‘Sometimes we get what we need in the strangest places and from the most unlikely people.’
“Carta del Rey! Carta del Rey”, cried Seniega, the postmaster’s widow, holding aloft and waving the inscribed parchment letter with the royal seal of the King of Spain. She waddled on weary bowed legs down Via Melian, the cobble stoned narrow street. Dressed in black, a widow’s lifetime wardrobe, every five steps she sang out an explicitly shrill, “Carta del Rey”, as if it were a Gregorian chant and the single mission she had been preparing for all her life. Shuttered windows opened like a gauntlet, to bear witness as she passed, and “Carta del Rey” bounced off century old walls.
The King of Spain was honoring an extranjero for his contribution to the country’s economy, and, in a way, to a revolution in its very culture. The cry “Carta del Rey” seemed to tumble ahead of the old woman, arriving at the letter’s destination before her, a classic finca house of white stucco and orange tiled roof at the very end of the road, where Martin and Virginia Champion lived.
The Champion family history in Spain on the island of Tenerife began in the sixteenth-century with the arrival of English sailors. The island’s tropical vegetation gave way to a vast pine forest halfway up Teide, the volcano that created and dominated the island, and which had transfixed the sailors’ imaginations for days on the faraway horizon. Dry hot winds from the northwest African Sahara Dessert, 150 miles to the east, combined with cool North Atlantic ocean currents. The result was the trade winds and perpetual spring-like weather with lush vegitation on the windward north coast, and an arid hot zone on the lee side. Because of this privileged geographical location, early nautical references named the seven island archipelago the Fortunate Islands and even the fabled Atlantis.
In 1722 a team from the British Botanical Society arrived, including Martin Champion’s great, great-uncle, Lord Alvin. The scientists found that a unique, local small caterpillar, the 'cochinea', produced an especially brilliant natural red dye. By cultivating an indigenous plant, the botanists soon had enough food supply for vast numbers of cochinea, and a thriving trade in the sought after dye developed. Thus began the Champion family island presence.
Over two centuries later, Martin and Virginia, Lord and Lady Champion, began to visit the family on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. He was a trained scientist and his expertise served the family well in engineering the food supply for their whimsically known, caterpillar ranch. Then, with the development of synthetic red dyes, the world clothing industry turned away from the cochinea and the island’s economy collapsed. Martin Champion was the driving force in an extraordinary reversal of fortune, converting the land previously dedicated to growing the caterpillar diet of ‘paco bushes’, into banana fields.
The agricultural switch was a great success, as the shorter shipping distance to the European markets placed the island’s banana crop at a distinct competitive advantage against the South American fruit industry. But the plan’s true genius lie in Martin’s foresight in growing a much smaller plant, developed through his botanical research, a smaller but sweeter tasting island fruit. Considered to be well named, there were few residents unaware of Champs’ contribution to transforming the economy of the island, and it was this work that earned him Spain’s ‘Prince of Asturias’ prize, which the letter from the King of Spain announced by the cry, “Carta del Rey”.
Seniega marched down the final fifty meters of dirt road, the letter aloft, singing her message. On the north coast of the lush valley, the Champion property, filled with fruit orchards and banana plants, stretched down in spans of ten hectare plateaus to a hundred meter cliff. The mini-mesas supported by three meter high, centuries old, stone walls, rose up the mountain, like steps, as if sea giants walked them to reach Teide’s summit. Finally at her destination, panting, eyes bulging, she thumped the massive wooden door with all her might. As it opened, the widow post-master’s eyes goggled. A stately woman appeared and Seniega announced as if before the royal court, ‘Carta del Rey’, and her arm swept out to climactically present her regal commission
Virginia Champion, Martin’s American wife, received the letter. She had been a fashion model and later editor for Vogue magazine, meeting her botanist, award winning, husband while on a shoot in London. Virginia smiled and Martin fell in love in that single moment, as simply as if he had slipped into a cardigan sweater. They were married in May 1927, on the day Charles Lindbergh landed in Paris.
Many rumors circulated about Virginia, the stunning, liberated American, and she numbered as friends the elite of the European artistic community. She remained a journalist for five years with Vogue, during which the Champions often visited the family ranch in Tenerife. Martin had made several earlier trips there as a young man, and although he found the week-long ocean passage down the western coast of Africa difficult, he seemed well suited to island life. Virginia was comfortable with the relaxed island atmosphere, associating it with her Missouri rural upbringing. The truth was that despite both her popularity and liberated nature, she felt somewhat like a fish out of water in the aristocratic milieu of sophisticated London
The Champions became part of the social elite of the island. In their circle were Thelma and Dr. Crawford Forester, whose home in Lomo Roman, a point of the Orotava Valley, neighbored that of the newly arrived Americans, the Bartletts. Thelma would host many late summer afternoon cocktail parties and the Champions met the Bartletts the year they arrived. At that party two dozen elderly ex-pats went about their well practiced socializing in small groups, curiously noting the arrival of Emerson and Raquel Bartlett.
Thelma began the introductions with Virginia. In a robust throaty voice she announced as British as possible, “Ginny dear, I want you to meet some fellow Americans…these are my new neighbors, Raquel and Emerson Bartlett.” Then pausing and gesturing dramatically, “This is Lady Virginia Champion.”
Standing before the casually dressed Americans was a slight, eighty-three year old woman. She had fine chiseled features haloed by long silver hair held to one side by a shell clasp. She wore a tailored Channel suit and an ivory silk blouse closed at the collar with an emerald broach. The elderly woman’s mind raced to catch up with the meaning of Thelma’s words of introduction. Murray steadied the tipping drink Ginny held shoulder high, as Ginny turned from concentrating on Thelma’s lips to the direction pointed by her lingering Cheshire smile.
She said. “Oh hello, do I know you?” to Murray, not having noticed Raquel.
“No, I don’t think so. We’ve just moved here.” Murray said with a nod toward his wife.
The attempt to include Raquel in Ginny’s glassy eyed attention was wasted, but Murray continued, asking, “Where in the States are you from?”
“What?” said Ginny, again needing her listing glass saved. “Do I know you?”
Murray and Elizabeth exchanged a perceptive glance.
“No, you do not know them dear,” intervened Thelma, and to the Bartletts, “She’s from St. Louis, in Missouri.”
“Right.” Ginny contributed. “St. Louis, MO…I like you young man. Who are you? Do I know you?”
All of Thelma’s guests were past seventy-five. The group of long standing friends closely observed the Bartletts’ introduction to Ginny Champion. They were well familiar with Ginny’s escalating inability to focus, especially after a cocktail - which now was most of the time. Many had encountered Ginny in the village and been asked, “Where am I? Do I know you?” Her more sensitive friends would escort her home, while locals merely pointed the elderly Lady Champion in the right direction. Most genuinely cared for her, and showed no judgmental condescension regarding her drinking, but Virginia’s nickname had long before been recognized as being appropriate.
“Who are you? Do I know you?” echoed in Murray’s mind.
‘Right, who am I….and what am I doing here?’ thought Murray. Although he had a lifelong yearning to have been a part of the bohemian life in Europe during the 1920’s, and had fantasized knowing and even painting as if with the masters - Picasso, Renoir, Lautrec - he never expected to be physically present among what seemed to be genteel ghosts, as if in a time warp of his own creation.
It was Raquel who found Champ near the sweet table. She was first struck by his stance, his hand resting inside his jacket’s side pocket with the thumb out in a relaxed manner, much like she remembered her father might do. Tall, even taller then Murray, he was smartly dressed in a fine linen beige jacket which matched the color of his thin brush mustache, another physical characteristic of her father. His hair was surprisingly light brownish, red rather then silver or gray, and remained somewhat thick though receding at the temples. Age rather then attitude caused the somewhat stiff posture of his trim athletic body, but in counterbalance, his full lips communicated the softness of his nature even before words left his mouth.
He was a man you wanted to meet and Elizabeth eagerly introduced herself in a quasi-British manner. “How do you do, I’m Raquel Bartlett, Thelma’s new neighbor. We’ve just arrived from the United States.”
“Well, I’m quite pleased to make your acquaintance,” said the lord as he took Elizabeth’s outstretched hand and bowed modestly. “I am Martin Champion, but please call me Champ. Might I address you as Raquel?”
“Of course, please do….Champ.” she said, delighted to have found Virginia’s mate.
Champ could feel himself flush, as a boy might. For a few moments he stood in silence, bewildered by the striking resemblance he saw between Raquel and remembrances of a youthful Ginny.
Though the older woman was taller, Virginia and Raquel shared an uncommon beauty. Each had strong chiseled features perfectly proportioned to their faces, and set off, still for Elizabeth, by long, naturally curly, brown hair. But it was Raquel’s exotic eyes and dark Mediterranean skin that stunned Champ. He was lost in his youth when he awkwardly repeated, “I am so very pleased to make your acquaintance.”
They exchanged small talk and throughout the conversation, Champ never completely regained his composure. A short time later, Raquel was escorted away by Thelma to meet other guests, but Champ’s eyes would follow her for the rest of the afternoon.
That party had been 12 years ago. Now in 1995, Murray and Raquel watched a truck towing a container leave their finca as it started up the winding dirt road to exit at the black iron gate. As it passed, a fine mist of reddish-brown earth fell on the grapevines that lined the interior road. The leafy walls of vines ran in parallel yard-apart rows. Posts of sturdy gray eucalyptus branches supported the living green walls. Wires connected the posts, creating a skeleton to anchor the spiraling vines that clawed skyward weighted by bunches of bee-bee sized green grapes. Spiders webbed large sections of the vine walls as a final link in the mesh. It all seemed to come out of the ground whole, as a complete wall. The red dust settled as the truck and container reached a curve and disappeared from sight.
“When is it due to arrive?” Raquel asked in a high pitch voice and her face squinched, as if she wasn’t certain what was happening or perhaps not wanting to know.
Murray, nervously stroking his salt and pepper hair, connected the container’s autumnal arrival in Seattle with the coming grape harvest and press here on the finca. “In about forty-five days….at the end of September.”
Silently he acknowledged that the festive Canarian harvest wine-making season would go on without them for the first time in over a decade. They shuffled up the path, arms wrapped around each other’s waist, his long reach easily circumnavigating her trim body, hers barely reaching his hip. Inside the empty house they drifted aimlessly, leather boots softly pressing against the Spanish clay tiles, wandering through spaces previously occupied by custom made furniture and prized pottery. They circled like oranges rolling in a basket, finally settling on the cement bench that formed part of the fireplace opposite the ocean view through the large window.
Raquel started for the kitchen, calling over her shoulder, “Let’s have a glass of wine
Murray, as if he had forgotten to breath, wanted to say something, but couldn’t.
Emerson and Raquel Bartlett had arrived from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to the small archipelago of seven islands off the northwest coast of Africa in 1983. The past twelve years living on Tenerife showed. He was substantially heavier and despite shoulder length hair, was no longer a lanky look-alike for George Harrison. He limped now and seemed pensive, reflecting the chronic pain resulting from his left knee’s collision with Abe, their pampered lab,
Raquel returned with their favorite local wine, Tagoror Tinto. Gazing over the Atlantic Ocean, they toasted a bon voyage to the ‘Contessa del Mar’ that would be transporting their treasure filled container. They were returning to the States, remaining true to the long held family maxim that they had not moved to the Canary Islands to stay forever.
Through upturned glasses, their four brown eyes noticed in the distance, at the edge of the cliff, their elderly friends, the Champions. It had been several years since they had last seen the Champions enjoying this promontory. Previously, such occasions would result in excited waves and calls of recognition; calls made in a normal voice, yet heard despite the distance made deceptively vast by the ocean panorama. A hearty ‘hello’ from the Champions would quickly modulate as the sea breeze carried it aloft. And often, an inviting wave would be accepted, uniting the gentle voices with their frail owners on the Bartlett’s patio. But not today.
Raquel and Murray watched the elderly couple framed by the spectacularly rugged coastline.
They had a short list of last minute tasks in the six days that remained before their departure. There was the old red Seat to deliver to Murray’s best friend Per. The car was Murray’s part of a trade bringing him a much coveted small nude painting done in Paris early in Per’s career. Some bank business remained to be sorted and they had yet to settle with their friend, Julia, who held a small sum for them resulting from a house sale. Julia had combined their left behinds with those of the elderly Champions, who coincidentally were also returning home, to England.
Over the years the Bartletts and the Champions met at parties or at an occasional event promoted by the British Club. The Champions would be among the first to arrive, and early to drink. On the other hand, Raquel and Murray’s more appearance then participation, would be timed for later to catch the house full and then exit less noticed. Consequently, at each gathering, by the time the couples encountered each other, the format set at their original meeting would be duplicated. Murray would chat up Ginny, provoking her memory with questions about her youth; Raquel would bask in the adulation of Champ, postured together like young lovers.
The Bartletts’ late night party post-mortems would include Raquel’s adolescent fascination with Champ. She would tell Murray of her near giddy anticipation as Champ explained the process of a detailed microscopic examination. Eliminated from her description was the electric shock, as Champ’s explanation would end with his hand gently resting on her shoulder. Each of his fingers seemed to fall separately with its particular weight, like small birds alighting.
Raquel, new to island living, sought comfort in Champ’s company. She particularly enjoyed visiting him in the private, almost secretive world of his garden, in the rear of the secluded orange roofed stucco chalet, enclosed by walls of black and red volcanic rock. She felt privileged in a new way. To her, and especially to Murray, the colors, textures, varieties and design created an image that was the quintessence of a painting by Renior.
One day Champ showed Raquel his botanical slide collection. Inside a small glass greenhouse located near the rear of the garden was his laboratory. There was a ten-foot long workbench made from a thick plank of local hardwood that abutted against the south glass wall. Stacked in neat rows where the workbench met the wall, lie a series of thirty small handcrafted wooden boxes, each the size of a coffee table art-book. They were made of the same magenta, boldly knotted hardwood as the bench, and housed Champ’s slide collection. There were two matching wooden stools.
Each of the wooden storage cases contained one hundred, eight by four centimeter, glass slides. On every slide was centered an additional smaller glass panel, two centimeters square. The four corners of each small glass panel had blue microdots of glue, like rivets in a steel plate. Sealed under each small window was a plant specimen. To the left of the specimen was information; the plant’s Latin and common names, the name of the particular structure, and the date of collection. To the right of the mounting was a coded file reference number. The lower right hand corner of each slide presented the engraved initials of its creator, LMLC, Lord Martin Lucas Champion.
On the bench commanding center stage beneath a goose neck light was a jet-black and chrome, double eye-pieced microscope. Sitting on the two wooden stools, Champ instructed Raquel on the operation of the instrument in a soft reassuring voice as she manipulated the focus wheel to reveal the hidden world of plant structure.
“Gently now, Raquel.” Champ would caution, tapping her ever so lightly on her upper arm, in a pace as if he could see the focusing occur. When the minute structure was visible, she would slowly withdraw her open hand from the wheel as his fingers came to rest, one by one, little birds, on her shoulder
Of particular note were a separate series of slides showing the seventy-five different strains of banana plant. The genetic differences of each banana plant were distinguished on each slide by means of a series of dyes, colorfully staining a critical characteristic. This was the study that had changed the agricultural and economic life of the islands. “Carta del Rey”
Champ explained to Raquel how important it was to examine a specimen in every detail, paying particular attention to looking on its reverse side – that is, actually turning over the slide to discover a hidden quality. It was this process that had led Champ to the discovery that ennobled his life’s work
“What do you suppose you might see if you were to turn the slide over, Raquel?” And childlike, she would reverse the glass panel to discover an entirely different image.
The viewing of each slide would repeat the procedure. In a grade school teacher’s voice, Champ would recite the question. Raquel would repeat the procedure, the identical delicate motions of removing the slide, turning it left to right and again inserting it on the microscope’s viewing platform. Often there would be an image, seen from one side of the specimen but hidden on the other.
It became a thing Raquel would do, mimic the procedure of examination; carefully studying an object, turning it over, looking for something remarkable hidden from view - a saltshaker in a sidewalk restaurant, a garden tool, anything, anytime, always with a pre-thought of Champ. This act of intense examination became a part of her personality and often a matter of exasperation for an impatient Murray.
Still Murray welcomed the unique relationship his wife had found with the elderly gentleman. Having idolized her father as a young girl, Raquel was devastated when he took his own life on her twenty-second birthday. It froze an idealized image of the man, one Murray could not rival. In Champ, Murray believed Raquel had found the elderly loving father of whom she felt cheated. Gradually her demeanor softened, became lighter, reflecting a genuine contentment, as if an empty space was filled.
The hours Raquel spent with Champ meant time Murray would be alone with Virginia, and there was no adolescent complication here. Being eighty-three when they met, and showing signs of dementia, Ginny’s ramblings were, at first, tolerated. She enjoyed reminiscing about her youth, her childhood growing up on a farm near the Mississippi just outside St. Louis, and how island life reminded her of the peace of rural life. Since boredom with Ginny threatened ERaquel’s time with Champ, it was a great relief for all when Murray learned something about Ginny that touched him deeply. His casual mention of an old photograph of Miro he had recently found on a visit to London, prompted Ginny to comment, “Oh him. I met him at a party. Pretty nice fellow.”
Murray’s head jerked like a man who had just heard his lottery number called. “What? You met him? You knew him? What party? I mean, where? How did you happen to be at a party with Joan Miro?” Ginny nodded without opportunity to answer Murray’s breathless questions and then the moment overtook her as an irresistible opportunity to exorcise some memories.
Her vignettes were mostly structured around romantic liaisons and the stories flowed freely, like water downhill. There were first hand accounts of historical events and temperamental personalities of an era rich in artistic development, set against a background of political ferment between world wars – the roaring twenties.
Her stories were a path of memories few had been privileged to experience - associations with great artists like Picasso, Lillestrom, and Modigliani. Her career had placed her in contact with many socially unacceptable circles. She was well acquainted with certain painters, entertainers, and musicians who led lives of what was considered to be debauchery, petty theft and sexual promiscuity. After she married Champ and entered British aristocracy, those years became an unspoken topic.
Visiting Americans to London found in Ginny a local connection to the European artistic community. American film stars Theda Bara and Douglass Fairbanks were likely dinner partners. It was not uncommon for Ginny to make a trip to Paris to take in a show featuring Josephine Baker, an ‘ex-pat’ from Ginny’s home town.
Not only artists and entertainers crossed Ginny’s path. As a journalist, her assignments acquainted her with the avant-garde of the sciences and social movements, as well as the generally odd. Ginny had witnessed John Baird’s demonstration in 1920 of the first television pictures, a seminal moment in human history.
Of course for Vogue, women’s’ issues were paramount and Ginny had covered the story of the opening in London of the first birth control clinic. The moving force was a 42-year-old physician, Dr. Marie Stopes. The two women remained friends, corresponding after Ginny’s marriage and included visits with the Champions in Tenerife. Marie became the only person from this period to remain in Lady Champion’s life, and Ginny cherished her friendship. Marie had died in 1958, and the memory was brutally emotional for Ginny. Murray sensed something unsaid.
However, in the main it was a life of glamour that occupied Ginny both professionally and socially. Murray learned that she had been present and on the arm of D. H. Lawrence at a gallery opening in 1921 that saw the unveiling of Picasso’s ‘Three Musicians’. A work, Picasso confided to Ginny, he found so tiresome to finish that the originally planned quartet was never formed.
Ginny discreetly revealed stories of several former lovers. As a model, she often sat for artists whose work the world has long forgotten. However, she hinted at a brief affair with Henri Matisse, who she remembered as being quite tender; and another with Per Lillestrom, a Swede, whose name caused Ginny to blush. She flat out stated that she had a ‘one-nighter’ with Antonio Modigliani in Paris and she remembered the stunningly handsome Tony; the rugged devil may care look and attitude of this Italian Jew. Like many artists absorbed by Jenny’s unique beauty, he had asked her to sit for him. She declined and regretted her missing out on being immortalized by a Modigliani portrait.
Alone one hot summer afternoon on the Bartletts’ patio, bathed in the red and golden hues of an Atlantic sunset, flocks of swifts at the cliff’s edge were pointed out to Ginny by Murray. One was a group of hatchlings, possibly on their first day of flight, and Murray noticed how they were in a formation distinct from that of their larger parents. The sight of the young birds swooping in tight formation over the grapevine, like a moving fingerprint in the sky, transfixed them both.
Ginny, without prompting, began to recall a deeply painful memory. She did not seek Murray’s response nor did she animate her soliloquy in her characteristic manner of gently stroking one palm repeatedly and then extending the gesture with a graceful sweep of her arm. With hands tightly gripped in her lap, her eyes glazed, her shoulders squared, speaking dreamily into the wind, as if to cleanse her soul, almost in song, canary like.
“Once I loved a man who left me. His name was George. George Mallory. He was a fine person. He was handsome and kind…loving and tender…and very brave. We were going to be married. We were introduced by his friend, E. M. Forester. An author. They were best pals, traveled a lot…did things; rivers, Africa, mountains. George couldn’t stay in one place very long…But it was love at first sight for the both of us. We met at a play and at the second intermission we left together. Just like that. It was a Noel Coward play…yes, Noel. We stayed together virtually from that moment on. It was wonderful…our lives meshed. I loved George so much.”
Ginny paused and gathered herself. It was as if every cell in her body had its own unique love for George and they were in a shared memory for the first time in many years. Her hands released each other, she brushed away a tear, and they rejoined.
“We were going to be married…have children…be a family. I was set to quit my job at Vogue…leave all that glamour life behind. But George wanted one more adventure. He said, ‘I must establish myself.’…establish myself. So he agreed to lead this expedition, about seven of them from the Society. They were going to climb the highest mountain of all. Put the British flag on the top of the world. Going to Nepal, the Himalayas…Mount Everest. No one had ever done it, you see.”
She spoke proudly of the challenge her lover had accepted, saw his vision, accepted her hidden part in it. Her lips pursed and her head slightly trembled with her chin firmly planted in defiance. “It was the worst storm in memory. George was seen for the last time only 800 meters from the summit. And then no more. He was just gone…he and a young boy…Andy. Both just gone. They never even found their bodies. Gone. And we didn’t get married…and we didn’t have children…and we weren’t a family.”
The hatchling swifts silently swept past them in a triumphal arch as if to acknowledge her tragedy. Ginny stared over the vast Atlantic, a spare smile on her face, seeing the future she never had.
Murray broke the spell saying delicately, “That must have been very hard on you, Ginny. You must have suffered for a long time.”
She shook her head and jarred loose the vision that had captured her spirit. After several deep breaths she said, “Yes, yes I did suffer, for a long time. A very long time. You see I did not have my baby…didn’t have my baby. I was pregnant when George left. I couldn’t tell him, could I, now? Didn’t want him to be worried about me… be distracted from what he was doing. So dangerous to do that…the worst storm ever…no one had ever done it……My friend Marie helped me……………..Didn’t have my baby.
Then with a turn she locked on to Murray’s eyes like a matador onto a bull and solemnly said, “There isn’t anyone alive who knows this, Murray. I want you to never, ever speak of this. Promise me you’ll never say anything.”
“I understand, and I certainly will honor your confidence,” he quickly responded.
And from that moment forward Ginny and Murray had a silent understanding not to reveal to their respective spouse matters they shared as secret, and he felt liberated to reveal to Jenny his own bitter disappointment. The mere thought of this part of his life left his mouth dry and made his left eyebrow twitch. As Jenny paused in her reverie, speaking in the same tone, he searched deeply to find ‘Emerson the artist’.
It had been an early ambition of Murray to become a painter. As a child he had taken great enjoyment, like most children, in drawing with crayons. When he was ten, one effort, a scene of families together in Columbus Park near his home, had received ardent praise from a favorite teacher; and as a teen a science exhibit done in partnership with a friend had won a prize, much due to his design and the characters he created for its presentation.
Upon entering the University of Michigan he took what was a spontaneous, almost unconscious step. Filling out the variety of application documents, in the blink of an eye, like checking the box declaring his gender, he put himself in the college of art.
In his very first semester he felt validated when a work he had been especially proud of, an ink of folding and swirling concentric circles, was adopted as an icon for the entire art department. He was determined not to be the quixotic art student his parents scorned. Painting, especially portraits, frustrated him. And like Jenny, he held a deep reservoir of emotion for a lost love.
Her name was Roberta. She was not beautiful in the ordinary sense. Not statuesque. Perhaps her ears were too big, or misplaced. The arch of her brow was high. Lips ducky. Her features simply did not fit her face, like looking in a cracked mirror. It was however, her approach to life, an attitude somewhere between a gunslinger’s arrogance and a Memphis belle’s charm, which Murray tried to capture in his portrait of her.
They were returning from a gallery showing his and a friend’s work when she died in the car crash. He was driving. Murray found out later that she had been pregnant and it was the final blow. No more portraits, no more art, off the path of an imagined bohemian life in Paris.
It was a crushing memory leaving a bitter taste. He had sublimated this unlived life and became an amateur art historian, priding himself in owning some minor prints signed by Picasso and Ernst. Though he owned no original work he followed news of art auctions around the world, and had even once made a ridiculously low bid on a small pencil drawing by Matisse.
No one spoke for several minutes. Then as if stepping backward out of another dimension, Ginny, without comment, continued, and Murray was relieved to return to her past as if he might discover his own life in Ginny’s story.
After the tragedy on Everest, Ginny threw herself into work, all energies directed toward the upcoming Great Paris Exhibition of 1925. This would be the major artistic event in the post war period. Every craft and art form was in the process of turning away from the curves and curlicues of art nouveau. Architecture, design, textiles, color, all now expressed a tamed version of Cubism. The new movement would be known as Art Deco, and Ginny was part of its unfolding.
She covered the Paris show for Vogue, reporting on all aspects of the arts - fashion with Channel, furniture with Ruhlman, textiles with Dufy. A majestic fifty-foot crystal fountain by Lalique, the exhibition’s trademark, was unveiled by Ginny’s hand. Her face was the most photographed, her attention the most sought, her hand the most kissed. Kings and queens, presidents, prime ministers, maharajahs and princes all sought her escort. Her radiant presence, even if momentary, was required for the success of an exhibit. If there was one year in Ginny’s life to be remembered it was 1925.
With the exhibition’s close, Ginny returned to London and a less frantic lifestyle. The thrill of Paris was over and with less to occupy her spirit, the loss of George and all it represented returned to haunt her. Her celebrity now made her life less rather then more enjoyable. Gossip was unkind and it deeply injured her sensitive nature. It was a lonely, confusing time for Virginia Karyn Bolker of St. Louis, Missouri.
Then in 1927 she met Champ. In him, she found emotional security and a man she could love. She was more then ready to trade her flashbulb life for a private structured path in the British aristocracy. Her past became a non-subject for the couple, with the feminist, Dr. Stopes, being the only person with whom she remained in contact. Murray now knew why.
The Bartlett-Champion couples took on new combinations. Stories were shared with histories not simply remembered but investigated, although intimacies were never betrayed. Ginny’s recollections were mainly bright and celebrity filled, like reading an old magazine reporting on the peccadilloes of the rich and famous. Murray heard arcane stories about artists he now considered almost friends. Raquel’s life no longer lacked a charismatic paternal image. Champ wallowed in an intoxicating infatuation. The couples stayed in frequent contact, more active during holiday seasons and local fiestas. But times when it was only the four of them together became less occasional.
Then Ginny’s physical and mental condition reached a point demanding the Champions remain at home continuously. Now in their nineties, Champ could no longer properly care for his wife nor for himself. The decision was made to return home to England and live in a home for the aged. Coincidentally, it was within a month of when the Gordons were also returning home.
It had been their mutual friend, Julia’s, idea for them to have a combined house sale. All that remained was to go to the Champion’s secluded chalet, assign over to Julia the items that had not sold, and collect a bit of money. They drove on the winding road up the mountain to Champ and Ginny’s, passing from blacktop to cobblestone to dirt road, the path of Seniega and “Carta del Rey”.
Nervous and upset about their elderly friends’ situation, Raquel almost spat out, “What a road! Really!” and mumbling, “No wonder they’re leaving….going straight to that damn home.”
This was old territory, but Raquel’s nervous patter continued still more to herself, “Selling absolutely everything…...Going into a single room…leaving with nothing more then a suitcase apiece.” She brushed away tears.
Murray was equally shattered, “And still no one to help them out?”
“Nope. I asked Julia the same thing and she said that all their friends are either dead or in worse shape then they are.” And reflective of a concept echoing their own lives, “Did you know Ginny never went back to the States after their marriage? Never!”
Finally she blurted what she was getting at, “Why don’t we go? I mean why not? We could just get them there and come back. It wouldn’t take that much.”
“We’ve gone over that. Look I feel badly about it too, but we’ve got a million things to do, Raquel.”
“Not really’” she shot back. She thought about the long now completed get ready list; packing, the house sale, the cars, ticketing for the dog. “Look there’s not really anything left but some good-byes. Come on, why not? Just one of us could go. That would do it. I’ll go… or you go.”
Murray considered the strange travel suggestion, and giving in to himself rather then her, he slapped the steering wheel and said, “You know, you’re right. O.K. Let’s do it.” Raquel was stunned and he continued “Are you sure? But just one of us. Just in case. You go with them. See that they get in o.k. and come back... Are you sure you want to do this?”
They made the final turn and pulled next to Julia’s car in the Champion driveway and walked up the blood red bougainvillea-lined path. Their pace was determined, anxious to tell their friends inside the deteriorating stucco walls the news of their decision. Broad-leafed cactus plants heavily netted with spider webs had taken over the once precisely landscaped front yard. The remnants of a meticulous rose garden was now overgrown with triple the blooms in its untended state, an explosion of reds, yellows, whites and a mélange of hybrids. Muted tones of huge hydrangeas hugged the shaded corners near the open doorway.
They found Julia in a narrow hallway carrying a box of dishes. With a notepad under one arm and a pencil held in her mouth like the bit of a horse, she smiled and mumbled an enthusiastic welcome, motioning with a nod that they go into the adjoining room.
The rooms looked as one might expect after a house sale. What remained was a mixed assortment of Champion/ Bartlett possessions, some rather ordinary, others quite grand. Julia managed to speak through the pencil as she waved a list at Raquel, “Not too bad. Not too bad at all.”
Ignoring the tally, Raquel eagerly explained their decision to accompany the Champions to England. Certain Julia would welcome the news, Murray picked up before Raquel had finished and in the same cadence added enthusiasm and information, which Raquel then burst in over his finishing words, “Isn’t that great, I’m so relieved!”
Julia absorbed the new plan slowly, nodding understanding but not acceptance. “Well, it sounds like a good idea. After all, it is something everyone has considered one way or another; and it is perfectly brilliant of you to offer. But you see darlings, they are so set now, so determined on their arrangements. I don’t know. It just might upset them or confuse things now. I think it’s perfectly marvelous, but you’ll have to inquire of Champ. Don’t be surprised if he declines, you know how forceful he can be.”
That said, Julia returned to the business at hand and directed their attention back to the sale’s list. Murray’s eyes drifted to the bottom line and saw the total amount, which surpassed their expectations, and then drifted away from the two women. He scrutinized the unsold Champion memorabilia like a swap-meet shopper. Holding the old single-eyepiece microscope, he thought about the hours of intense study Lord Martin had spent using it; wondering what it must be like for Champ to let go of so personal a keepsake. “Carta del Rey”.
Following a trail of unsold goods, Murry found himself in an unfamiliar space. Standing for the first time in the Champion’s bedroom, he saw that, like themselves, Champ and Ginny were living out of suitcases. Then his eyes widened as he noticed a painting hanging near the bed. There was a familiar look to the oil portrait of a woman, naked to the waist. The picture was done in muted tones. Exotic green eyes illuminated the handsome olive skin. It looked incredibly similar to an early photograph he cherished of Raquel. Though not pretty, the modestly framed portrait captured the essence of female mystery. Murray now realized how profound Champ’s attraction to his wife was rooted.
He called out for the women to join him. Startled to be in a strange room, Raquel’s attention was immediately seized by the oil painting when Julia, leaning against the doorframe, said: “That’s Ginny. A friend of hers did it back when she was with Vogue. It wasn’t anyone famous, someone named Bishop… it’s signed there at the bottom. You know Ginny knew a lot of artists, what with all the models and photographers. There were stories about her and some of those famous Parisian artists. Like Picasso and some Italian. I guess Champ couldn’t part with this because it is the one thing they’re taking with back to England. Look at them out there,” nodding to the window next to the portrait.
There in a part of the garden still meticulously cared for, in profile view from the window, were Champ and Ginny. They sat together on an ivory colored, iron loveseat and held hands. Facing into the setting sun, rays of reddish-gold shown on them through a wooden trellis. The seasoned wood supported apricot colored bougainvillea that climbed one side and spread three-quarter way over the tall archway. On the couple’s right side was the deep cobalt blue, long cone of a tajinaste plant, tapering six feet up and then folding over, like a fuzzy, sapphire fishing pole that had just hooked a trout. A small fountain provided water for three sugar wrens that fluttered in and back from a mature adelfas bush lining the rear of the house, now in full white bloom. Tall strelitzia, their gold and blue bird heads in noble silhouette, grouped to form a solid half-moon. Closing off the garden to the left was a stone wall made from the crimson volcanic rock that formed the archipelago. Long tailed lizards darted among the crevices or sunned themselves on porous rock terraces. A gecko perched half on a pair of worn leather work-gloves left next to a muddy garden trowel. Two ancient, flat millstones near the fountain lie in the grass, mirroring the elderly couple.
At the window, no one spoke for several minutes trying to freeze this moment forever in their own lives. Then Julia broke the spell saying, “They’ve been there like that all day.” Murray, breathing deeply returned, “Let’s go say hello.”
Making their way to the garden, Julia trumpeded their presence from the porch and the Champions both turned heads. “Oh yes, how good of you to come,” said Champ rising in spite of Raquel’s gesture not to. “Look Ginny, it’s the Americans. Hello Emerson. How are you Raquel, my dear?”
They exchanged kisses in greeting, Raquel lingering in Champ’s embrace.
“We don’t want to disturb you…” began Murray, but he was cut-off by a wave of Champ’s hand.
“No, no. Not at all. We’ve been having quite a party here. Have said good-bye to most of our friends now…So very glad you two came by. Please sit down here with us.”
As Champ and Ginny returned to the cushioned loveseat, the guests sat in chairs already positioned for intimate good-byes. There was a momentary awkward silence, then Julia broke it, “Champ, our friends here have come with a splendid idea that Raquel accompany you and Ginny to England to see that you’re properly settled in at Raintree. It would only be a quick trip for her, and might just be the thing, you know, in case you need some unexpected help. What do you think?”
Julia’s tone had been encouraging, and the Champions were surprised and touched by the offer. With a concerned look Champ said to them, “But you’re just leaving for home also aren’t you?”
“Well yes, ...but, it really wouldn’t be a problem for…..”
“No, no, now don’t be silly,” Champ cut off Raquel. “I won’t hear of it. You have more important things to take care of now, my dear. You can’t simply interrupt your life to…”
“No really, most everything is done, Champ. We were just saying that what looked like an enormous task a month ago is now totally under control. I could easily…..”
“I’m sorry, my dear. But, we cannot accept your generosity. Besides, we are really quite well positioned now. Why, everything’s been done. All the arrangements have been made. There’s really no need to bother yourselves. Thank you Emerson, and you also Raquel, you are dear friends.”
Ginny was surprised by the conversation, as if she could not grasp what they were talking about. She smiled continuously, nodded occasionally looking back and forth and over to Julia, covering her confusion. Murray and Raquel, their exuberance deflated, looked to Julia also but with a knowing smile she closed the topic saying, “Well, that was a smashing offer.”
They continued in small talk, though Julia had excused herself and returned to the house. Occasionally Raquel drifted out of the conversation to take in the scene one last time. In the distance was the greenhouse where she had come to love Champ. Virginia smiled warmly at Murray but mostly remained in reverie, gazing at the garden near the greenhouse, caressing a single yellow rose.
As the conversation slackened, Champ asked, “I guess you’re both feeling a bit like us, here that you’re leaving and all. How do you feel about returning home?”
Raquel and Murray looked at each other, knowing the other’s thoughts to be just how very unlike themselves Champ and Ginny must be feeling. She said, “Yes, I suppose so. We are so sad to leave, yet excited about returning to America.”
“And so you should be. You’ve had a good stay here and it is time for you to leave. Don’t want to get stuck here too long now, like us. Why, we probably should have left long ago. You two go back and get on with your lives. Our plans are made. Ginny and I will be fine, won’t we dear?”
The rhetorical question was answered with grasping hands and a deep smile. They all rose and bid each other a loving farewell. Leaving the garden sanctuary, tears streamed down both Murray and Raquel’s face, their breathing choked. A glance back saw their friends with their arms wrapped each other’s waist and waving.
The ride back to their finca was silent.
Like the Champions, they had been saying good-byes to friends continuously for three weeks. The portrait of Virginia remained a topic of conversation for the Bartletts, especially Murray, who asked friends about it. Surprisingly, several did know the painting, and commented on its quality. One of them, an artist himself, recalled that the painter, M. Bishop, was an established London portraitist, and had been a friend of Champ rather then of Virginia.
During the last days before leaving, Murray and Raquel visited some of their favorite island spots. However, they continued the habit of being home on the patio each late afternoon. There, overlooking the Atlantic they watched the spectacularly extraordinary summer sunsets. The sun touched the water about ten degrees north of Punta Teno, the far tip of the island, but the colors began as much as two hours earlier. Shifting shades of pink and yellow would give way to deep streaks of red, orange and a purple that matched the rich fruit hanging on the trees. Cascading at varied angles through cloud holes were shafts of brilliant sunlight, seeming to join the ocean with the sky, like tubes joining levels of the universe.
Adding to the drama was an aerial ballet presented by the flocks of cliff dwelling swifts. The swept-winged birds swooped along the coast, feeding on flying insects. Groups of a hundred or more silently darted, dived, and skimmed, like stealth bombers, over the grapevines and orange trees between the patio and the cliff’s edge. It was a summer show they knew they would not soon see again.
The birds were in Murray’s thoughts as they started on the first of the flights off the island that would take them to Madrid and then on to New York, Denver and finally, Seattle. There was a small leased unfurnished house waiting for them on the north side of Puget Sound. It would be another month before their possessions would arrive, the Contessa Del Mar passing through the Panama Canal into the great Pacific Ocean. They bought a bed and hung the Peir Lillistrum, a small oil nude that Murray had traded for his car and taken in his carry on grip for the 7,000-mile journey
Three weeks after they arrived, a messenger service delivered a package. Seeing the island return address, they wondered what they might have forgotten that some friend was returning. As the contents were revealed, they gasped. It was the bedroom portrait of Virginia Champion.
Murray read the letter aloud:
Dear Emerson and Raquel,
I hope you have arrived safely and are happily in your new home.
The day after you left, Champ and Ginny, knowing that I had your new address, asked me to mail this to you. He said he had known for many years that he and especially Ginny wished Emerson to have it, but that he could not bring himself to part with it, until now.
I am so dreadfully sorry to tell you that both Champ and Ginny died here at home, just before they were scheduled to return to England. It seems a gas jet was mistakenly left open during the night, and they both succumbed while asleep.
One wonders if they were ever meant to return. Please stay in touch.
Warm personal regards,
Stunned, Raquel gripped Murry’s hand and pulled the letter to her eyes, as if her seeing the print closer would erase the words. There were no questions, no gasps of shock, just a monumental sadness as they comforted one another.
It took less then ten minutes for them to hang the Bishop portrait of Ginny in their bedroom. It was placed eye level near to a window, with nothing else on the wall and no furniture nearby. The transfer from the Champion wall to theirs was as if the portrait had never been moved. The youthful image of their friend would be a daily companion.
Soon the Bartlett’s container arrived. They were gratified to be surrounded with familiar treasures and reminders of Tenerife, and the house got smaller quickly. One day while dressing, Raquel happened to brush and tilt Ginny’s portrait. As she was straightening it, she thought about Champ and the green house and the laboratory. How he used to instruct her so patiently with the microscope, a personal treasure Murray had rescued, now sitting on her writing desk.
Raquel noticed the frame. It was old and had separated in one corner. The right side had a crack completely splitting the wood lengthwise. Remembering what a precisionist Champ was, how perfect and orderly he kept his laboratory, she thought it would be a grand idea to reframe Ginny. Removing the oil from the wall, she examined it more closely. The frame’s deterioration was substantially more then first noticed. The left side also had several fine cracks that would soon join to become one. Again she thought of Champ, how she had learned from him the value of scrutiny.
Her mind returned to the old wood bench in the green house, him standing next to her on the wooden stool, his hand tapping gently on her shoulder; she bent over, focusing the microscope. How he would ask with each slide, “What do you suppose you might see if you turned the slide over, Raquel?” She flipped the picture to check, indeed the frame’s right side had cracked through, but the left had not. The hang wire was attached to screw eyes, one of which was now precariously loose in the widening crack – and good reason for repair. Another corner was separating but only visible from the back, she nodded and thought she felt Champ’s tapping fingers stop one by one gripping her shoulder. Little birds. The portrait canvas had been mounted with a cardboard backing and both were held in the frame by a series of four thin, steel, triangular points on each side. The points held firm but the cardboard itself did not completely cover the back. In the just found separated corner it looked as if the board had shrunk, when really the frame had widened, and Raquel noticed a flash of color on the true rear of the portrait.
After dinner that evening, on the deck, overlooking the Sound and sipping wine, Raquel told Murray about her thoughts of Champ that day. Of course, he was familiar with these stories, as Raquel was with his about Ginny, but an opportunity to reminisce about Spain was not to be passed up. And so, Murray settled back expecting a long evening of memories. However, his reverie was cut short.
Raquel showed him the unframed portrait of Virginia, “I thought I’d reframe it,” she said coyly.
She continued softly, “Then I thought about Champ, and found this.”
Like a matador’s exaggerated sweep of his red cape, she turned the canvass over to reveal on its reverse side another painting. It was also a portrait of Ginny. The figure sat on a cane lounge chair, next to a small end table, which held a green vase of purple and white wildflowers. Ginny, in her twenties, wore a creamy silk blouse; a yellow scarf hung loosely around her neck partially hiding a jade Moroccan necklace. Her full red lips wore a soft smile, with a slash of white teeth setting off her olive complexion. Light came in from a side window, haloing Ginny against a lake-blue background wall. There were a minimum amount of brushstrokes. The woman seemed alive.
To Murray, the work was more than familiar, it was as if he had truly seen it before; or something very much like it. Then he realized why. Staring at a bold signature being revealed by slow tapping fingers, like small birds alighting…
For Virginia, with love…..Henri Matisse