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issue 23: March - April 2001 

 | author bio

Jai Clare



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 haven’t finished yet!"
      "We’ve only just started. Resume recording."

      Tape: It was typical of our mothers to have their children two months apart. They’d always been extremely competitive. My mother fell pregnant almost within moments after her sister had miscarried.
      Kristi: "If she hadn’t, 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: "That’s sweet."
      Rosella: "It is, isn’t it, but don’t 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 they’re 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 wouldn’t 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 don’t 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 other’s 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 satisfaction.
      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, she’d 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 father’s 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 don’t 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, crow’s 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 don’t 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 that’s 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 you’re 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 can’t follow. German and Italian are my second and third languages. Her accent is superb. Her cousin laughs and looks out of the window.
      They have no idea why I am here and don’t 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: "Don’t 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. It’s still fragile. I received wonderful publicity. And she hated it!
       That night they invite me for dinner, at Kristi’s 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 they’d known Gaudí, Picasso, Joan Miró, or at the least Dalí, but they never mention them. Kristi’s 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 watches.
      "It’s almost a copy of Rosella’s," 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, "Don’t 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 don’t 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, "Don’t, 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 can’t compete with Barcelona on a summer’s 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.
      It‘s 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 aren’t completely naked, though I can see the woman’s 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 over.
       From the side I hear a noise but I am too engrossed in what I see to listen. I’ve 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 can’t 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 can’t even whimper.
      The fountains dance to Beethoven’s 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 out.


      "Aren’t you even curious why I’ve 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 they’re so wonderful because they were born with money. The born rich have such appalling manners.
      "That’s 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 worth it.
       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 Kristi’s house smells of freesias and cherry lemonade. I wonder if they’d 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 band."
      "I haven’t 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 isn’t 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 came from.
      Do you remember that time we arrived in the same pearl outfit because you wouldn’t 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 for yourself.
      You would have done it too.
      Perhaps, but the point is, I didn’t.
       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 didn’t and neither could you beat me, even though you’re younger!
      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 wasn’t there at all. And we thought it strange because we’d 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, you’ve 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, that’s all we knew.
      But why did she say he wasn’t there?
      Strange business.
      People do odd things all the time.
      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 didn’t want me to go.
      Tape: Now we live quietly. We’ve seen princes with their pants down, been expensive whores in our youth – not real whores, but you understand what I mean.
      Tape: We’ve 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 job.
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. It’s 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 they’ve 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 I’ve 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 lawyer’s 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 didn’t know them, why should I care? Are - were - these women rich?"
      "I guess so. Jewellery, antiques, that sort of thing."
      "I bet you wouldn’t know."
      "I am a researcher."
      "Sometimes, Matthew, you wouldn’t 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 can’t 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. You’re to have first pick of whatever you want. The letter will explain everything."
      "Can’t I read the letter first?"
      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 Rosella’s 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 Kristi’s house. More freesias, Chanel and lavender polish. Beauchamp follows me silently, as if he’s 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?
      "What’s the most expensive thing here?" Beauchamp comes forward, looks at a list.
      "Both Kristi and Rosella collected Fabergé eggs. Kristi’s diamonds, Rosella’s emeralds. But I’m not allowed to give you exact figures. You’re to pick."
      Upstairs, I rifle through jewellery; go into the living room, and look at the collection of photographs, people they’d known, life they’d led: the vases, the china, the paintings. I want to scream. I don’t understand why these women had picked me at all. Okay, let’s start out with what I don’t 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? Haven’t they heirs?
      "What would you take?"
      Beauchamp looks flustered and surprised. "I don’t know… I..."
      "See? It isn’t that easy." I look at the view and think I’d like to take that.
       Finally, I decide. Beauchamp looks relieved. "Here’s the note. You may keep it. Sign this. That’s your legal receipt. Now I do have to be off."
      And it’s done. No turning back. No more prevaricating. The road is dry and dusty. It’s lunchtime and it suddenly quietens. Even the seagulls are silent. I’m 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 don’t want to hear their voices again. Someone is shouting in the street in thick Catalan.
      Suddenly they’re 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 we’d 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 daren’t 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 don’t 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 wasn’t 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 hadn’t gone, or Rosella hadn’t insisted on beating Kerenza in that race, in making her change dresses, in following her to the library, he wouldn’t 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, you’re 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 won’t 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 won’t 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 don’t know where I’ll 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.

© 2001 Jai Clare

This story may not be archived or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.

author bio

Jai Clare lives on the edge of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, England. Her fiction has appeared in, amongst others, Winedark Sea and Zoetrope All-Story EXTRA, where she was also Guest Editor for the December/January issue. Her novel The Storyhouse is finally just going out, while she concentrates on her new novel, whose title is so exciting that she will not reveal it in public.

e-mail: Jai@hexworthy.freeserve.co.uk

navigation:    barcelona review 23           March - April 2001

Alasdair Gray: Big Pockets with Buttoned Flaps
Thomas Glave: Whose Song?
Mark Anthony Jarman: Cougar
Ryland Greene: The Compatibility Factor
Jai Clare: Ramblista

picks from back issues:
Matt Marinovich: Slide Show *new Flash version
Robert Antoni: How Iguana Got Her Wrinkles

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