Read Hotel de Dream Online

Authors: Emma Tennant

Hotel de Dream

EMMA TENNANT

Hotel De Dream

For Julian and Marjorie

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Epilogue

A Note on the Author

Chapter 1

Mr Poynter dreamed he was in his City. It was square and white-walled and in the central park pollarded trees, each carrying the load of old English apple blossom permitted it once yearly, marched down combed paths towards the fountain. He was lying in his bed in the palace and from the medley of Churchill speeches, Vera Lynn and snatches of ITMA, he could tell it was 8 a.m. and time to get up.

The sound of Mr Poynter's morning band became apparent in the palace square. Heels clicked and a nervous cough was suppressed with a handkerchief. The martial music began. Mr Poynter rose from his bed with the ease of a young man and went over to the chair where his uniform for the day had been laid out. From the concealed loudspeakers in the high chamber the voice of Field-marshal Montgomery succeeded Tommy Handley. He stepped smartly into black trousers with a thin red piping, a jacket with gold epaulettes and five rows of medals, and pulled on a helmet from which a scarlet ostrich plume nodded and pranced as he made his way over to the public window. He opened it and stepped out. The crowd, some members of which looked bedraggled and resentful despite the fine weather and relentlessly blue sky that Mr Poynter ordained in his city, stood in a pale mass behind the military band. Hatless, their fair hair rippled in the breeze of Mr Poynter's choice—58°F with a healthy nip in the air, suggesting recent frost and more to come at nightfall—like wind on a wheat field, he often thought. And the rows of blue eyes underneath as innocent as the sky.

A loud cheer went up, the band began to play from
Lohengrin,
Mr Poynter stood erect on the state balcony and looked out unsmiling at the scene.

The view from the balcony was Mr Poynter's masterpiece. The city was set in rolling English pastureland, dotted here and there with Gothic spires, replicas of Stonehenge and gentle hills bearing the marks of Saxon parliaments: grassy benches that went down to trout pools, and great rook-laden trees that once provided shade for ancient kings. Despite the pleasant varied nature of the landscape, Mr Poynter had made sure that nothing interfered with the straight line of the horizon. Any burial mound, copse or hillock rising above that level had been lopped or cut down. The sky came down firmly to meet the land at an angle that set off to perfection the square walls of the city and the rectangular buildings within. Of course, as nothing can be perfect, and as Mr Poynter liked to show his belief in progress and reform, there was a ghetto in the city a mile or so south of the palace where the square marble and stone buildings had not yet been erected. Here the houses, which were constructed of papier mâché and cardboard, and stood on wheels like a complex and gigantic railway system, were ghastly and mean in appearance. At night, while Mr Poynter and his troops slept, these buildings zig-zagged madly about, running altogether into an unhygienic heap conducive to cholera and the elevation of barricades, or went to stand as forlorn ruins, garbage piled in their untended gardens; every morning after the
Lohengrin
and the hymn of thanksgiving, they were pushed back again into straight rows, some of their occupants arrested and others driven off to the Poynter Memorial Hospital in shiny white cars. The fetid smell of the place was demolished with disinfectant and a pine essence spray devised by Mr Poynter's wife.

Naturally, there were other uses for the ghetto. Mr Poynter's men and occasionally Mr Poynter himself, when affairs of state had been too pressing and the scent from the apple
blossom crept under the doors of the palace, went down to these moving, unmanageable streets in search of pleasure. The brothels, run by old school friends of Mr Poynter's, catered to every taste. In the red light district, where a beautiful woman sat at every window, her golden hair shining in the candlelight and her arms folded pliantly in the pose ordained by Mr Poynter, whipping was common, and confinement for up to eight hours in a wooden box with spoonfuls of tapioca pudding and other nursery mush pushed in through a hole in the lid at the gratified customer, or—and this was Mr Poynter's speciality, and therefore copied widely in the ranks—the women would be attired in prep school outfits, their knees made up grazed and scuffed beneath the skimpy grey shorts, their hair hidden under little tricoloured caps and their feet unexpectedly large and clumsy in brown shoes with frayed and ink-stained laces. When Mr Poynter made one of his rare and exciting visits, boudoirs were transformed hastily into classrooms, a blackboard was hung over the standard reproduction of the Rokeby Venus, and it was on a bare wooden floor thick with chalk dust that Mr Poynter forgot the responsibilities of his position.

On this particular morning, having been caned the night before in the uncertain twilight zone by the girl who most closely resembled Sackers, the provocative bully of his childhood days, Mr Poynter knew he must make a visit of atonement to his wife and daughters. These ladies lived in a large mansion in the richest residential quarter of the city; sprinklers cast a permanent haze of fresh water over the lawns and around the windows of the house, as if, Mr Poynter sometimes thought, they lived in a perpetually refreshed dew drop; eunuchs served them at regular intervals with cups of coffee and what Mrs Poynter liked to call her little nibble. Inside, the house was painted in all the blues which have ever been associated with the Madonna—cerulean walls enclosed the matron and her two growing girls, azure ceilings and upholstery of velvet dyed to the
colour of the startled irises of the Virgin on receipt of the Annunciation protected the female Poynters from any suggestion of impurity or evil. Between periwinkle sheets Mrs Poynter, who was seldom visited by her husband in the evenings, lay alone and counted laundry lists in her head. In the morning, when her husband called, she would be waiting for him in the blue and white majolica tiled hall, her smile forgiving and the necessary hint of reproach at the corners of her mouth similar to the slight nip in the air which Mr Poynter found so bracing an ingredient of the climate. Today, the bout with Sackers's understudy having been a particularly rigorous one, Mr Poynter determined he would go straight there and attend to other matters afterwards. The band stopped playing, the crowd gave three huzzahs and dispersed, Mr Poynter saluted the horizon and went with a firm step back into the state chamber and out into the gold and white corridor.

As he went through the palace, brushing aside the A.D.C. with his usual list of requests and smiling benevolently at the bowing flunkeys arranged against the walls, walking out to the silent white Rolls which would waft him to his wife's house, Mr Poynter was aware that something somewhere had gone slightly wrong. He paused for a moment on the sparkling cobbles outside the entrance to the palace. The sun, perhaps, had got a little too hot: his shoulders itched under the epaulettes and the helmet felt strangely heavy: if it hadn't been for the presence of his troops and some of his subjects hurrying past on their way to work, he would have removed it and gone bare-headed on his duty visit, but—and the crimson plume on top of his head which always seemed to agree with his pronouncements nodded vigorously as he climbed into the car—his breeze was still blowing and the temperature had never been known to change before. Perhaps he had gone beyond the boundary of guilt that he allowed himself after a visit to the District. No—he let out a naughty chuckle and the chauffeur's features relaxed as if he
had just delivered one of his witticisms. That would be impossible. Probably it was his conscience; the ghetto still needed to be rebuilt; there was poverty and inequality, and he would be the first to admit it; later in the day, after receiving absolution from his wife, he would draft a new speech showing that he, like other highly respected leaders before him, could suffer at the wretchedness of human kind.

The car went at a dignified pace into the most exclusive quarter. Here and there an exiled dictator, stretched out with maps in a deck chair in the front garden of his quiet retreat, could be seen trying to struggle to his feet and salute as Mr Poynter passed. The birdsong, particularly loud and provided mostly by nearly extinct species brought into the city in great nets from the surrounding countryside, grew more intense. Dunkirk Avenue, at the end of which the Poynter residence was situated, came into sight, each garden laid out in a maze of topiary tanks and cannons, with regiments of red and yellow tulips flanking stately porticos. Mr Poynter felt his slight irritation disappear. The sun caught the play of water from the sprinklers on either side of him, so that he seemed to be moving within the spectrum of a rainbow. When he stepped from the car in front of his wife's house, a petal of cherry blossom landed on his tunic and he handed it to the chauffeur for disposal without the usual feeling of annoyance caused by these manifestations of nature. It was reassuring to see the white façade of his house at the end of the gravel path—a reminder that although you could be sure of nothing in the transitory ill-kept streets south of the palace, here all he believed in was intact and would always remain so.

Mr Poynter went up the path towards the windows and the soft blue rooms behind them with their cargo of innocent waiting women. The sprinklers splashing playfully on the lawns on either side of him made a triumphal arch of iridescent water. He reached the front doorstep and turned to look back at the great expanse of sward, the rectangular
flowerbeds and the neat box hedge clipped to just the height convenient for Mrs Poynter to lean over and chat to a neighbour, had Mr Poynter thought of providing her with one. He stared at the grass; then frowned. On the lawn to the left of him, his particular favourite because of the ancient beech tree which dominated it and the sunken, centuries-old appearance of the grass, there ran a trail of mud, serpentine and about two feet wide. It trailed across the lawn in an haphazard fashion, as if a child had smeared it on with its fingers. Spurs clanking against his legs as he stooped, Mr Poynter descended from the step to examine it and frowned again. Sand—turned to mud by the shifting jets of water. There was no sand anywhere within the city and none outside, for Mr Poynter had a peculiar horror of the desert. Anger and perplexity brought a high colour to his face. He went in through the front door without further ceremony end shouted out his wife's name.

There was no sign of Hilda Poynter in the blue and white hall, nor of Clemmy and Alexandra, his daughters; but instead, a faint feeling of trouble, of a disturbance which Mr Poynter was quick to recognise and put down in his troops, but found himself unable to cope with for the moment, here. A shout of command rose to his lips, then died away. He strode through into the azure drawing room and came to a full stop. His eyes went rapidly round the room. The celestial ceiling, painted with suns and moons, hung above him as always. Velvet curtains and satin sofas and little tables carrying bowls of pot-pourri gave the normal, reassuring air of an English Edwardian country house. Hilda Poynter stood by the French window and at first glance she, too, seemed the same. The rich folds of her dress were arranged as Mr Poynter had ordained, her wimple was in place and, outlined against the square frame of the window and the calm garden beyond, she complemented the interior, giving it the Vermeer-like quality on which he insisted when he came home. But her face showed no tranquillity, her eyes
had almost reverted to their natural brown, her cheekbones were taut and rigid. Mr Poynter came towards her with a mixture of concern and annoyance.

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