang, the fireflies flitted and the moon, far above, modestly covered its smile with a silver gauze.