Clark had stood and was now attempting to sound a skewer from a shish kebab against his wine glass. In a motion entirely automatic Rosalyn reached to take his cardigan to pull him down, as though he were jumping out into traffic, but caught herself and instead smiled in the same determined, attractive way she had learned was safest in such events.
“Attention!” Clark warned again, still hitting the skewer against his wineglass.
People were beginning to turn, the room by degrees quietening, and a kind of pressure descended on the gathering—only the children, still playing, chasing and screaming were impervious to the dreadful pall of expectation, a feeling as though something irreversible were taking place.
“I wanted to just say—just say,” Clark repeated, shifting his moist eyes about the room; family, friends, work colleagues and society guests, “I wanted to just say first of all what a good-looking bunch of people we have in this room, all together like this.”
Some light laughter, seat shifting.
“We all know who our true friends are,” he continued, then waited as Camila herded the children out of the room at the silent behest of Rosalyn—barely more than a nod. The old maid pulled the large french doors closed with a parting glance at Clark that Rosalyn knew to be as much an expression of concern as it was gratitude to leave. Rosalyn searched for her mother but didn’t see her. The main meal had ended, a good handful of the guests had stood, were speaking by the aquarium, the couches, picking through the books on the large book shelves. Now they waited, smiling, sipping, wondering perhaps morbidly what would happen next. Clark pressed a finger to his lips, fighting reflux for a moment, then continued.
“Since I first began ‘Schools for Stars’ (it seems so very long ago) I had hoped that that plural, ‘schools’, would maybe, one day without me, way in the future, be a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy. I dreamt of five, six, maybe seven schools built especially for those children whose lives, devastated by flood, by war, by cyclone, and by bureaucratic mismanagement and corruption, would be raised back up, given new…ah…new light, with help from those who could afford it. That these children, who I would see on the television—nothing, no toys, no place to go, empty stomachs—would one day be able to go every day to a place with clean water, with food, with new chalkboards, with toilets and shaded areas to eat their lunch, musical instruments and books to expand their minds, people there who cared for them and were trained in so much more than just…just teaching—trained to make a difference, to get through to these delicious children and make them realise that they, every one of them, were stars, and were very, very valuable. Today we have a dozen schools across Africa, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.”
Applause. Men who had put down their wine glasses now with half-closed, pensive eyes stared and saluted a man they reminded themselves they respected, publicly supported and worked for. The applause died down, Rosalyn sighed quietly and relaxed a little in her seat.
“Thank you,” said Clark. “But I’m not nearly finished.”
The guests laughed.
“Again I say, when I look around this room, I see a very pretty bunch. I see wonderfully made hair, wonderfully made suits and shoes and dresses, and make up. And I see about a quarter billion dollars of hard-earned money spent for this lofty cause, and I thank you with my whole heart.”
Applause crackled again through the room, many of the guests smiled, whispered to each other in the few seconds they could to relieve themselves of whatever was on their minds. A large man named Jonas, catching Clark’s eye, raised his glass, gave his head a twist to say ‘you’re welcome’, then cooly exited. In the hallway he drained his glass and handed it brusquely to a passing waitress. In the kitchen caterers and cooks in their uniforms struggled to coordinate the incoming platters, the soufflés and mousse and almond icecreams.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” said Jonas. “Je-sus.” His face was red. Peter, who had folded a piece of ham and was now dipping it into a ramekin of melted chocolate looked at him and smirked.
“It’s not that bad,” he said, sucking a thumb clean.
“He’s supposed to be winning new donors not embarrassing them! What the fuck does he think he’s doing?”
“It’ll all be over soon,” said Peter, “just let him wear himself out.”
Jonas stepped closer and took Peter by the arm. “You know he said ‘delicious’ right? ‘Delicious children’? Or have you been hiding here the whole time?”
At that moment a blonde-haired child ran through the kitchen waving the stripped body of a barbie high above him like a standard, and three girls, screaming, hysterical, ran after him.
Peter looked down at the large, hairless hand wrapped around his arm, then up at Jonas.
“As I said, the best course of action is to allow him to wear himself out. Clark is harmless. And here comes desert. Wonderful,” he added with a smile to one of the waitresses heading out with the others. “He must be wrapping up.”
In the main room Clark noted anxiously the caterers in their white, black and blue gathering single file in the hall.
“I have so much I want to say,” he continued, motioning down the table for one of the pitchers of water. He refilled his glass and drank deeply, swallowing the cubes of ice whole, then cleared his throat. “I’m sorry.” Clark wiped his mouth with his cardigan sleeve and Rosalyn turned. She didn’t know where to look and experienced a kind of vertigo, everything seeming too near suddenly, or perhaps simply not where she had expected—it happened when she was suddenly conscious of her thoughts, her feelings, or when something changed—first this way, then that way.
Clark went on—“I have so much I want to say but I seem only able to say the things that are safe. But I want to say other things. Not for the benefit of those who know me, who work with me, but for those who don’t know me. Who maybe have seen me on the TV, or who have heard about me through a friend, through the grapevine as they say, and think I’m a decent kind of person, one of the old boys who stuck his neck out for a good cause, came through, and is now resting on his loins. On the fruit of his labours. I say you’ve all, tonight, eaten the fruit of our labours, ‘Schools for Stars’, and perhaps you don’t know that yet, but I hope one day you will, because we’re in the f-fruits business. We-we’re…”
Clark clenched shut his eyes. He crouched slightly, as though about to sit, but remained bent in an attitude of strange, grave contemplation or suffering until a man, clapping as he hurried to Clark’s side, smiling, put an arm around his waist, moving a chair to guide him out. The guests, following the cue applauded anxiously and were then swiftly relieved of the debt of having to consider the significance of this, their host’s faltering, or his strange speech, or anything, because now on dozens of trays were being brought their very favourite things: cream pastries, cups of jelly, chocolate mousse, cheesecakes, truffles, lemon chiffon and everything and anything else one could want to follow up a main course of human flesh. Peter hurried to help the man move Clark quickly around the table, through the doors to the head of a staircase, where they were joined by Jonas, who had already taken off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves.
“What’s happening?” drawled Clark.
Rosalyn appeared from the hall. She had been fighting tears and now, seeing her husband held up like a mannequin, like one whose wits had been taken from him and was now useless and at the mercy of the world, she wept.
“Oh Clark,” she sobbed. “I tried to tell you, didn’t I try to tell you?”
“Geoff I’ll take the head-end,” said Jonas, “we’d better hurry up with this.” The man lowered the now unconscious Clark gently to the ground, then hurried to take a position at his legs with Peter.
“One, two, three, lift,” said Jonas, taking a deep breath, raising the host up.
In Clark’s office, a suicide note had been typed out on his computer, and waited in an unsent email addressed to close friends and family, many of whom were downstairs, enjoying desert. It read:
Dear close friends and family,
As many of you know, and some of you don’t, I’ve been struggling more than usual with feelings of depression in the past few weeks. I feel useless in this great struggle against poverty, against hunger, against the forces of corruption that plague the developing world. I’ve always wanted to do so much, but feel so incapable. I thank you all greatly for bearing with me for as long as you have, and I apologize for excusing myself prematurely. Though I struggle to articulate just how overwhelming this current crisis is to me, as you all have seen tonight, I thank you that with your kind and continued donations, one day the conversation will be much, much different. Please, enjoy the party, the best is yet to come,
“Happy with that?” said Jonas, still struggling to bring his breathing under control. He stood at the computer, beside and slightly behind Rosalyn, his hands resting at his hips.
Rosalyn went to speak but instead gasped, tears catching in her throat.
“Yes,” she said, “yes it sounds…it’s almost uncanny.”
“Good,” said Jonas. Clark was lying supine on his favourite red leather divan beneath a large portrait of Jacob Epstein. His hands were folded mildly, left over right atop his navel, his dumb mouth slightly agape.
“What about…what about your fingerprints?” said Rosalyn fearfully, recoiling at the word, at its convicting power.
“No no,” said Peter, who had been scanning the room. “All that’s taken care of, nothing to worry about.”
“He’s…we’re all…he normally has his door locked when he’s in his study, how…”
“Please Rosalyn,” said Jonas, “just trust us, everything has been arranged, you just let us take care of everything.”
“Can I stay here for a just a little while?”
There was a moment of silence while the men deliberated wordlessly, looking one to the other. Downstairs music was playing. People were dancing. The children again ran and laughed and argued loudly about things they thought were grand and important and urgent. The men left the room silently, almost solemnly, Geoff lastly placing a consoling hand on Rosalyn’s shoulder.
“You’ve been through a lot,” he said, gazing into eyes that had long since fixed with a dreamy, quietly incredulous quality on the body. The two there, she and the body, mirrored each other strangely, their vacancy and earnestness, and it was as though, briefly, there were some communication taking place; one projecting, the other resisting, extinguishing, sliding further and further away.
Geoff left and closed the door gently behind him.
Alone in the room, Rosalyn approached her husband’s body. At the divan she lowered herself to the ground and sat, one foot flat, the other folded near her buttock the same way she had some twenty years ago, and she had listened to her husband read the morning paper. She stared intently at the skin of her husband’s forehead, at the moles, the soft, bristly grey folds of skin around his jaw, and also the hair in his ears and here and there on his scalp: thin, wispy ones that had been missed by the barber. Rosalyn reached her finger slowly to the wax face, to the cheekbone, anticipating with horror the experience of encountering no resistance, no fluttering of the eyes, no wince of annoyance. Without notice the body emitted a low gurgling sound, followed by the sound of flatulence and the beginnings of a sharp, offensive smell.
Rosalyn sat by the body several long seconds more, hand withdrawn and tucked beneath her, pretending she had not heard and did not smell what she did, then stood gracefully up and went to the computer.
“This is madness,” she said after she had read through the note once more.
“You okay in here?” said Peter, and Rosalyn started. He was poking his head in the door. “The coroner’s wondering if everything’s green.”
“The coroner?” repeated Rosalyn. Her hands were clasped to her chest defensively. She summoned the strength to control her face, her tears. She felt now only intense embarrassment about the smell.
“Yeah,” said Peter, entering. He stood before Rosalyn, taking her hands in his. “You’ve prepared for this,” he said quietly. “Everything is going to be fine.” Gently he uncurled her small, moist hand and lowered it to the computer mouse on the desk. “That’s it,” he said, “that’s the way.” The curser hovered above ‘send’. There was a click, whether hers or Peter’s she didn’t know, and then a swoosh, and then after a long, breathless wait, the sound of an electronic bell in Peter’s pocket.
“It’s time to go,” said Peter, lowering Rosalyn’s head and kissing her at her hairline. “We’ll miss the band.”