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Constance and Joseph

This story springs from the previously posted Nathan and Del stories, and might also be entitled Nathan and Del Part Four, though Constance and Joseph may be enjoyed without resort to the first three parts of the saga.

The very British Richardsons, Joseph and Constance, have lived on the outskirts of the California coastal town of Mercy for seven months now, their house a rambling seventy-year-old redwood-and-river-rock beauty on ten acres of meadowland ringed by a vast forest of evergreens.

Joseph is fifty-nine, tall and heavyset with longish black hair gone mostly gray. Born and raised in Devon, he studied at the Royal College of Art in Battersea before embarking on a career as a painter specializing in landscapes and portraiture.

Constance is fifty-six, short and plump, her auburn hair still auburn with help from her hairdresser, most of her many pairs of glasses encrusted with rhinestones. She was born in York, grew up in Chelsea, and studied Greek Mythology and French Literature at Oxford before embarking on her career as a writer of murder mysteries, her pen name Margaret Orland.

For the ten years prior to moving to Mercy, the Richardson’s lived in a splendid villa amidst grape vines in Tuscany, and before Tuscany they lived for twelve years in a fabulous villa amidst olive trees in Provence. And before their move to Provence, they lived in a small house in Bristol.

They met on the opening night of Joseph’s show at the Crombie Gallery in Bristol when Constance was twenty-seven and Joseph was thirty. Constance happened by on her evening constitutional with her two mini-Australian Shepherds, Agathon and Hera, and was attracted by a painting she saw through the front window of the gallery, a portrait of a woman with blonde hair playing a cello in her nightgown—the woman, not the cello, wearing the nightgown.

Constance told her dogs to sit and stay, which they did, and then she went into the gallery, gazed at the painting of the cellist for several minutes, and beckoned to the gallery owner.

“I should like to buy this one,” she said, noting the price of two hundred pounds and hoping she had that much in the bank. “It will make a splendid cover for the book I’m writing.”

“And your name is…?” asked the gallery owner, Thomas Crombie, a handsome fellow with sparkling brown eyes and a subtle mustache.

“Constance Higby,” she said, curtsying to Thomas in the old-fashioned way. “I’ve walked by your gallery hundreds of times only never came in until I saw the cellist. Isn’t she fabulous?”

“Indeed,” said Thomas, his heart pounding at the prospect of a sale. “Would you like to meet the artist?”

“I would,” said Constance, looking around the room to see if she could discern which of the dozen or so people in attendance painted the intriguing portrait. “Very much.”

Thomas then wrangled Joseph away from a woman who was quite drunk on the complimentary wine and besieging Joseph with questions such as, “Why landscapes and portraits? Seems so retro, don’t you think? Abstraction’s all the rage now, isn’t it? And why oils and not acrylics? Oils take so long to dry, don’t they?”

“Joseph,” said Thomas, guiding the artist away from the drunk to Constance. “May I present Constance Higby, the author. She wants to buy Cellist.”

“Heavens,” said Joseph, beaming at Constance and finding her darling. “Truly?”

“Truly,” said Constance, offering him her hand to kiss in the old-fashioned way. “I want her for my bedroom and for the cover of the book I’m writing, assuming this is the one that finally wins me a publisher and gives me the wherewithal to move to Provence where all great mystery writers live for a time. Or so I’m told.”

“May it be so,” said Joseph, gallantly kissing her hand.

Then they looked into each other’s eyes for a short infinity and decided to get married.

*

“As it happened,” says Joseph, speaking to the man on the ladder pruning an apple tree in Joseph and Constance’s orchard adjacent to their house in Mercy, “the book Connie was writing at the time of our initial collision was the book that finally won her a publisher, though not until I read the manuscript and took copious notes and made several suggestions that so infuriated her she called off our wedding, which nearly killed our mothers, poor dears. They both had long despaired of ever seeing their more difficult progeny wed, and here, on the brink of salvation, their prize was snatched away by the vicissitudes of ego.”

“What did you suggest that made your wife so angry?” asks the man on the ladder, Nathan Grayson, a spry seventy-four and Constance and Joseph’s nearest neighbor.

“Myriad things,” says Joseph, who is bundled up in a black fur-lined parka with a fur-lined hood that makes him look like Nanook of the North—the February morning clear and very cold.

“Such as?” asks Nathan, who finds everything Joseph says amusing, not so much because of what Joseph says but how he says it with a thick Devonshire accent and seeming mildly astonished by everything he says.

“Well to begin with I said the title was way too long,” says Joseph, watching Nathan descend from the ladder. “As were many of the paragraphs. Constance is one of those writers who pours out great masses of words onto the page and then prunes those masses.” He laughs. “Speaking of pruning.”

“What was the overly long title?” asks Nathan, moving his ladder to the next apple tree, a large Fuji he is particularly fond of. “If you don’t mind my asking.”

Ode To the Moodiest of Cellists,” says Joseph, following Nathan. “Tell me. What are we to do with all these clippings from the trees?”

“We’ll lop them into kindling for you and stack them in your woodshed,” says Nathan, circumnavigating the Fuji to study the branches before ascending the ladder. “A year from now they’ll start your fires easy as pie.”

“Oh you must repeat that for Connie,” says Joseph, delighted by Nathan’s turn of phrase. “She’ll want to use it in a book, I guarantee you.”

“I may not remember,” says Nathan, who has pruned these apple trees every winter for the last thirty years. “Words tumble out, you know, unbidden and soon forgotten.”

“Oh God, that, too,” says Joseph, looking toward the house wherein he knows Constance is sipping brandy and listening to Nathan’s granddaughter Delilah play their Steinway. “She carries a little notebook to capture those sorts of lines.”

“So…” says Nathan, climbing to the fourth rung and beginning his pruning. “Eventually she forgave you.”

“Eventually, yes,” says Joseph, thinking he’d like to paint a picture of the orchard in winter with Nathan on his ladder pruning. “But first she raged at me for a few days, and then she toiled from morning to night for several weeks doing everything I suggested, and then she had me critique the new draft and the final draft, and then she sent the manuscript to her agent. And then we waited seven agonizing months until the book sold, after which the wedding was back on, and our mothers were cautiously delirious.”

“What else had you suggested?” asks Nathan, moving the ladder again. “Besides shortening the title and the paragraphs?”

“Oh her dialogue was a bit on the nose,” says Joseph, sighing because her dialogue still so often is. “Unlike actual dialogue, which is more roundabout, if you know what I mean.”

“I do,” says Nathan, deciding to lop a large branch he’s spared for the last three years. “I suppose the trick is making dialogue sound natural without sounding idiotic.”

“Precisely,” says Joseph, turning at the sound of Delilah and three dogs emerging from the house. “And she also had the habit of giving every character a thorough back story, and I mean every character, including the most insignificant, which tangle of back stories strangled the plot.”

“So you were the editor she’d always needed,” says Nathan, coming down from the ladder.

“Still am,” says Joseph, proud of his role in his wife’s success.

The two magnificent Siberian Huskies, one white, one silver, and a small brown floppy-eared mutt, race around the orchard, sniffing and pissing.

“Freezing out here,” says Delilah, fourteen and outrageously cute, her brown hair in two long braids crowned by a burgundy beret. “Deliciously toasty in the house and I just love playing your grand piano. Such magnificent bass notes and I sound eons better on your piano than on mine, though mine is a fine piano as uprights go.”

“Work will warm you,” says Nathan, moving the ladder again. “Want to have a go at finishing this Fuji while I gather the cuttings?”

“Love to,” says Del, taking the loppers from him and ascending the ladder. “Only don’t go too faraway should I need to consult you.”

“I would love to paint you on that ladder in that tree,” says Joseph, flummoxed by Delilah’s beauty. “Perhaps on a warmer day in the spring.”

“The tree will have leafed out by then,” says Delilah, stymied by the puzzle of the branches. “Won’t be so starkly dramatic.” She looks down at Nathan. “I’m baffled, Nate. Help me.”

“Give it a minute,” he says, looking up at her. “Gaze at the field of branches until the ones that need to go present themselves.”

“There,” says Joseph, pointing at Nathan. “Connie would die for a line like that.”

*

A few evenings after Nathan and Delilah prune the Richardson’s apple trees, and for the first time since they arrived in Mercy, Constance and Joseph have supper with Delilah and Nathan and Nathan’s wife Celia.

They dine at Nathan and Celia’s house a two-minute walk from their much larger house, the meal co-created by Delilah and Celia—petrale sole cooked in white wine and olive oil and lemon juice and minced garlic, baked potatoes, and green beans à la provençal.

“We’re curious to know why you chose Mercy,” says Celia, a beautiful Latina, sixty-eight, with black hair laced with strands of white. “Must be so much colder here than in Tuscany.”

Dogs is part of the answer,” says Constance, squinting at her plate as if disbelieving what she’s eating. “This is the best fish I’ve ever had, and I’ve had some very good fish. Joseph may remember its equal, but I cannot unless he reminds me.”

“In Paris a time or two perhaps,” says Joseph, frowning at his fish. “I speak for both of us when I say we never expected to eat such superb food here in these American hinterlands. Where on earth did you learn to cook, Celia? This sole is worthy of multiple Michelin stars.”

“From my mother and grandmother,” she says, pleased by their praise. “And the fish is very fresh. We bought it off the boat this afternoon.”

“Plus we’ve been pillaging Larousse Gastronomique for tips on sauces,” says Delilah, who can’t help imitating Constance and Joseph’s accents.

Constance and Joseph exchange meaningful looks and Constance says, “We’d like to explain why we’ve been so standoffish and apologize for that, and not merely because we hope to be invited to supper again, though we will hope for that, I assure you.”

“We assumed you were getting settled and enjoying your privacy,” says Nathan, smiling warmly at Constance. “These hills are full of people who want to be left alone.”

“Well that’s a relief,” says Constance, smiling brightly. “Because we really do like you and we’re so glad to have you as our neighbors. And not just because Delilah plays the piano like a young Mendelssohn and you prune our trees and your wife is a magus in the kitchen.”

“So why were you so standoffish?” asks Delilah, loving how it feels to speak with a British accent. “And what do dogs have to do with your moving here?”

Constance sighs and looks to Joseph. “Would you mind, dear?”

“Not at all,” he says, clearing his throat. “Prior to our coming here, you may not have heard of the novelist Constance Richardson, but it is highly unlikely you haven’t heard of…” He pauses momentously. “Margaret Orland.”

Nathan and Delilah and Celia exchange glances and Celia says, “I don’t think we know her.”

“Can you give us a hint?” asks Delilah, hopefully.

“Murder mysteries?” says Joseph, arching an eyebrow.

“The only murder mysteries I’m familiar with are ones by Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammet, and Agatha Christie,” says Nathan, frowning thoughtfully. “Never really took to the genre.”

“Are you Margaret Orland?” asks Delilah in her straightforward way.

“I am,” says Constance, brightening. “Have you heard of me?”

“No, but I’ll bet my mother has,” says Delilah, nodding enthusiastically. “She loves murder mysteries.”

“Where is your mother, Delilah?” asks Constance, giving Joseph a look to say I don’t think they know who I am.

“She’s in New York at the moment,” says Delilah, growing somber as she thinks of her famous movie star mother. “Soon to leave for Tokyo.”

“A traveler, is she?” says Joseph, wishing someone would offer him more wine.

“More wine, Joseph?” says Celia, nodding encouragingly.

“Love some,” he says, laughing. “Delicious. I must get the vintage details from you. Fabulous. Sprightly. Hint of pear. Room to grow, yet for such a young white already speaking of future greatness. Goes so well with the sole.”

“Is your mother by any chance a stewardess?” guesses Constance, who enjoys sleuthing in real life, too. “Specializing in long distance flights?”

“No,” says Delilah, shaking her head. “She travels on business. But lets get back to why dogs is part of why you moved to Mercy.”

“Ah yes,” says Constance, smiling her thanks as Celia refills her wine glass. “Good to keep me on point, Delilah. I do tend to wander. But I won’t leave tonight until you tell us how you got to be such a superb pianist.”

“I practice two hours a day,” says Delilah, glancing at Nathan and Celia. “Most days.”

“Let’s see,” says Nathan, assuming a thoughtful pose. “Your Siberian Huskies were mere pups when you arrived. What may we deduce from this?”

“Huskies like the cold,” says Celia, pouring herself a bit more wine. “I don’t think Tuscany is cold.”

“Nor is Provence,” says Delilah, raising a finger to denote Aha. “Where they lived before Tuscany. Methinks you’re on to something, Watson.” She turns to Constance. “Is she?”

“In a way, yes,” says Constance, frowning. “But before I tell you more about the dogs…” She hesitates. “Have we conclusively determined that you’ve never heard of Margaret Orland?”

“I think we have,” says Nathan, nodding. “Determined that.”

“Are you very famous?” asks Celia, innocently.

“I thought I was,” says Constance, looking askance. “But maybe I’m not anymore. At least not around here.”

“Oh I doubt that,” says Nathan, shaking his head. “Our town library has several thousand volumes, and virtually all of them are murder mysteries, so I would wager you have many fans hereabouts, many being a relative term since there are only a few thousand people in the greater Mercy watershed and many of them don’t read.”

“The BBC has dramatized several of her books,” says Joseph, clearing his throat authoritatively. “Ubiquitous on the telly.”

“We don’t have a television,” says Delilah, delighted by the fact. “When I first came to live with Nate and Celia, I searched the whole house twice but couldn’t find one. And then I ran into the kitchen…” She looks at Celia. “Remember?”

“Yes,” says Celia, gazing fondly at Delilah. “You said, ‘Where’s the television?’ and when I said we didn’t have one, you hugged yourself and said, ‘Heaven.’”

“So the dogs,” says Nathan, looking into the living room where Tennyson the floppy-eared mutt and the two big Huskies, Odysseus and Io, are sprawled by the fire. “You choose the breed to go with where you choose to live?”

“Other way round,” says Constance, happily tipsy. “I fall in love with a breed and then we consider where they—because we always get two—would be happy to live and where we would be happy living, too.”

“And you get the new dogs after the old dogs die,” says Delilah, her eyes filling with tears. “I don’t ever want Tennyson to die. He’s my best friend.”

“I know, dear,” says Constance, touching Delilah’s hand. “It’s the hardest thing about having dogs, but it’s worth it. And the more dogs you have, the more you’ll be convinced, as we are, they sometimes reincarnate in your new dogs so they can go on living with you, and you with them.”

“The fact is,” says Joseph, finishing his fifth glass of wine and giving Celia a hopeful glance to ask for more, “though you may not have heard of Margaret Orland, tens of millions have, and thus our home in Tuscany, as with our home in Provence, were irresistible to her worshipers, if I may use that word, and we became, in essence, prisoners of her fame.”

“And when Paris and Helen, our Bazenjis, the dogs we had in Tuscany, were very old, we fell in love with Siberian Huskies,” says Constance, gazing into the living room at Odysseus and Io. “We were cruising the fjords of Norway when we met the most darling Siberian Husky and her obscenely cute pups in the town of Bodo where the fish was excellent, though not remotely as good as yours. And then when our friend Porter Ainsworth regaled us with tales of how gorgeous it was here, the rugged coast, the redwood forests etcetera, remote yet not too remote, we made inquiries, and here we are.” She eats the last of her sole. “Do you know Porter?”

“The name doesn’t ring a bell,” says Nathan, looking at Celia.

“I don’t think he ever lived here,” says Celia, getting up to start the water for tea. “But lots of people vacation here.”

“Photographer,” says Joseph, more than a little drunk. “Dresses like an Australian bushwhacker, though he’s entirely Canadian. Claims to be the protégé of Ansel Adams, but we have our doubts. Dates and locations don’t line up. Inherited a fortune. Copper, I think it was. Or sugar. Blighter’s been in love with Connie for decades.”

“Not true,” says Constance, blushing in delight. “Porter’s just a dear friend. We’re hopeful he’ll visit this summer.”

“Of course he’s in love with you,” says Joseph, gazing at his wife and seeing her as she was thirty years ago in the Crombie Gallery in Bristol, buying his painting that would become the cover of her first great success, the murder mystery Cello. “Who wouldn’t be?”

Sevensong by Marcia Sloane

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