The tape begins: We were
born within two months of each other. Our mothers were sisters from
a good family in Scotland. They liked to do things together, always
together. Why do you think we are like this?
I am putting away my notebook,
letting the two women giggle, and I turn off the tape machine.
"Thank you Madame Armand.
Thank you, Signora. Same time tomorrow?"
"Where are you going? We
havent finished yet!"
"Weve only just started.
Tape: It was typical of our
mothers to have their children two months apart. Theyd always
been extremely competitive. My mother fell pregnant almost within
moments after her sister had miscarried.
Kristi: "If she hadnt,
I would have been the elder."
We were born in the autumn.
I am a September child; she is November.
And I loved her from the beginning.
Kristi: "Thats sweet."
Rosella: "It is, isnt
it, but dont go writing that down."
The cousins live in Barcelona, in separate but close houses on the
Barri Gòtic side of La Rambla. I asked them why they lived in a less
than salubrious part of town and not further out in the better areas.
They said they preferred to be where the life was.
They are very wealthy, but not
old; and yet something about them reminds me of things past, though
they are only in their late fifties. Still young. They sit on their
balcony, high over the other buildings, in the sun with their drinks
and their friends, while acting as if theyre waiting for something.
Every night they watch the sky darkening, imagining the sun setting
over the Mediterranean. Sometimes they are together, sometimes apart,
but always they know that the other is doing exactly the same. Sometimes
I join one or both, drink in hand, and I too watch the sky darken.
They are fun, these cousins. Once both were exquisite beauties; I
wouldnt be here if they were good old Plain Janes.
I am Matthew French, a researcher
attached to an agency in London; I find facts; I travel around the
world checking facts for people and currently my task is the cousins
story. The cousins are so similar; it is difficult to tell their voices
apart. It is almost as if they have merged into one. They dress slightly
differently: Rosella has beautiful legs and likes to show them off
with split skirts, while Kristi has thick ankles, which I glimpse
occasionally beneath her palazzo pants.
A client has sent me here. I dont
know who, or why. I am just told where to go and what to find out.
I turn on my machine, replay the
tape, and listen to their wonderfully clear voices.
Tape: What she did I would
have to do too. At first, this started in a small way. She went horse-riding;
I went horse-riding. She wanted a puppy; I wanted a puppy. When people
bought us gifts for Christmas they had to be variants of the same
thing otherwise we would have coveted each others and presumed
the other had received the better gift. Once my doll lost its eye
and so I made Kristi poke one out of hers, from which I got immense
And I was inconsolable. My
doll looked maimed.
But you did it. You made her
one-eyed and we were the same again.
We were like copies of our
mothers, and like sisters in all but relationship. We followed each
other to university; Rosella did Drama and English, I the new Psychology.
When Rosella dropped out, so did I, even though I was enjoying my
course and had plans for an academic career.
Kristi followed me to Europe.
We wandered around, hitting one place after another. We were young,
free and beautiful. On hot beaches, shed pick up my dumped boyfriends,
only to throw them away again and we would giggle at these hapless
fellows who enjoyed bedding us both. We kept notes. Mental notes.
We could tell you how a certain young man in Montpellier liked to
fuck at a window just above his fathers head, as if he was fucking
his parents and loving it.
"As fascinating as this
is," I cough, "What has it to do with my brief?"
The cousins are in good form today.
It is almost as if they have sat up all night talking to make sure
they get it just right, or to make sure that they dont forget
anyone. They sit there, wearing shades, drinking champagne, immaculately
dressed and looking beautiful for all their age. Bone structure, sucked-in
cheeks, smooth brows, crows feet and sheer shiny lipstick, and
voices deep and striking, and similar in sound. Their candour surprises
me; I must be ignorant of the freedom money brings.
"Everything is to do with
your brief. If you dont know all the facts, how can you choose
which ones are relevant? Turn on that tape recorder."
I wander La Rambla, through the
Boqueria where the smell of fruit is intoxicating, down to the Plaça
Reial where I sit with the other snoozers in the afternoon sunlight
and just watch people walking by. A man sits next to me wearing a
rough woollen jacket and smelling of beer. He folds his arms, closes
his eyes and immediately begins snoring. Everything is both frenetic
and relaxing, while the sun wilts me, like an unwatered flower. So
much life is here. Sometimes I think I catch sight of the cousins,
dancing on delicate feet in and out of shops, smiling, smiling. I
can believe that everyone in the world will walk past me promenading
in the afternoon sun.
Tape: I became a model. So
clichéd. But thats what a girl had to do. The family was horrified.
Nothing flash, nothing important. Soap adverts, tights. Very few became
stars in those days.
Rosella: "There was the Shrimp."
Kristi: "I know there was
The Shrimp. I was there."
Meanwhile Rosella was in Argentina.
On horseback. A different kind of whoring. A very different kind of
looking good. She hated it when I got a career, such as it was, so
she went out to Argentina and began breeding horses, and married a
beautiful man who died suddenly.
Rosella: "Matthew, I have
to say, you do not look good today. You are too pale and too thin.
You need us to look after you while youre here. We hate to see
a man not enjoying himself."
Rosella, the eldest, comes towards
me, walking loosely, languidly. She is tall, eyes like lemurs,
immaculately made-up, and conscious of her every movement, constantly
assessing how she will be regarded. Her voice slips easily into French
and I cant follow. German and Italian are my second and third
languages. Her accent is superb. Her cousin laughs and looks out of
They have no idea why I am here
and dont care. I think they love having someone interested in
their lives. I could have been a burglar, a con man.
Tape: Sometimes our rivalry
took on a dangerous edge. Kristi went parachuting in a publicity bid
to become an actress after I accompanied Jacques on an archaeological
dig in the Peloponnese, near sandy Pylos, where we discovered
some beautiful coins and statuettes in gold.
"You were an archaeologist?"
I ask, surprised. An intellectual side to her I had never imagined.
Tape: God forbid, no. I was
sleeping with Jacques. When the press got hold of it, it was me they
featured and she hated it.
Kristi: "Dont forget
I nearly died."
Rosella looks at her strangely.
"Oh yes," she says. "She nearly died."
Tape: I fell to the ground
so hard. Broke my back. Its still fragile. I received wonderful
publicity. And she hated it!
That night they invite me for
dinner, at Kristis house. I expect more anecdotes about their
mischievous past but nothing comes. We talk about Barcelona, the Spanish,
the Sagrada Familia, and I keep expecting them to tell me theyd
known Gaudí, Picasso, Joan Miró, or at the least Dalí, but they never
mention them. Kristis house is full of the overpowering smell
of fresh freesias. I wander through, looking at her fabulous things,
her Fabergé eggs, paintings and jewellery, while she smiles as she
"Its almost a copy
of Rosellas," I say to her.
"Do you think so? Is there
no difference? No differences between us at all?"
We eat arròs amb llagosta,
followed by sweet crêpes in an orange sauce: neither too heavy,
too fancy nor too plain. Then we drink a classy sherry, sweet on the
lips, and argue about the need for diverse experiences, the need to
experience as much of life as possible - for which you need money
- before death; they say, "Dont you think so, Matthew?
Have you experienced different sorts of things yourself? You must
see fascinating places."
I say, "I am always working."
"And you dont wish
it were otherwise?" Kristi looks at me and for a second I see
the passionate, exciting woman she must have been. I am almost dazzled.
Rosella leans forward, and says;
"I could describe to you
Kristi taps Rosella on the fingers
and whispers, "Dont, Ros, leave him be." Then she
smiles and they continue eating.
Night falls, and I excuse myself
and hurry to my hotel, glad to be alone.
I look out of the balcony at the
city in motion, scooters, couples walking casually from one bar to
another across the street, the sound of people coming home, or going
out. My room cant compete with Barcelona on a summers
night so I go out to join the noise.
Tourists are on their way up to Montjüic where the Olympics had been
held and where each Friday night they stage a dreadful display of
water fountains dancing in time to classical music. I decide to go
there instead of some bar at the end of La Rambla.
Its in full swing by the
time I arrive. People everywhere, exotic in bright colours and strange
accents. I stumble up the steps to the main fountain, which flies
upwards and outwards, spurting its water out like a displaying peacock,
but in varying pastel shades of orange and yellow. I get covered.
But it is the music that does me in: vulgar Tchaikovsky, exuberant
Rimsky-Korsakov in gaudy syncopation with the pastel lights, the spurting
water. The sound of people oohing at the lights.
I look beyond the water, into
the distance, and on the perimeter of the fountains stand many groups
of barcelonès, some looking towards the fountains as if not
really seeing anything there at all, others looking down at their
shoes. They are mainly men. I walk towards them, and watch them drift
away as if released, and unravelling like a thread. Their shoes click
on the marble steps.
The music is loud, the fountains
crass, the tourists animated. I look for authentic experience. Some
men walk quietly, stopping to mumble to companions and to others going
up the steps, before heading down to waiting cars. Others go further
into the dark, where, by the trees, two men and one woman are fucking.
I stand protected by a tree, and watch. They arent completely
naked, though I can see the womans brown legs and brown nipples;
she is lying on her back, the two men over her. One is fucking her,
his trousers halfway down; the other is licking her nipples. Her eyes
are closed and she grimaces in pain. One man comes and the other takes
From the side I hear a noise
but I am too engrossed in what I see to listen. Ive never seen
anything like this before, live pornography; and I wonder if the act
itself is pornographic or the fact that I am watching makes it so.
A man appears from the dark and
stands beside me, spouting loud Spanish, which I cant catch.
The threesome continues undisturbed. The man pulls me by the collar
away from the tree. I shout. Another man grabs my balls and squeezes
hard. The pain is excruciating; I cant even whimper.
The fountains dance to Beethovens
Fifth, and the air fills with water.
I am crying as they pull me away
from the pornography and down to a dirty corner full of condoms, matches,
and sweet wrappers, where they push my head down to the floor. I swallow
gravel and spit out cigarette butts. A foot is on my back. I pass
you even curious why Ive been sent here?"
"Oh no," Kristi says.
"We always knew someone, one day, would want to know."
"Want to know what?"
"Everything we do."
Tape: Later in life, we stop
doing daredevil things. Become quite establishment. Kristi even runs
out with a few lords and such, plays with the hunting set, and I marry
an old French banker from Nice. These people really think theyre
so wonderful because they were born with money. The born rich have
such appalling manners.
"Thats not fair. Some
of them can be quite charming."
The cousins look at each other
and smirk like a couple of schoolgirls. At the same time they both
say: "Tony Johannssen! The computer king."
"And he made millions with
ice cream. Delicious ice cream." The two women are like coquettes
from another era, eyelashes flickering, thighs wriggling, eyes squinting.
Tape: Rosella got Tony J to
cover her in ice cream and he licked it all off, of course.
It was bloody freezing, but
They had strangely ignored my
black eyes and my multi-coloured jaw and had decided to play silly
girls. I let them. The tape whirrs.
The day is so bright I am wearing
shades inside, and Kristis house smells of freesias and cherry
lemonade. I wonder if theyd run with the rock and roll crowd
in the Sixties.
"Well, not really. Rosella
once had a fling with some bass player but refuses to tell with which
"I havent finished
talking about Tony J."
Tape: Because Kristi had Tony
J, I had to get one of my own.
Even though she was married.
I mean, being covered in ice
cream isnt that risqué.
Back then it felt a little
mischievous but not sophisticated. So, I wanted to go one better.
You always did. You never ever
let me have the last word.
I stay in my hotel room that night
and lie in the bath listening to the phone ring and listening for
the street sounds. I lie for hours in my bath wrinkling. I have a
pale body, thin and bookish in attitude. Sometimes I wish I were strong,
like real men: with black moustaches and sweaty hands and deep grunts.
I find the cousins sitting
in the garden the next day. Sometimes I think, looking at the horizon,
looking at the water, I will never again return home to Reigate, which
to me is like an alien place compared to here; and Grace, my wife,
is just a shadow on the lawn.
Tape: There was a time when
Rosella used to spy on my house to find out what I was wearing to
some do, or she used to bribe Bonnie to tell her where my clothes
Do you remember that time we
arrived in the same pearl outfit because you wouldnt tell me
what you were going to wear?
And then you used to visit
Madame Marie in Le Salon to get her to put aside the best outfits
You would have done it too.
Perhaps, but the point is,
Our clothes were quite the
thing. Once we went to a party in Spetses where our clothes were the
talk of the night. Such a party. No one holds them like that anymore.
People had come from all over the globe.
Was that the night we made
Kerenza Williams take off that vile cerise dress and wear one of ours?
And she started crying? Can you believe it? An old-style society gal
like that in such floods of tears. And then you beat her later in
a swimming race. After I dropped out.
She was determined to beat
you. But she didnt and neither could you beat me, even though
And her boyfriend we saw in
the library comforting her. She was a pathetic mess, crying. I saw
him pull her skirt to one side and touch her between the legs and
she loved it.
And then later she said
that her boyfriend wasnt there at all. And we thought it strange
because wed seen him in the library in full view. And I think
he saw us too. I remember those eyes. Nordic; could even have been
a brother to Tony J. Only Tony J doesn't have a mean bone in his body.
That guy did.
Rosella, youve been watching
too many Hollywood movies.
He did. He was cold. We never
did discover who he really was. Kerenza was always getting herself
fixed up with businessmen, or married men. A married businessman,
thats all we knew.
But why did she say he wasnt
People do odd things all the
Like the time you got into
Reiki healing because I was wearing crystals.
"And now?" I ask, conscious
perhaps we were coming to the end of the narrative. Though I knew
they didnt want me to go.
Tape: Now we live quietly.
Weve seen princes with their pants down, been expensive whores
in our youth not real whores, but you understand what I mean.
Tape: Weve seen things,
done things, and now
There was nothing left for them
to do. They would become old, eccentric women, whom people would laugh
at as their wrinkles deepened, their make-up glistened falsely, their
clothes cheapened and aged them, and the hair-dye bill increased.
Once beautiful, up to date, and as fresh as butterflies, soon they
would be ragged, tawdry, like old toys. They should have died young.
Only the memories are true.
As I leave them smiling, standing
there waving back at me, I wonder if the memories are really true,
and how much of this tape was true.
I spend my last night wandering
La Rambla, the women in corners, the people chatting in the cafes
and bars: busy, vivacious and vibrant. In Reigate, all we hear are
the shouts of the teenagers on their way to London and the constant
drone of traffic.
Tomorrow, after landing at Gatwick,
and driving to my semi-detached cottage down a Reigate backstreet,
I shall walk in on Grace crying in the kitchen. And I will stumble
upstairs to unpack, and as I retrieve my guidebooks and my sun-stained
clothing, I will pull back a fabric blind that feels like parchment,
to look across the narrow street and see houses very much like mine
and know I shall probably be here the rest of my life.
The tape will be handed in, with
my notes, all the facts checked, and the person who requested the
material will use what I found or not. I will move on to the next
Eighteen months later, after many other trips to Europe, I receive
a newspaper clipping and a letter. I open the letter, absent-mindedly,
drinking coffee, looking down the long thin untended garden of lawn
and a few tattered trees. Its official. Big, fancy headed notepaper.
I wonder what on earth I have done.
I read the clipping first, a black-and-white
photo of Rosella and Kristi, taken at some regatta in France. They
are holding up a cup. Someone is spraying champagne like it is the
Monte Carlo Grand Prix. I smile wryly and wonder what trouble theyve
got into this time.
The previous year, a biography
of society hostess turned charity queen Kerenza Williams had been
published that had included something about the two, and I had recognized
my material there. It must have been her biographer who hired my agency.
The headline: Fabulous cousins
found shot dead. At first, I think Ive read the wrong headline
for the wrong picture. I continue reading: Robbery was the motive,
it says. The maid was off duty for the night, though the police
are requesting her to come forward, as she has not been seen since
the two women were shot. She is not suspected at this time, but the
police think she will be able to help them with information about
some of their former associates.
I read it again, and keep staring
at the two smiling faces. Then I recall the lawyers note, which
informs me that the two cousins had left me any item of my choosing
from either of the two houses. I am to arrange with Hedder, Jenkins
and Jackson to choose something from the houses at my convenience.
A personal message from the two women would be given to me once I
had picked my gift.
I show it to Grace.
"Were they rich?"
"I didnt know them,
why should I care? Are - were - these women rich?"
"I guess so. Jewellery, antiques,
that sort of thing."
"I bet you wouldnt
"I am a researcher."
"Sometimes, Matthew, you
wouldnt be able to research your own name, unless it was sewn
inside your socks."
I go straight from the airport
to the houses, and a man in a sports jacket and canary-yellow polo
shirt waits for me. I cant imagine this guy is from Hedder,
Jenkins and Jackson, but he shakes my hand like a Yank, says his name
is Beauchamp, junior partner, and then leads me inside.
"The house is exactly as
they left it. Youre to have first pick of whatever you want.
The letter will explain everything."
"Cant I read the letter
Beauchamp shakes his head. "Fraid
not, condition of the will and all that."
The house smells of them: freesias,
cigarettes, Chanel perfume. I am in Rosellas house, though it
matters not; they are indistinguishable. I wander round, going up
and down the marble stairs, touching this and that object. The Sèvres
china, Aubusson carpets, the Louis XIV chairs, the Chinese lamps,
the photographs, the clothes. I go to Kristis house. More freesias,
Chanel and lavender polish. Beauchamp follows me silently, as if hes
itching to get away to do something more interesting.
Should I go for something expensive
to sell, to make Grace happy to move from Reigate? Or something to
remember the cousins by? Pictures of them? Something more sentimental?
"Whats the most expensive
thing here?" Beauchamp comes forward, looks at a list.
"Both Kristi and Rosella
collected Fabergé eggs. Kristis diamonds, Rosellas emeralds.
But Im not allowed to give you exact figures. Youre to
Upstairs, I rifle through jewellery;
go into the living room, and look at the collection of photographs,
people theyd known, life theyd led: the vases, the china,
the paintings. I want to scream. I dont understand why these
women had picked me at all. Okay, lets start out with what I
dont want. The furniture, the portraits of either woman, the
photos, the carpets, the china.
Something keeps telling me to
go for the most expensive. Not the most beautiful, not something I
will want to keep. But should I take anything from these women at
all? Havent they heirs?
"What would you take?"
Beauchamp looks flustered and
surprised. "I dont know
"See? It isnt that
easy." I look at the view and think Id like to take that.
Finally, I decide. Beauchamp
looks relieved. "Heres the note. You may keep it. Sign
this. Thats your legal receipt. Now I do have to be off."
And its done. No turning
back. No more prevaricating. The road is dry and dusty. Its
lunchtime and it suddenly quietens. Even the seagulls are silent.
Im starving and very light-headed. I open the letter. The envelope
is apricot-coloured, thick, and written on in fine spidery writing.
Pale blue ink.
"Please take the note
to your hotel. And play the tape."
I sit on the balcony. I put the
tape in the machine and hesitate before I press play.
I dont want to hear their voices again. Someone is shouting
in the street in thick Catalan.
Suddenly theyre here. Both
voices, both women, laughing, filling my dull and lifeless hotel room
with exotic life.
Tape: Kristi: Matthew, we
so liked having you in our home that we thought wed leave you
something in our wills. So in the light of recent events, we hope
this is a just in case!
Do you remember that biography
of Kerenza Williams that came out last year that used your interviews
with us and mentioned that incident concerning Kerenza and her mysterious
boyfriend? The writer of the biography claims it was a certain brutish
businessman, with rather vulgar connections, whose name, even here,
we darent mention. Nothing has been the same since. Our life
has changed. We considered leaving, but Rosella refuses to be bullied.
This man is renowned for his great sense of privacy. The biographer
may even be in danger. We dont think that you are though.
Ever since then we have been
harassed, frightened and even threatened in the street. As soon as
we read the book and realized it was him we saw Kerenza with that
night, we knew something would happen. He is not a man who likes his
secrets to be revealed. Who is to say what else went on that particular
night that we know nothing about? Who knows what else he was involved
in that night? Perhaps he wasnt even meant to be in the country.
And he may feel we are witnesses to his presence. A threat to him.
It cannot be a coincidence. If only we hadnt gone, or Rosella
hadnt insisted on beating Kerenza in that race, in making her
change dresses, in following her to the library, he wouldnt
think we know more than we do. We are always trying to outdo everyone
else and look what could happen!
Rosella is wearing a siege-mentality
face. She hates to be beaten at anything.
Rosella: But importantly,
Matthew, youre to be our guinea pig! We want to test you. Whatever
you have chosen will prove one of us right.
You may go for something expensive,
as Kristi suggests; or you may pick something of sentiment, in which
case I shall have guessed right. I really believe this will happen;
you wont fall for monetary value, will you? You seemed so certain,
so right. And at last I want to be right and I want sentiment
to stand against mere possessions.
In picking one of our items
you will choose between us and ultimately one of us will have had
the last word, even though we wont be around to know it. But
you will know, Matthew, you will know. What is it to be, Matthew?
Who has won?
Back in Reigate Grace asks what happened, what did I do. I tell her
it was all only a joke. There was nothing.
Weeks later, while on assignment
in Paris, I write a letter to Grace. I tell her I am staying on, I
tell her I dont know where Ill be going next. I say move
on. I tell her I have left her some money.
With me, throughout all the places
I go, all the sights I see, I keep the newspaper clipping of the two
cousins, its black-and-white photo fading and so yellowed that Kristi
looks even more serene, and Rosella's once imperious smile seems now
distorted into a dark, reproachful stare.