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Damian Baxter is hugely wealthy and dying. He lives alone in a big house in Surrey, England, looked after by a chauffeur, butler, cook, and housemaid. He has but one concernhis fortune in excess of five hundred million and who should inherit it on his death. Past Imperfect is the story of a quest. Damian Baxter wishes to know if he has a living heir. By the time he married in his late thirties he was sterile (the result of adult mumps), but what about before that unfortunate illness? Had he sired a child? He sets himself (and others) to the task of finding his heir.
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Julian Fellowes, winner of the 2001 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Gosford Park, also wrote the screenplays for Vanity Fair and The Young Victoria. His first novel, Snobs, was a New York Times, L.A. Times, and BookSense bestseller; his other works include The Curious Adventure of the Abandoned Toys and the book for the Disney stage musical of Mary Poppins. He lives in London and Dorset, England.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
London is a haunted city for me now and I am the ghost that haunts it. As I go about my business, every street or square or avenue seems to whisper of an earlier, different era in my history. The shortest trip round Chelsea or Kensington takes me by some door where once I was welcome but where today I am a stranger. I see myself issue forth, young again and dressed for some long forgotten frolic, tricked out in what looks like the national dress of a war-torn Balkan country. Those flapping flares, those frilly shirts with their footballers’ collars – what were we thinking of? And as I watch, beside that wraith of a younger, slimmer me walk the shades of the departed, parents, aunts and grandmothers, great-uncles and cousins, friends and girlfriends, gone now from this world entirely, or at least from what is left of my own life. They say one sign of growing old is that the past becomes more real than the present and already I can feel the fingers of those lost decades closing their grip round my imagination, making more recent memory seem somehow greyer and less bright.
Which makes it perfectly understandable that I should have been just a little intrigued, if taken aback, to find a letter from Damian Baxter lying among the bills and thank yous and requests for charitable assistance that pile up daily on my desk. I certainly could not have predicted it. We hadn’t seen each other in almost forty years, nor had we communicated since our last meeting. It seems odd, I know, but we had spent our lives in different worlds and although England is a small country in many ways, it is still big enough for our paths never to have crossed in all that time. But there was another reason for my surprise and it was simpler.
I hated him.
A glance was enough to tell me whom it was from, though. The writing on the envelope was familiar but changed, like the face of a favourite child after the years have done their unforgiving work. Even so, before that morning, if I’d thought of him at all, I would not have believed there was anything on earth that would have induced Damian to write to me. Or I to him. I hasten to add that I wasn’t offended by this unexpected delivery. Not in the least. It is always pleasant to hear from an old friend but at my age it is, if anything, more interesting to hear from an old enemy. An enemy, unlike a friend, can tell you things you do not already know of your own past. And if Damian wasn’t exactly an enemy in any active sense, he was a former friend, which is of course much worse. We had parted with a quarrel, a moment of savage, unchecked rage, quite deliberately powered by the heat of burning bridges, and we had gone our separate ways, making no subsequent attempt to undo the damage.
It was an honest letter, that I will say. The English, as a rule, would rather not face a situation that might be rendered ‘awkward’ by the memory of earlier behaviour. Usually they will play down any disagreeable past episodes with a vague and dismissive reference: ‘Do you remember that frightful dinner Jocelyn gave? How did we all survive it?’ Or, if the episode really cannot be reduced and detoxified in this way, they pretend it never took place. ‘It’s been far too long since we met,’ as an opener will often translate as ‘it does not suit me to continue this feud any longer. It was ages ago. Are you prepared to call it a day?’ If the recipient is willing, the answer will be couched in similar denial mode: ‘Yes, let’s meet. What have you been up to since you left Lazard’s?’ Nothing more than this will be required to signify that the nastiness is finished and normal relations may now be resumed.
But in this case Damian eschewed the common practice. Indeed, his honesty was positively Latin. ‘I dare say, after everything that happened, you did not expect to hear from me again but I would take it as a great favour if you would pay me a visit,’ he wrote in his spiky, and still rather angry, hand. ‘I can’t think why you should, after the last time we were together, but at the risk of self-dramatising, I have not long to live and it may mean something to do a favour for a dying man.’ At least I could not accuse him of evasion. For a while I pretended to myself that I was thinking it over, trying to decide, but of course I knew at once that I would go, that my curiosity must be assuaged, that I would deliberately revisit the lost land of my youth. For, having had no contact with Damian since the summer of 1970, his return to my conscious mind inevitably brought sharp reminders of how much my world, like everyone else’s world for that matter, has changed.
There’s danger in it, obviously, but I no longer fight the sad realisation that the setting for my growing years seems sweeter to me than the one I now inhabit. Today’s young, in righteous, understandable defence of their own time, generally reject our reminiscences about a golden age when the customer was always right, when AA men saluted the badge on your car and policemen touched their helmet in greeting. Thank heaven for the end of deference, they say, but deference is part of an ordered, certain world and, in retrospect at least, that can feel warming and even kind. I suppose what I miss above all things is the kindness of the England of half a century ago. But then again, is it the kindness I regret, or my own youth?
‘I don’t understand who this Damian Baxter is exactly? Why is he so significant?’ said Bridget as, later that evening, we sat at home eating some rather overpriced and undercooked fish, purchased from my compliant, local Italian on the Old Brompton Road. ‘I’ve never heard you talk about him.’ At the time when Damian sent his letter, not all that long ago in fact, I was still living in a large, ground-floor flat in Wetherby Gardens, which was comfortable, convenient for this and that, and wonderfully placed for the takeaway culture that has overwhelmed us in the last few years. It was quite a smart address in its way and I certainly could never have afforded to buy it, but it had been relinquished to me by my parents years before, when they had finally abandoned London. My father tried to object, but my mother had rashly insisted that I needed ‘somewhere to start,’ and he’d surrendered. So I profited from their generosity and fully expected not only to start, but also to finish, there. In truth, I hadn’t changed it much since my mother’s day and it was still filled with her things. We were sitting at her small, round breakfast table in the window as we spoke, and I suppose the whole apartment could have seemed quite feminine, with its charming pieces of Regency furniture and a boy ancestor in curls over the chimneypiece, were my masculinity not reasserted by my obvious and total lack of interest in its arrangements.
At the time of the letter incident, Bridget FitzGerald was my current . . . I was going to say ‘girlfriend’ but I am not sure one has ‘girlfriends’ when one is over fifty. On the other hand, if one is too old for a ‘girlfriend,’ one is too young for a ‘companion,’ so what is the correct description? Modern parlance has stolen so many words and put them to misuse that frequently, when one looks for a suitable term, the cupboard is bare. ‘Partner,’ as everyone not in the media knows, is both tired and fraught with danger. I recently introduced a fellow director in a small company I own as my partner and it was some time before I understood the looks I was getting from various people there who thought they knew me. But ‘other half’ sounds like a line from a situation comedy about a golf club secretary, and we haven’t quite got to the point of ‘This is my mistress,’ although I dare say it’s not far off. Anyway, Bridget and I were going about together. We were a slightly unlikely pair. I, a not-very-celebrated novelist, she, a sharp Irish businesswoman specialising in property, who had missed the boat romantically and ended up with me.
My mother would not have approved, but my mother was dead and so, in theory, out of the equation, although I am not convinced we are ever beyond the influence of our parents’ disapproval, be they dead or alive. Of course, there was a chance she might have been mellowed by the afterlife, but I rather doubt it. Maybe I should have listened to her posthumous promptings, since I can’t pretend that Bridget and I had much in common. That said, she was clever and good-looking, which was more than I deserved, and I was lonely, I suppose, and tired of people ringing to see if I wanted to come over for Sunday lunch. Anyway, whatever the reason, we had found each other and, while we did not technically live together, since she kept on her own flat, we’d jogged along for a couple of years quite peaceably. It wasn’t exactly love, but it was something.
What amused me with reference to Damian’s letter was Bridget’s proprietorial tone when referring to a past of which, almost by definition, she could know little or nothing. The phrase ‘I’ve never heard you talk about him,’ can only mean that, were this fellow significant, you would have talked about him. Or, worse, you should have talked about him. This is all part of the popular fantasy that when you are involved with someone it is your right to know all about them, down to the last detail, which of course can never be. ‘We have no secrets,’ say cheerful, young faces in films, when, as we all know, our whole lives are filled with secrets, frequently kept from ourselves. Clearly, in this instance Bridget was troubled that if Damian were important to me and yet I had never mentioned him, how much else of significance had been kept concealed? In my defence I can only say that her past, too, like mine, like everyone’s in fact, was a locked box. Occasionally we allow people a peep, but generally only at the top level. The darker streams of our memories we negotiate alone.
‘He was a friend of mine at Cambridge,’ I said. ‘We met in my second year, around the time when I was doing the Season at the end of the Sixties. I introduced him to some of the girls. They took him up, and we ran about together in London for a while.’
‘Being debs’ delights.’ She spoke the phrase with a mixture of comedy and derision.
‘I am glad my early life never fails to bring a smile to your lips.’
‘So what happened?’
‘Nothing happened. We drifted apart after we left, but there’s no story. We just went in different directions.’ In saying this I was, of course, lying.
She looked at me, hearing a little more than I had intended. ‘If you do go, I assume you’ll want to go alone.’
‘Yes. I’ll go alone.’ I offered no further explanation but, to be fair to her, she didn’t ask for one.
I used to think that Damian Baxter was my invention, although such a notion only demonstrates my own inexperience. As anyone knows, the most brilliant magician in the world cannot produce a rabbit out of a hat unless there is already a rabbit in the hat, albeit well concealed, and Damian would never have enjoyed the success that I took credit for unless he had been genuinely possessed of those qualities that made his triumph possible and even inevitable. Nevertheless, I do not believe he would have made it into the social limelight as a young man, in those days anyway, without some help. And I was the one who gave it. It was perhaps for this reason that I resented his betrayal quite so bitterly. I put a good face on it, or I tried to, but it still stung. Trilby had turned traitor to Svengali, Galatea had destroyed Pygmalion’s dreams.
‘Any time on any day will be convenient,’ the letter said. ‘I do not go out now or entertain, so I am completely at your disposal. You will find me quite near Guildford. If you drive, it may take ninety minutes but the train is quicker. Let me know and I will either arrange directions or someone can meet you, whichever you prefer.’ In the end, after my fake prevarication, I wrote back suggesting dinner on such and such a day, and named the train I would catch. He confirmed this with an invitation for the night. As a rule I prefer, like Jorrocks, to ‘sleeps where I dines,’ so I accepted and the plan was settled. Accordingly, I passed through the barrier at Guildford station on a pleasant summer evening in June.
I looked about vaguely for some Eastern European holding a card with my name mis-spelled in felt tip pen but instead of this, I found myself approached by a uniformed chauffeur – or rather someone who looked like an actor playing a chauffeur in an episode of Hercule Poirot – who replaced his peaked cap after introducing himself in low and humble tones, and led the way outside to a new Bentley, parked illegally in the space reserved for the disabled. I say ‘illegally,’ even though there was a badge clearly displayed in the window, because I assume these are not distributed so that friends may be met off trains without their getting wet or having to walk too far with their luggage. But then again, everyone deserves the odd perk.
I did know that Damian had done well, though how or why I knew I cannot now remember, for we shared no pals and moved in completely different circles. I must have seen his name on a Sunday Times list or maybe in an article on a financial page. But I don’t think, before that evening, I understood quite how well he had done. We sped through the Surrey lanes and it was soon clear, from the trimmed hedging and the pointed walls, from the lawns like billiard tables and the glistening, weeded gravel, that we had entered the Kingdom of the Rich. Here there were no crumbling gate piers, no empty stables and lodges with leaking roofs. This was not a question of tradition and former glory. I was witnessing not the memory but the living presence of money.
I do have some experience of it. As a moderately successful writer, one rubs up against what Nanny would call ‘all sorts,’ but I can’t pretend this was ever really my crowd. Most of the so-called rich I know are possessed of surviving, not newborn, fortunes, the rich who used to be a good deal richer. But the houses I was passing belonged to the Now Rich, which is different, and for me there is something invigorating in their sense of immediate power. It is peculiar, but even today there is a snobbery in Britain when it comes to new money. The traditional Right might be expected to turn up their noses at it I suppose, but paradoxically, it is often the intellectual Left who advertise their disapproval of the self-made. I do not pretend to understand how this is compatible with a belief in equality of opportunity. Perhaps they do not try to synthesise them, but just live by contradictory impulses, which I suppose we all do to some degree. But if I may have been guilty of such unimaginative thinking in my youth, it is gone from me now. These days I unashamedly admire men and women who have made their pile, just as I admire anyone who looks at the future mapped out for them at birth and is not afraid to tear it up and draw a better one. The self-made have more chance than most of finding a life that truly suits. I salute them for it and I salute their bejewelled world. Of course, on a personal level it was extremely annoying that Damian Baxter should be a part of it.
The house he had chosen as a setting for his splendour was not a fallen nobleman’s palace but rather one of those self-consciously moral, Arts and Crafts, rambling warrens that seem to belong in a Disney cartoon and are no more convincing as a symbol of Olde England than they were when Lutyens built them at the turn of the last century. Surrounding it were gardens, terraced, clipped and criss-crossed with trim and tended paths, but seemingly no land beyond that. Damian had not apparently decided to ado...
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Book Description AudioGO, 2012. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M1609989368
Book Description AudioGO, 2012. Audio CD. Condition: New. Never used!. Seller Inventory # P111609989368