The Set-Up

Part two of The Last McCulloch

We left later that day. It was quite a long journey, but hardly seemed so after our trip from London. Amelia knew exactly where to go. It was a tall house in a Regency terrace, with certainly not the smallest sign of being a commercial premises.

Inside, the floors were deeply carpeted and everything was impeccable. One could sense the feeling of a place that was not a private home in the air, as it were, but there were certainly none of the trappings of commerce to tell one in any explicit way. We were announced by a girl in maid’s uniform and greeted by the mistress of the establishment. I was faintly surprised to find that Amelia did not already know her. It must have been the first establishment we had visited where she was not well known. I suppose she never had occasion to buy clothes in Edinburgh, although she knew where to come if she did.

There was an elaborate procedure of measuring me, and then Amelia asked me to retire to the other side of the room.

“I wish to discuss your dress,” said Amelia, “I have an idea of exactly what will be right for you.”

After that we visited some of the Edinburgh shops. I was fitted for a corset, which, Amelia assured me, was de rigeur with a crinoline. We talked a great deal about clothes, and I began to gather that there was quite a lot to be understood about the way Amelia and her friends dressed. It was not just a sporadic copying of certain styles from the past. Rather, there were quite definite fashions based largely on past styles, and the degree of personal interpretation varied with the formality of the occasion. From the way Amelia was talking, I began to feel that she was gently hinting to me about how I might bring my own dress in line with “the best sort of style”, as she called it. She even dropped some hints about some of the better London dressmakers.

“Don’t you go bobbing your hair like young Miss Duncan,”  she said suddenly and for no apparent reason.

“Whatever made you say that ?” I asked.

“Nothing,” said Amelia. “But it’s best to say it when one thinks of it. I mean, once you’ve cut it off, you can’t put it back on again, can you ?”

“Do you not think it would suit me ?” I asked.

“I think you would look lovely,” said Amelia, “but a bob is saying something about yourself, which, in your case, would not be true.”

“Whatever do you mean ?” I asked, but Amelia would say no more.

Really, I no longer mind her being enigmatic. It is all part of her charm, and, in any case, I had fallen into a sort of enchantment at the thought of my crinoline.

After a tiring but exciting day we dined at the North British Hotel, and while we were taking our aperitifs, I recognized somebody at the bar. It was the lady from that last party in London. The one with the unfixed views. I was about to suggest diving for cover, but it was too late, she was already making her way towards us.

“Amelia,” she called, “ are yeeouo up for the Fringe?”

“No,” replied Amelia warmly, “but I heard there was a rerun of Annie in town.”

Annie ? ” said the girl blankly.

“Yes,” said Amelia, “some people say it is the most significant film of the decade.”

“Reallay ?”

“Yes, though I am not sure I would go so far myself. In any case, it is an almost perfect example of the post-pretentious neo-joie-de-vivre school.”

“I never realized that. I must try to see it. But I really came up particularly ti see the nyeew play by Martin Groggle, and the McCulloch exhibition, of cawce. You must have seen that. Between yeeou and me, I had some haypes of acquiring something by McCulloch for Mike, but you can’t get anything of his for love or money naowadays, of cawce, since he disappeared. The last one sold went for fifty thousand, but there’s been nothing on the market since then.”

“Listen,” said Amelia, “can you keep a secret ?”

“Of cawce,” said the girl.

“Well,” said Amelia, “ I know somebody who knows where Fife McCulloch is—or where he used to be, anyway, if he hasn’t moved on again.”

“Reallay, where ? ”

“I don’t know exactly where, but not far from Edinburgh. Nothing especially unusual has happened to him. He has simply gone to ground. He is tired of publicity, and what he calls the bourgeois press. He was working on one last piece, and after that intends to give up sculpture altogether.”

“Reallay ! The things you know, Amelia !”

“Oh, I keep my ear to the ground. But it is strictly confidential, remember.”

“Do yeeou think there is the smallest chance of arranging for me to meet him ?”

“I shouldn’t think so,” said Amelia. “I haven’t even met him myself. The last people he wants to see are people who are interested in his art. He is bitterly disappointed that ‘the people’ have taken no interest in it, and that it is only appreciated by bourgeois intellectuals like—— ”

“Like us !” finished the girl, who never missed an opportunity for this strange mixture of self-castigation and self-congratulation.

“Quite so,” said Amelia, and I smiled inwardly at the way she plays along with such nonsense, knowing that she is anything but bourgeois, and far too intelligent to be an intellectual.

“She must be frightfully rich,” I said, when we were alone. “Is Mike her husband ?”

“No, in both cases,” replied Amelia. “Mike is her employer. She has some exalted position in the Art ’n’ Culture Bureau of the London County Council, or whatever they call it these days. He practically runs it. The money she is proposing to spend belongs to you and me and the rest of the poor old people of London who take so reprehensibly little interest in McCulloch’s work.”

“And who is this McCulloch ? ”

“Well, as I said, I have never actually met him myself, but from what I hear he is a loud, opinionated neurotic who throws together bits of junk and thinks himself a sculptor. He had the right contacts to make other people think he was a sculptor, too, until he went completely off his chump. Not that that would have done any harm in itself. The loonier the artist, the Artier the Art, what? But as we said, he disappeared.”

That little incident passed completely from my mind. The next few days were dominated by the coming dance. I cannot remember having been so excited about anything since I was a child. Miss Barratt helped me to carry myself off without too much awkwardness in a waltz. We went through the motions of the Gay Gordons and Sir Roger de Coverley, but most of all, my mind was dominated by the thought of my crinoline. A few months ago, I should have thought the whole thing quite preposterous, but by now I realized that cynicism was not good form at all in this sort of company. Extraordinary, when you come to think of it, how one’s emotions are dictated by fashion. The old cynical reaction I should have had before was really only part of me because that is what modern people expect of you. I was glad to be rid of it, though. It was so long since that magical sparkle had surrounded anything in my life the way it was now surrounding the dance, the crinoline, and everything connected with them.

I said that our encounter with Jilly Burbidge (for that was her name) had quite gone out of my head, but that cannot be entirely true. For Amelia had a telephone call from her every day—some days two or three—pestering about a meeting with Fife McCulloch. In the end she relented, but only on the condition that, should any sale be made, Jilly would make no attempt to negotiate direct with McCulloch, but would allow Amelia to make the purchase and re-sell it to her Department. Jilly was not altogether happy about the arrangement, but since it was clear that there was no other way, she agreed.

“Good,” said Amelia. “I have arranged to introduce Miss Burbidge and Mr. McCulloch in the Hotel at eleven o’clock, So we should be able to get the boring business out of the way by lunchtime, wash it away with a decent wine and collect your frock.”

“But can you really persuade the reclusive McCulloch to meet us?” I asked.

“I should think so,” said Amelia. “After all, there aren’t all that many customers with the whole of London’s pocket money to spend.”

It was the very day of the dance when we drove up to Edinburgh. We called into the Hotel a little before ten-thirty. Amelia pointed out a scruffy-looking fellow in one corner of the Lounge. He wore an old donkey-jacket, had tousled red hair, and his face was covered by an enormous quantity of bushy red beard.

“That’s McCulloch, “  said Amelia. “He has grown even shaggier than in his old photographs.” I could well believe it. His face seemed no more than a pair of irate blue eyes staring pugnaciously out from a mass of violent red foliage.

“I arranged our meeting with McCulloch for ten-thirty,” explained Amelia, “as I want a private word with him.”

“Ah, Mr. McCulloch,” she cried, “I am Amelia Bingham.”

“Aye,” said a gruff, ungracious Scots voice, as if she had just confessed to being Jack the Ripper and he had known it all along.

“Will you have a drink ? ”

“Aye.”

“What will you have ? ”

“Pint o’ bitter.”

“Pash, fetch the man a pint of bitter, would you, and something for ourselves.”

When I returned, they were engaged in heated discussion.

“I dinnae see why I cannae deal with your d—d buyers mysel’,” shouted McCulloch.

“Be reasonable,” replied Amelia, “what would there be in that for me?”

“D—d entrepreneur,” expostulated McCulloch.

“Well, that is the arrangement, do you accept it or not?”

“I suppose I have to.”

“Quite. You will never meet the buyer, so you must go through me.”

Jilly Burbidge arrived soon after this and seemed thrilled to meet the great man, but all through the conversation I was quite on the edge of my seat. Jilly thought McCulloch was dealing through Amelia of his own free will and McCulloch did not know that Jilly was the buyer. He thought her merely some scatterbrained, arty friend of Amelia’s. But if either had caught a hint of what was going on, the whole deal might have been ruined. Amelia, however, steered the conversation so deftly that all danger was avoided, helped to a great degree in her work by Jilly’s silliness and McCulloch’s morose taciturnity.

We arranged to see McCulloch’s crowning masterpiece the very next day.

As Amelia had said, a good lunch, good conversation and good wine soon washed away the distastefulness of that interview, and I felt quite ready to see my frock. I must say that those preparations were hardly necessary, for as soon as I did see it, everything else was swept from my mind. It was beautiful. In delicate shades of pink and blue, it looked like something from a fairy tale. The bodice fitted my form exactly (I was glad of the corset), and the skirt swelled out from my tightened waist with regal magnificence. It made me feel infinitely tall, yet infinitely delicate. I was filled at once with the most fragile femininity and the most imperious majesty, and felt that the two were one. I suppose there must be other things than crinolines which give one such a feeling, but certainly none of them exist in the modern world. It seemed to me strange that in an age which yearns so greedily for every possible sensation, the majority of women will never experience the sensation of wearing a crinoline.

But then again, perhaps the sensation would not exist for them. Over-stimulated by the crude and massive sensual assaults of modern music and the modern mass-media, perhaps most modern people would find their senses too dulled for such exquisite sensations as these. I am lucky enough to have been blessed with an unusually sensitive nature, and the last week, in many ways the last few months, have, I now realise, been gently raising me to a new kind of sensitivity : the sensitivity so richly valued by Amelia and Miss Findlay. Much of what Miss Findlay had said about Miss Duncan now somehow struck me with greater force. How, if one wishes to savour the true perfume of life, one must weed and tend the garden of one’s soul, and how, if one grasps greedily and clumsily for sensation, one’s hands close upon dust and ashes.

When we arrived home, Amelia insisted that I retire to bed immediately in order to rest myself for the dance.

Continue to Part 3: Trixilee


More from Enter Amelia Bingham:
News Travels Fast in the Jungle
The Sorceress’s Apprentice

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