On the last day of our trip we came around a corner and there it was, spread out before us like a mirror set into the grass, its surface covered in a carpet of water-lilies. A curved wooden bridge arced over the pond like something out of a Monet. We walked onto it and stood in the middle in our faded jeans. Between the lily pads our faces hovered and shone on the water.
“My art sucks.”
“No it doesn’t.” Lorna dumped the props bag down on the bridge.
“I’m never going to be famous.”
“Don’t say that.”
Two days had passed since the opening: that night of insanity, the drinking, the dancing, the high heels, the bold talk.
“I’m not sure about the shows title,” I’d told Mr Y, the curator, brazenly over a glass of red wine.
“Rebecca, you were The Suspension of Disbelief.”
I stared at the pond and bit my nails what did he mean?
The water lilies weren’t in flower yet, they had a rubbery sadness about them, the pond’s surface was impenetrable as though the water lilies were hiding something more than the water. The pond already looked like one of Lorna’s photographs. It had the same quality of pathos and longing. It was the kind of place where one of the women in her portraits might come to stare at her own reflection, before plunging in and drowning, her face later found beneath the feet of a duck.
Lorna slipped her camera bag from her shoulder and set up the tripod up on the bridge.
“I could pose for you,” I said.
“What, in your jeans?”
“No, in the dress.” The yellow chiffon was poking out of props bag.
“You’ll freeze,” Lorna said.
“Don’t you want me to?” I asked.
“You crazy nut, where’d you get that idea?”
“I don’t know.” Cobwebs linked their grey arms between the wooden planks of the bridge.
“Go on then,” Lorna said. “I don’t want to lose the light.”
We woke at Tiffany’s, a stuccoed motel set adrift along the highway. Outside the ranch slider, the kidney-shaped swimming pool shivered in the cold. I’d slept in my dress, a deep purple seventies number that clung to me like a body stocking. A spray of diamantes fanned out from the neckline. Lorna’s heels were kicked across the floor, her sheer blue gloves tangled in the chain ankle straps. The phone rang piercingly. I looked at the creamy handset.
“Don’t answer it,” Lorna said, her face stricken.
“What if it’s someone important?”
We both started laughing.
“Oh stop it, my stomach hurts”
“I can’t stand the ringing.” I picked up the phone. “Hello?”
I mouthed: It’s Mr Y.
For the first few months I’d known him I was convinced he was gay. Mr Y carried a man bag with a gold buckle. He had little black eyes like a mole and an intelligent, quizzical face.
“What are you and Lorna up to?”
“We’re still in bed recovering.”
Lorna made a melodramatic howling face.
“What time did you get home?” I asked.
“Oh early.” Even his laugh was mole like somehow.
“I wondered if you both wanted to come for a drive today.”
Lorna shook her head.
I put my hand over the receiver. “But this is our chance to ask for a solo show.”
She lay back on the bed and groaned.
“In an hour?” I said. “Okay.”
We prepared for Mr Y with a certain sense of trepidation. I kept cracking glib jokes. “Oh Mr Y, you look great in that G-string. Yes, mmm, let’s go for a dip in the pool, what a great idea.”
“I can’t drink today,” Lorna announced solemnly.
“God, me either,” I said. Then realised it was true.
I put on some tight jeans and a matching denim jacket. I’d already showered and felt vaguely clean.
Lorna came back from her shower wreathed in steam.
“I feel a terrible sense of foreboding.” She tucked the white towel tightly around her.
“About Mr Y?”
“No, about the proposal.”
She sat down on the bed.
“Do you really think it’s a good title?”
“The Riddle of Larry Fortensky is a great title,” I said.
“He might not get it.”
“That’s because it’s a riddle.”
“Mr Y probably doesn’t even know who Larry Fortensky is.”
“It’s our job to enlighten him.” I reached over, opened the bedside drawer and pulled out the magazine. We leafed through the pictures again.
“How many people do you think meet in rehab and get married?”
“I don’t know. Probably hundreds,” Lorna said.
“Look at Michael Jackson.”
“He looks like Liz’s sister,” Lorna said.
“We’ll have to hire a gazebo for the photo shoot.”
“I wonder where we’ll find a man who looks like Larry Fortensky?”
“He has a bit of a Neanderthal forehead,” Lorna pointed at his photo.
“I don’t know anyone in the art world that looks like him.”
“We might have to get someone from a modelling agency.” Lorna flicked the page over then lay back down on the bed. “God, I still have to get dressed.” She flung her arm over her forehead.
“We shouldn’t have mixed our drinks.” My mouth still felt fusty from the red wine. And acidic from the white.
A car crackled on the drive outside and we looked at each other.
“I wonder if Mr Y’s brought his G-string?”
“Don’t,” Lorna said.
We sat in the quiet stealth of the back seat as the car cruised the empty streets of New Plymouth. We passed the Govett Brewster, a white building draped in artificial light like a prison, houses with closed curtains and faces. I stared at the fences and hedges. On the grass was a garden gnome almost invisible in the shadows.
I pointed at the gnome. Lorna nodded, her face wan.
“What are you thinking about?” Mr Y asked.
“Moving to New Plymouth,” I said.
I could see him watching us in the rear vision mirror. His mole eyes searching for the two dynamic show ponies from last night.
Mr Y rolled into the car park of a giant Liquorland. “What would you prefer red or white?”
Lorna held up her hand. “I can’t drink.”
“Me either,” I said.
Mr Y frowned. “You didn’t seem that drunk at the opening.”
He pulled the car away from Liquorland. “Well, what do you want to do?”
“Let’s go to Pukekura Park,” Lorna stared out the passenger window. “I’ve always wanted to photograph the pond there.”
The rest of the drive passed in a haze of melancholy. Dusk smothered the sky, sandflies buzzed around streetlights. We plunged into the entrance to the park and Mr Y pulled the car to a stop. We got out and slammed the doors. He set the automatic lock.
“Do you come here often?” I asked.
Mr Y looked at me strangely. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking but I felt sure it wasn’t good.
Lorna and I trailed behind Mr Y through a tower of trees, along a wide dirt path. The park was full of families, kids eating candy floss and shouting, “Mum, Dad, look!” A Mother in baggy tracksuit pants stared, perhaps wondering what thread connected us? A middle-aged man in smart black clothes and two young women in tight jeans and lip-gloss. She glared at me and Lorna.
“She probably thinks we’re prostitutes,” Lorna said.
“The truth is even more obscure,” I said.
We laughed and kept walking.
“Lorna, look a gazebo.” I left the path and stepped inside. I ran my hand over the wooden railing. White paint flaked off like sunburnt skin. “The Riddle of Larry Fortensky,” I said, standing under the lattice dome. But when I looked up Lorna had Mr Y had disappeared around a bend in the path. A couple of kids raced around the gazebo, chasing each other and panting like dogs.
I found Mr Y and Lorna next to the lake, sitting on a park bench near a line of wooden dinghies that were waiting to be hired out. Fairy lights hung over the water. Dappled hues mingled in the murky green depths, an artist’s palette. In the middle of the lake was an island of dense vegetation. It was the kind of place only ducks and animals go. I wished I could row out there in one of the boats.
“I’ve been thinking about my palm reading.” Mr Y looked at Lorna, his eyes full of meaning.
“Oh?” she folded her arms around her chest.
“Why won’t you ever read my palm?” I asked.
“I can only read palms when I’m drunk,” Lorna said.
“A couple of collectors asked about your photographs,” Mr Y told her.
“I didn’t like the presentation of my video,” I said.
They both stopped staring at the lake and looked at me.
“I thought it was quite good on the white monitor,” Mr Y said.
“The sound was too low,” I replied.
“I’ll ask the gallery assistants to turn up the sound tomorrow,” Mr Y said.
A duck approached us across the water. Ripples fanned out behind its body.
It jumped onto the shore by our feet and let out a belligerent quack.
“Shoo! Shoo! We don’t have any bread.” Mr Y flapped his black arms; the duck opened its brown wings and beat them in the air several times. I could feel the force of its feathers, then it stumbled backwards and fell into the water. Its head popped up a few feet away, wet and brown and evil.
“Maybe it’s possessed?” Lorna said.
Mr Y laughed. “Don’t be silly. Let’s hire a boat.”
I sat in the back of the small wooden boat next to Lorna. Mr Y sat opposite us, rowing. He looked like an undertaker in his black suit, his pasty face huffing, perspiring. The boat dipped closer to the water in his corner. The sky was now the same dark blue-green as the water. The lake had that rank whiff of oxygen weed coming off the surface.
“I wonder if anyone has ever drowned here?” I stared into the water.
Lorna let her long nails skim the surface. “I feel nauseous.”
The boat kept going round in circles. A flock of birds flew overhead, the air filled with their hollow cries.
“I hope we don’t get attacked by killer ducks.”
“Like Tippie Hedren in The Birds,” Lorna said.
The water splashed around the boat.
“Did you like my video?” I asked Mr Y.
“It was a more subtle piece than some of your other work, but that doesn’t mean it was any less clever.” His eyes slipped away from me back to the oar.
“Lorna and I have an idea for a show. We want to recreate Liz Taylor’s wedding to Larry Fortensky, a builder that she met at the Betty Ford clinic.”
I looked to Lorna for support.
“In the 80’s,” she said.
“Lorna’s going to take the photos and I will make the wedding video. We’ve already got a replica of Liz’s wedding dress. The show could be great for the Govett-Brewster. What do you think?”
Mr Y changed the direction of his oar. “You can’t force an epiphany,” he said.
Our boat drifted into a veil of fog. The oars dipped in and out of the water. I couldn’t see Lorna anymore. I held my hand up in front of my face but there was nothing there. The water made lonely sounds.
The dream evaporated in the grey light of dawn, leaving no memories. On a bed like this, there was no roll together. Larry tried to gather the silk sheet around his shoulders but it slipped away from him. He felt like an aberration in this room, an oyster about to be scooped out of its shell.
“Liz, are you awake?”
Her breath stuttered.
He sat up slowly, careful not to disturb her. Larry slipped on the dressing gown she’d bought him, his initials emblazoned on the lapel. He closed the door to their room gently and padded, barefoot, along one of the long hallways until he came to a large lounge area. Soft cream couches clustered around the centre of the room, padded with enormous cushions. Larry couldn’t shake the feeling that a bodyguard was standing in the shadows watching him, but when he stole a look over his shoulder, he realised it was just another one of Michael’s mannequins. The velvet curtains were open and a set of French doors overlooked the garden. Larry pushed the handle and the door swung open; he drew in a breath, he was still amazed the security at Neverland was so relaxed.
Outside the night was warm. The grass felt moist between his toes. This surprised him too as though somehow the grass on Michael Jackson’s lawn should be immune to dew. He chose a path across the grounds and set off at random. If someone had of told him a year ago that he was going to be married to Elizabeth Taylor in a white gazebo on Michael Jackson’s ranch, he never would have believed it.
The first time they met she was wearing a grey sweatshirt and sunglasses. Her hair was a tangled nest. She’d fidgeted throughout the meeting. During the worst period of his life, he’d been getting through twenty lagers a day. Drinking at home alone, listening to country and western records, letting the garbage build up till his flat stunk of warm decay. In a mansion on the other side of the city, Liz was doing the same.
“Elizabeth Fortensky. It just doesn’t sound right.”
“Well, how about Elizabeth Taylor-Fortensky,” she swept her hand through the air in a grand gesture. Smiled, laughed.
Larry shook his head. “You’re Elizabeth Taylor, that’s who you are.”
She took a sip of mineral water. “Hell, maybe you’re right. What does it matter? We love each other and we’ve chosen to be man and wife.”
Larry pulled her close, the freckles clotted in her cleavage.
“What do you see in me?” Liz asked him. “I’m old.”
“You’re not old. You’re just improving with age.”
He loved her perfume, a heady musky scent that made him think of tropical island nights, although he’d recently been shocked to realise the smell was actually from her hairspray.
The sun was rising above the gazebo. Larry picked up his pace. Through the trees the Ferris wheel was stationary, poised for its next ride. The property was peaceful at dawn and for a moment he felt strangely secure as though nothing bad could touch this place. He looked up, enjoying the pattern the stars made against the sky.
Past the zoo: the strange ruffling of the animals. The silence grew dense around their enclosures and a lama popped its tan head over the fence. The white moulded plastic ponies on the carousel glistened in the morning sunlight. He could see Neverland across the lawn. The grass felt slimy now and he had to pause to remove a prickle from the heel of his foot. Larry was out of breath when he reached the French doors half convinced he’d be locked out.
Michael sat in the lounge peeling an apple for Bubbles. “Morning Larry. Nice walk?”
The chimp took the apple from Michael. Its palms were padded and black, but incredibly human. Larry felt a sudden desire to pick Bubbles up and take him away. His mouth craved a cold can of Lager. He missed his grotty flat, masturbating in the evenings, never changing the sheets, the kitchen rubbish bin dripping banana skins and cigarette ash.
“You know it’s normal to have last minute jitters,” Michael said.
The chimp reached out and touched Larry’s shoulder.
“Bubbles likes you,” Michael smiled. “Well, I better go and check the catering. See you soon.”
“Yeah,” Larry said.
He prowled the outskirts of the room, opened all the drawers of the cabinets – searching for a drink – anything. He found a row of The Jackson Five albums, arranged chronologically. A couple of board games. Snakes and Ladders and The Game of Life. He shoulders sunk. He knelt on the floor and put his hands in his hair. After a few minutes, the shaking stopped. He stood, tightened the belt of his dressing gown and padded back down the hallway to the bedroom.
Liz’s head rose off the pillow, her eyes bloated with sleep.
He took off the dressing gown, opened the duvet and climbed back into bed. She wrapped her arms around him, murmured something into the hairs on his chest.
“I love you too,” Larry said.
He lay awake staring at the open wardrobe in the corner: the yellow chiffon wedding dress hung inside its plastic covering.