Thea Bel-Bulah and I became friends almost from the moment we set eyes on each other. Our mutual appraisal told us that we were two kindred spirits, two birds following the same flight path. Frankly, the season would have been utterly boring if we had not encountered one another and enjoyed the butterfly attentions of the same suitor. He was, as I so vividly recall, a handsome if somewhat callow young man with the moist devastating smile – even as young Latins go. Giovanni in effect brought our friendship to fruition – which friendship was destined to last a little longer than normal, passing, seasonal acquaintanceships, even though, in later years, Thea and I only corresponded by letter.
Thea was such an unusual person, I was always ready to have her news – though mine, by comparison, must have seen a trifle boring. Our friendship lasted longer than Giovanni, eventually. Thea had it in mind, as I did, to discard that disarming cad once he had been unsheeted in his duplicitous behaviour, although it is true that Thea pronounced herself, those first few days after his banishment to jail (he had been handy in other directions than bed-warming, and to other ladies) as ‘inconsolable’. I don’t know what sentence he received but I believe it was in the region of a couple of months – just enough time to have him under lock and key until the end of the season, whirling like a baton-swinging policeman, came into sight.
Let me describe Thea – for even at that time, and we were no longer in the first flush of youth, she was ravishingly pretty. Sumptuous is another word which springs to mind and – yes, perhaps this word suits her best, like one of those over-rich gâteaux – so temptingly confected and rich-looking – that it positively makes one sick with envy to first glimpse her. She was not tall, but her voluptuous figure did not suffer by that slight defect. Tall ladies were then coming into vogue. Her skin – thanks, so she later told me, to surreptitious visits to one of the best specialists in Milan, was perfect. Not a wrinkle or freckle marred its creamy tones – one might compare it to those velvet petals one sees sometimes on English roses. It was smooth, like cream – and I never once, despite the heat of that summer, saw her looking flushed or bothered. Unlike, alas, myself, one only had to look at Thea’s marvellous complexion to know she had money, and rather a lot of it. Her eyes, I think, were her best point, but there would be many ready to disagree with me. They were a languid brown with dark sweeping lashes – achieved (so she confided to me in later correspondences) by a clever little beautician who dyed them for her. Her mouth was wide and generous, often the lips thrown part-ways open – to expose perfect, even, pearl-polished teeth. She had had some gold work done about her mouth, and this added and extra dimension, as she flashed and seduced over many a candle-lit dinner.
She had a keen wit too, which heightened her indisputable allure. She was rapier sharp – the fastest raconteur on the dinner-party circuit. That wasn’t the only area she was quick in: Thea loved to drive at alarming speed. I was able to study her so well, for after our initial friendship had become tangible we were, for the remainder of that summer in 1922, inseparable. Before she moved into the villa, she asked me to join her, to complete a foursome – we two ladies and two, usually desirable, young men. We were often mistaken for sisters: this flattered me enormously, even if I projected a cool profile. An acute observer, however, would have seen that there were more than a few differences. Thea was more beautiful, pampered and used to it than I ever was, or could ever have been. That included my accounting for my secret pride on having acquired my independence from a boring, bad-tempered but wealthy husband. He had provided for me, of course, once the secret of his liaison with his secretary became public knowledge in the middle-sized town where we lived in the States. Thea never disclosed if she was single, divorced, or widowed, or a grass widow: there were many of those ladies around.
Looking back, I feel a little foolish about some of the antics we both divulged to one another, which was had independently indulged in. We were more like teenagers than women the right side of forty. Thea was – if her gowns, jewels and furs, not to mention the costly open-topped coupé she drove were anything to go by, far wealthier than I could ever hope to be, even with the investments by ex-husband had made for me at the Stock Exchange on Wall Street.
Despite these (to many people) glaring differences, we became good friends: we all but telepathically understood that ennui which could afflict the rich and curious on the Côte d'Azur during those times. We shared an interest in things cultural – cerebral to an extent also: not in a blue-stocking way but certainly to a more pronounced degree than many of our fellow seasonal sojourners. During my few years of unhappy marriage, I had tried to act the part my ex-husband expected the wife of an Academic to play; and though I am not naturally gifted I worked, on, and began to love, things of a cultural aspect – for instance, the very fact that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was one of the first professionals to have a show-business manager – in effect, his father. Thea shared my interest in music and if she discovered, via the hotel’s capable and charming management, that there was something inspiring going on in the town’s vicinity, if not the centre itself, she would summon me to join her.
Oh: charmingly of course, but it sometimes did feel like a command, that “Dress to thrill, Olivia!” It was actually during the drive back from a matinée performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons that the true extent of her passion for the imprisoned Giovanni became apparent. I realised in the course of the concert, that despite my strenuous efforts she was slipping into a blue mood; while trying to divert her attention to the handsomest violinist in the ensemble, she still let the occasional straying teardrop drip onto her gloved hand. I know that one may be very moved by Classical Music, but I did not quite understand what was so special about this piece. Of course, I took my own confidence very much into my hands when I told her exactly what I thought of Giovanni. A woman in love will seldom hear her beloved slandered, even if the salient points are truthful.
Back at the hotel, I tried to redirect her thinking. Surely she had realised that men like Giovanni were thick on the carpeted foyers of all the best hotels, and some of those not quite so grand, in the area.
“But I adored his breath” she all but whispered.
“Come now Thea dear,” I replied. “Why, if you must have a darkly handsome young man, why not choose a struggling artistic one who might appreciate your efforts more?”
I searched in my mind to draw a parallel, and recalled the violinist. “Like that violinist?” I continued.
“The violinist,” said Thea – not paying too much attention at first.
Of course, she did become more interested in the proposition I had suggested. I knew that when she asked me to join her again two years later, to attend another concert by the same orchestra. I was relieved to see that she was perking up a bit: perhaps I had been rather hard-handed when I had pointed out a few home truths about young men like Giovanni.
“Are they worth immortalising,” I asked Thea, “in the whispering gallery of one’s heart?” Perhaps it was I who was really and truly callous, for I had taken my pleasure with some of the youngsters: they were bona-fide lady-killers every one of them, from the youngest sixteen-year-old to the more experienced and debonair campaigners. Oh! They took incredible pains, I know, to make themselves desirable and presentable – and, yes! Flattering to the hordes of middle-aged, wealthy women who flocked to the resorts along the French Riviera. Was it that longing of repressed, incestuous sensuality which made women of our age, regardless of whether we had offspring or not, that prompted us to be so easily seduced, to take these gigolos into our beds – and sometimes into our hearts also. This might have been one reason, but neither Thea nor I had any children. I do believe that Thea, in that dreamy Classical frame of mind she sometimes indulged in, imagined herself as a latter-day Aphrodite. She was searching for her own Achelon. Who knows? She might have found him in Giovanni? Although her dresses were quite the shortest that I had ever seen on a respectable lady, indicating that she was very much of the ‘now’ generation, there was a hint of ancient times in the styling of them. She was terribly fond of chiffons and walked many a blustery evening along the main promenade with a flowing train of pink or lilac silken stuff clouding her footsteps; this and the perfume of l’Heure Bleue: that was her favourite and she was lavish with it.
I do not know how she managed it, but Thea procured the use of an empty villa for the duration which remained of the season, and she asked me to move in with her: “It’s all free, darling – all free!”
I was only too pleased to be able to vacate the small suite of rooms I had rather foolishly hired – albeit on the sixth floor of the hotel and the top but one – my vanity was proving to be more expensive than I had estimated.
“We can have parties every night if we wish!”
Thea had crowed with pleasure, her arms folded wing-like about her bosom for a fraction before she took another swallow from the half-empty champagne bottle she was likewise hugging: “Every night! And we can dance and play crazy games – get this staid old town moving a bit!”
So we did. The villa was set in its own grounds, a few acres or so. We soon discovered that we had no neigbours; unreasonably, the villa nearest to us was shuttered and locked up – a fact we could not at the time understand. But that was another story, and one I learnt about some years later. So began Thea’s ‘Postponing the Fall’ parties: she rather liked the American expression of calling autumn that – she considered it was filled with promising innuendos for people such as ourselves.
Thea asked me occasionally to think up themes for the parties we held frequently. To be more accurate, it usually was Thea who bought all the drinks and food. I had immersed myself in historical novels in the previous cold winter months of isolation and physical deprivation which my divorce had resulted in; as a consequence, I used many ideas taken from my stored memories of times alien to the present. I cannot recall now, if it had been Thea’s idea or my own, to stage the most successful party: our theme was ‘The Desert’. I had noticed that the parties had not quite shaken Thea out of her wistful moods – and pondering on the reason, my mind went back to the conversation we had had previously concerning Giovanni.
“Why don’t you invite some of the musicians from the orchestra?” I suggested – for we had been by this time to several of their mid-afternoon concerts.
“Good idea!” Thea exclaimed, “we need some different faces.”
“There’s the handsome violinist too” I added, with a gleeful sparkle to my eyes, “don’t leave him out of things.”
This was duly arranged by Thea – though I do believe she made an error, if she was sincerely trying to get the young violinist (Raol his name was), by presenting him with an invitation card and a gold lighter. Thea screeched with admonitory derision when I tentatively suggested that the young violinist might still be a virgin.
“Olivia,” she cried, “don’t be so positively wicked!”
She shook so much that the cigarette rocketed from the elegant ivory holder she always used. “You can’t be serious.”
“Yes I can,” I replied. That was how the theme had come into its provocative suggestiveness. Thea had wanted something where clothes could be loose and easily disposable, in a surreptitious way.
Thea asked my for my critical appraisal of the costume she had devised. She looked marvellously exotic: jewels gleamed in the abundance of her brunette hair, with a large, semi-precious oval-shaped stone dripping over her forehead. Strands of beads also covered her throat, falling in a tinkling cascade to her bolero top – which was cut just slightly on the small side, so that her large bosom heaved beckoningly over the bead-encrusted edging. She wore flimsy harem-style pants and a heavy, be-gemmed belt sat around the firm rounded shape of her hips. She wore nothing apart from these items. Even her feet were bare; she had wrapped strings of pearls and coloured stones about her ankles and toes. She looked exquisite – like a combination of Theda Bara and Salome, with a touch of that Ingres woman: an absolute picture.
She had engaged the services of a local group of rustic musicians, who looked rather more like gypsies than authentic Berbers. But with the fairylights and the incense bowls burning all over the place, the atmosphere was right enough. She had even found some genuine Moroccan pipes to smoke, with genuine Hashish. The party was destined to be the most exotic we had ever devised and thrown – if anyone stayed sober enough to remember it.
Thea was determined to seduce Raol that night, if nothing else; and I was asked into the ‘seduction chamber’ to ensure that she struck just the right poses against the piles of cushions. She could not fail, I remember telling her.
The party was unforgettable.
But that was some years ago now. It might be acceptable for single, rich ladies to enjoy their singular reveries, but when one has a husband and two boys to care for, and all of them so immersed in playing Classical Music, life can become too hectic to wander off into unrealities.
Thea – ah, yes: Thea. As it happened that particular evening an admirer of hers, an elderly gentleman with great influence in the town, knowing of her great fondness for Giovanni, had bought that young man his premature freedom.
Giovanni had looked totally irresistible, a more-than-plausible Valentino imitating ‘The Sheik’. Thea could not tear her eyes away from him – nor her arms, and it was obvious he felt the same way towards her.
Raol and I discovered a mutual passion for Seventeenth Century Venetian music, and historical romance: such stuff is history composed of!