“In Vino Veritas?” by Allan Massie
Author: Guest Blogger
These days he’d got his drinking under control, or so he believed. Iron rules: no booze for the first three weeks of the month, and then none before six o’clock – six in the afternoon, that was. Happily this book festival was taking place in the last week of September.
His talk had gone well enough, thanks to Silvia, the charming young woman who had translated his biography of Bonnie Prince Charlie, a pot-boiler that would boil only a very small pot. Still, it had secured him an invitation to the Festival and it was good to be back in Italy. Now, in five o’clock sunshine, he sat outside the bar, while Silvia fetched him coffee and a glass of mineral water. Then she excused herself, saying she would collect him at his hotel at eight to take him to the restaurant, where they would be having dinner with the other writers. He lit a Toscano cigar.
He’d noticed the grey-haired man, sitting alone at the back of the room where he had been speaking, his attention briefly held by a distant sense of familiarity. But now, looking at the lined, grey-stubbled face, the stained tweed jacket and baggy corduroys, memory wasn’t jogged. Perhaps he was only a fan, though it seemed improbable, and he wasn’t bringing a book to be signed.
“You don’t recognize me? Well, it’s almost 50 years. I’m Ward.”
“Ward? Good heavens…”
The summer of 1960, his last at Cambridge, parties and playtime over, he was in Rupert’s pre-war Citroën, with Barbara, Rupert’s sister, in the back seat, on the way through soft and leafy Englishness to their home in Berkshire. He had taken Barbara to the May Ball and might be in love with her. They had kissed as the dawn came up, but then she had said, “I’m cold.” Rupert, high-strung and nervous, drove fast, too fast for the narrow, hedge-lined roads. “I don’t know how we’ll find things,” he said. “That’s a warning.”
Grindlay Manor was misshapen. A Victorian Gothic wing in ivy-covered grey sandstone had been attached to what had been the original russet-brick house – early 18th century, Queen Anne perhaps. “When I inherit,” Rupert said, “I’ll knock the wing down; it’s grotesque. Riddled with dry rot anyway.”
“Like the family,” Barbara said, “the house, Adam, is schizophrenic – don’t you think?”
Forbes assumed she was joking, but when Rupert had gone to greet their mother, she took his arm and said, “I’m serious, truly serious. It’s a madhouse you’ve come to. Father and Mother, well, you will judge for yourself, and then there’s Ward.”
“Our young brother. Sort of.”
“What do you mean, sort of?”
“Never mind. He’s what the French call ‘farouche’. That’s all. I’m afraid you’ll find Mother has put you in the Gothic wing, to be well away from me. Mother can be difficult. She’s very strict on propriety. Never mind, there are lovely long walks in the wood where we can disappear from everyone.”
Actually Lady Bryan welcomed him with something not too distant from warmth. Rupert had talked so much of him, it was agreeable to meet him at last, and would he like another cup of tea? She questioned him about his family and seemed to find the answers satisfactory. And what was he planning now, after Cambridge? The Army, he said, the Royal Scots, his grandfather’s regiment. They’d accepted him provisionally. But Sandhurst first.
“I’m serious, truly serious. It’s a madhouse you’ve come to.”
“Sorry you had to undergo Ma’s Inquisition,” Rupert said, showing him to his bedroom. “But you passed, I think. Here you are.”
In a few minutes he returned with a cocktail shaker and two glasses.
“Martinis.” he said. “I should have warned you, it’s officially a dry house. So there’ll be no wine at dinner. It’s because of Father. He’s what Ma calls a dipso. Sometimes he breaks out and then all Hell’s let loose.”
Rupert prided himself, Forbes remembered, on his Martinis. They were very cold, very dry and very strong. Very good too. Who was it who said, “There is nothing to beat a really good dry Martini”? Forbes hadn’t drunk one in 20 years now. TS Eliot, that was who it was.
The evening sun came into the dining room, shining mellow on polished wood. The Colonel wore a black eye-patch, and said “Pontius Pilate’s Bodyguard” when told that Forbes hoped for a commission in the Royal Scots. The boy Ward arrived when they were already eating. He was short and stocky with a tangle of unbrushed dirty-gold hair, sallow skin and dark brown eyes.
“You look as if you’ve come straight from the stables,” Lady Bryan said. “Go and wash your hands, they’re filthy.”
They ate shepherd’s pie with carrots, followed by a rhubarb tart and grocer’s Cheddar. There was a jug of lemon barley water on the table, but the Colonel said “filthy stuff” and told Ward to get him a glass of water. It took him some time. Barbara made coffee in an electric percolator; it was weak. The Colonel retired. Ward slipped away. Afterwards they played Canasta. Lady Bryan said it was time for bed. Forbes managed to kiss Barbara in the lobby, and she said, “It’s not always as bad as this. Usually but not always. I’m glad you’re here though.”
In the morning Rupert walked Forbes round the estate. The sun sparkled on the dew and it was going to be a perfect English day, but even Forbes, a city boy brought up in Edinburgh, could see that the place was in bad order: fences broken, hedges straggly and ditches choked. Shorthorns grazed knee-deep in fields full of docks and wild flowers.
“They’re too small,” Rupert said. “Not commercial these days. I tell Father we should get some of these big Continental cattle, Charollais, but he just turns away. He’s hopeless. He may have won a DSO in the desert, but he’s hopeless. We’re nearly broke. I tell him we should sell these fields across the stream to a builder, but he just says ‘over my dead body’. The builder made a good offer too. It’s crazy. That’s why I’m going into the City, to make money so that I can put things to rights, develop the estate as it can be developed, when I take over. Ma has a hard time with him as you can imagine.”
Barbara and Forbes walked, as promised, in the woods and made love. They went riding on retired hunters. Some days Ward came with them. He rode an Irish pony bareback, like a gypsy.
“Doesn’t he go to school?”
“Not this summer – he’s been expelled.”
“From Eton?” Rupert was an Etonian, the Colonel too, he assumed.
“Of course not. You can’t imagine Ward at Eton.”
Forbes never made the Royal Scots. A motorbike accident at Sandhurst left him with a smashed hip and a lifelong limp. He and Barbara had already drifted apart; it had been only a summer romance. He got a job, thanks to his tutor’s recommendation, at The Daily Telegraph. He worked on the Peterborough gossip column. He met Barbara at a publisher’s party. She told him she was engaged to be married, “But I think it may be a mistake,” she said, “like most things in life.”
Rupert prided himself on his Martinis. They were very cold, very dry and very strong.
“Have dinner with me all the same,” he said, and they went to Chez Victor in Wardour Street. “It was a favourite of the Free French,” he said, pointing to the photograph of De Gaulle.
“Mother’s more difficult than ever,” she said. “She disapproves of Lance” – her fiancé – “and not only because he’s American. Really I think that’s the only reason I said ‘yes’ to him. She and Father never speak to each other.”
“Is he still drinking?”
“When he can.”
She crumbled a bread roll.
“Rup’s doing well in the City. But you probably know that. He hates it and can’t wait for Father to die. He can’t wait to take over, he has great plans for the estate. I don’t like the sound of them, but it’s nothing to do with me now. If I marry Lance, we’ll live in New York.”
They ate Dover sole and drank a bottle of Montrachet.
“And Ward?” Forbes said.
“Oh Ward’s Ward. He’s left school, lives at home, does odd jobs about the estate, plays rugby, gets on Mother’s nerves, not surprisingly.”
“I rather liked him. Felt sorry for him too, though I don’t know why. But one thing has puzzled me. That first day you said he was your younger brother, sort of. It sounded odd.”
Barbara took a cigarette from Forbes’s packet of Peter Stuyvesant.
“You don’t mind, do you? I don’t often smoke, so I never have cigarettes myself. I say, this wine’s rather good. Can you run to another bottle? It won’t break you?”
“I don’t think my cheque will bounce.”
“Explanations are embarrassing,” she said. “Sort of wasn’t accurate. Half-brother would have been. Dirty linen, Mother would call it. But you know us just well enough to deserve to know more. And anyway it doesn’t matter to me now.”
So when the waiter had brought the second bottle and poured her a glass and replaced it in the wine-bucket, and she had drunk half the glass, she told him the story.
Ward was the Colonel’s son, but not Lady Bryan’s. His mother had been an Italian au pair. You could say it was a seduction, fair enough perhaps. Panic and furious rows erupted when she was found to be pregnant. Estella was a well brought-up girl from a respectable family, and a devout Catholic. An abortion, illegal anyway, was out of the question, and she didn’t dare, was too ashamed, to take the baby back home to Lucca. The obvious answer was to give the child up for adoption, but the Colonel wouldn’t have it. He won that battle, his last domestic victory perhaps. Estella was sent home, relieved, doubtless, but guilty. Ward remained.
“Mother would say she has done her duty, but you can’t be surprised that she has never been able to stand the sight of him and has always put him down. I think he has come to hate her, at least since she insisted on telling him he wasn’t her son. As for Father, I don’t know. On the one hand he feels guilty, or I think he does, and he knows it’s wrecked his marriage. On the other, he’s as fond of Ward as he’s capable of being fond of anyone. A mess,” she said, “a miserable story.” She emptied her glass and held it out for Forbes to refill.
Now, stretched on his bed in the Regina Vittoria, listening to the traffic and babble of voices rising from the Lungarno, he thought how strange it all was – when had he last thought of Ward? And this invitation – a pressing, please-don’t-say-no invitation – to dinner. He didn’t know what to expect. If he had had Barbara’s number, he might have called her, but it was years since he had known where she lived.
The apartment was in the Old Town, just round the corner from the Piazza dei Cavalieri. He rang the bell. The door buzzed open and he climbed the worn stone stairs to the third floor. A young man in t-shirt and jeans was standing in the doorway, held out his hand, said “Ciao,” and called out, “Eduardo, è arrivato.” When Ward came through, he said, “Ok, ok, I’m off. Enjoy yourselves. Remember to turn the gas off when you take the stew from the oven.”
She was engaged to be married, “But I think it may be a mistake,” she said, “like most things in life.”
Ward had cleaned himself up and shaved since yesterday, but his left eye was bloodshot.
“That was Nico,” he said. “I don’t know what I’d do without him, but he fusses – remember to turn the gas off. I’m not a bloody fool. Make yourself at home. I’ll get the wine.”
Forbes looked out of the window. It had started to rain heavily. There was a roll of distant thunder. Ward returned with a flask of Chianti, the old Tuscan flask which holds two litres, the kind that girls in their first flats made lamps with when Forbes was young.
“It’s got the old black cockerel on it,” Ward said, “rough but better than some of the poncey estate-bottled stuff.”
“How long have you lived in Italy?”
“Near 40 years, a lifetime really. The year after the Colonel’s death. It was made very clear I wasn’t wanted at Grindlay. Mother never had of course, but now Rupert couldn’t see the back of me soon enough. Father was an old bastard, but we suited each other. You remember how he used to send me to fetch him a glass of water? Half of it was water, half vodka. Nobody twigged. Remarkable, eh? Drink up.”
“I remember thinking it took you a long time. Where did you get the stuff?”
“Some of my rough friends in the village.”
“Barbara told me your story, hope you don’t mind. So did you come here to find…”
“My real mother? Didn’t see the point. She ditched me, I got on without her. Why stir things up? No, but half-Italian, thought I’d like to see the country. Then I met some chaps who played rugby, joined their club, and the director took a fancy to me, gave me a job – import-export, some of it legal. Did all right, bought this apartment and the one on the floor above, which I rent out to students and summer visitors. I’ll get the food – Tuscan beef stew, Nico’s speciality – served on slices of polenta. Hope you like polenta, lots of English don’t.”
“I’m not English. I’m Scots, and I do.”
They were into the flask when Ward said, “Ever see Rupert now?”
“Not for years.”
“No longer friends then?”
“He dazzled me when we were young and had fun together. But later when he was working in the City – merchant banker or stockbroker, I forget which – I liked him less. There was an arrogance, a ruthlessness about him that made me uncomfortable. He’s done very well, I believe.”
“Arrogant and ruthless,” Ward said. “Add vicious. He couldn’t wait for the Colonel – Father – to die. So…”
Ward paused, picked up the flask and filled their glasses. He held his in both hands.
“So he hurried it along. Killed him. I’m sure of it. Murder.”
“Fell down stairs and hit his head, didn’t he? I think that’s what Barbara told me years ago.”
“Fell? Was pushed? Tripped? Easy way to get rid of a half-blind old man.”
Forbes put a match to his Toscano which had gone out, the way they do.
“You’re serious?” he said. “No, I can see you’re serious, not joking, but…”
“Yes, I’m serious. I’ve read some of your novels, the crime ones. There’s one – I forget which – in which your policeman says, the best murders are simple, look like an accident, and it’s always hard, even impossible, to prove it wasn’t that. This was the perfect accident, therefore the perfect murder. The Colonel slept badly, used to wander the house in the early hours. We all knew that. There’s an Agatha Christie, I think it’s called ‘Dumb Witness’ in which an old woman was murdered that way. They said she might have stepped on the dog’s ball and lost her balance, but Poirot finds that a nail has been driven in at the wall side of the stair and deduces that a cord had been strung across to trip the old girl up. Mother – I still think of her as Mother – was a great Christie fan.”
“Fell? Was pushed? Tripped? Easy way to get rid of a half-blind old man.”
“Her too? Isn’t that a bit much, a shade unlikely?”
“Not to me. She hated the Colonel, with reason, you might say, and doted on Rupert, with less reason, I’d say. There was no police investigation – ‘A nasty accident, very sorry for you, Lady Bryan.’ The perfect murder, just as your policeman recommended. There were a couple of other things. Not long after the funeral, I was told to get out – ‘You’re not wanted here’ – and then, soon as possible, Rupert sold those fields to the builder who’d been after them for years. Big executive housing estate, I’m told. The estate makes a mint now – not only EU subsidies, but tourist attractions and opera in what was the stable block. He tore down the Gothic wing, Mother hated it, but my room was up in the attic and I was fond of it. Rupert got a CBE a couple of years ago for his contribution to rural development. Deputy Lord-Lieutenant of the county. A great success.”
He picked up the flask.
“Finished. Grappa, I think, a spot of grappa is indicated. Yes? I’ll tell you another thing. Barbara hasn’t spoken to Rupert for 10 years.”
“You told her your theory?”
“Of course. Can’t ever prove anything, she says. So let it rest. But she hasn’t spoken to Rupert since.”
“And why are you telling me?”
“You’re a novelist. Write the family story, changing names of course, and send it to Rupert. I bet you don’t get a reply, but I also bet he won’t sue for libel.”
It was years since Forbes had drunk grappa. He’d forgotten how good it could be, stimulating and comforting at the same time.
It was raining softly when he left Ward and walked through streets that were now quiet to his hotel. An improbable story – perhaps Ward was a bit mad, a rum fellow unquestionably. But not impossible, not incredible. A perfect murder? How could you tell? In vino veritas? Perhaps again. You never knew. His Toscano was drawing well again and there – a bar still open. Another grappa? Why not? Do as Ward asked, write that story? Perhaps, perhaps.
“Ancora una grappa, per favore.”
Allan Massie’s short story was originally published in the Autumn/Winter 2017 issue of No.3.