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The San Belvedere Incidents

 

The San Belvedere Incidents

Published by Joanne Surridge at Shakespir

Copyright 2016 Joanne Surridge

The San Belvedere Incidents

 

 

The house had flickered from videos of old MovieTone newsreels into my adolescent imagination, and as I approached it my heartbeat pulsated in my head. I met the quickening rhythm with my steps.

My real life as a child had been a baffling and chaotic whirlwind, a gore fest of a family with horrors and shocks piling one on top of the other; my obsession with Hollywood and its legends had saved me with geeky references to obscure movies, and quests for out of print books about forgotten stars.

San Belvedere; the iconic Tinseltown mansion. A tower looming above a princess castle, the evening sun casting a deep silver glow across the grey brickwork. When I rang the bell, I was half expecting a deep movie clang. In fact, I hadn’t noticed a modern intercom and it was a minute or two before I realised that the bell pull was just for show.

‘Miss Kiesler? Please push the gate and come up,’ the crackly voice was female, but not old. Not the object of my desire, but Esme Lansom was 100 years old and, of course, would not answer her own door.

Visiting the most glamorous environment I could conceive had sent me into a depression about my own dumpy shortcomings. I had teamed an old black pants suit that nearly fitted me with a pale blue silky shirt and flat pumps. My hair, usually in unruly blonde curls, was tamed into a ponytail – the chignon had fallen out before I left the house.

The wide wooden door was in deep shadow; the violet light thrown down by the high stone portico made palpable by the overgrown foliage that flicked its spiky tendrils like greedy alien flowers towards me. The door opened slowly, a real Hitchcock style creaking door, and my heart nearly stopped in my chest.

She stepped forward and smiled at me – a huge, sparkling film star smile. She looked very like Esme, and I assumed she was the mysterious relative who had been with her for many years. The skin of her round face was smooth, her lips ruby red and her dark hair was in a modern bob. Heavily made up eyes were the only jarring note in the perfect features. They seemed clouded with phantoms the rest of her had managed to shrug away.

‘Miss Kiesler! May I call you Helen? That would be marvellous. We have so few callers – très charmant to have you visit us today,’ she said. Her voice was a drawl, with a light accent that seemed to mix Britishness with a genteel southern lady. I felt as if I had walked into the wedding party in ‘The Philadelphia Story’, greeted by a caricature designed to meet my expectations.

‘Thank you, I very much appreciate the opportunity,’ I said. The house seemed to have stripped me of my modern speech; I sounded if I was in a 1930’s melodrama, and I nearly curtseyed.

‘Come in, please. May I fetch you some refreshment?’

‘How kind,’ I said. I willed myself to speak in my own voice. ‘I mean great. I’ll take a soda, diet if you have it.’

She indicated for me to go through the hallway towards a set of huge ivory doors. Tall and elegant, decorated in intricate gold and silver panels that reached from top to bottom, they formed the backdrop for the infamous set of photographs that had brought me here. I stared at them and she stopped. She seemed to hover just behind me.

‘Of course, you recognise the doors,’ she said. ‘And you recognise the room and everything else, don’t you?’

In the half light of the dusty hall I imagined I saw a blank and malevolent glare on her face that reminded me of Mrs Danvers when the innocent ‘I’ unwittingly enters the home that will nearly be her undoing. As I looked again, it had gone. She glided past me, her finger pressed to her lips, and stopped at the door to another room. A brief glimpse of a wheelchair, and a huddled figure made my breathing quicken. She pulled the door closed and turned to face me, her face pleasant and smiling. I followed her through the ornate doors.

The photographs that obsessed me were of Esme, when she was the brightest star in the studio firmament, gathering her friends for her annual winter party.

In each picture, a different dark haired vibrant young woman stood on the fringes of the group. I knew their individual stories – ambitious, driven, abused, talented, lucky. They had each been whirled up into Esme’s crowd, a rush of attention and a glimpse of the life they might have sending them dizzy with joy.

Every one of them had disappeared forever after attending one of the parties

I sat down, inhaling everything. I had pestered, begged, flattered and cajoled by letter and email to achieve this moment.

My escort indicated I should wait, and disappeared. I looked through my folder, although I knew it by heart. Every detail of Esme’s long life, from glamorous starlet shots to grainy long lens pictures of the figure in the wheelchair from the last few years. The publicity had tailed off when she retired from view, a few snippets of information surfacing when there were noteworthy anniversaries. Her eightieth birthday had seen a significant retrospective, an interview with a nurse providing some substance to the shadowy figure. This meeting was the culmination of my research; the shiny bauble that signified the closing chapter of my book was twinkling in front of me.

My hostess reappeared, with a silver tray and beautiful cut glass tumblers, and settled herself across the table from me.

‘Well, you have been persistent, Helen,’ she said, her laugh as light and sharp as crystal bells. I laughed too, but mine was a braying noise, breaking into the elegance like a fart cushion. She seemed to wince, and I slumped into an awkward silence.

‘Now you’re here, I suppose you want to know more about our star?’ she said.

‘Yes, of course, I’m honoured to be allowed to come here and ask the questions the world has been waiting to hear the answers to for so many years,’ I said, perking up and patting the folder. We sat in silence as she poured the soda and handed me the glass.

‘Is Miss Lansom going to see me?’ I asked, and she inclined her head in a ‘maybe’ gesture.

‘I just want to spend some time with you,’ she said, settling back into the chair. ‘I know you want to talk about the …’ she frowned, the disturbance in her face minimal, ‘…incidents.

‘But I wondered if you were at all aware of Miss Lansom’s work during the war?’

I nodded, keen to redeem myself. ‘Oh yes, of course. She is an icon among a growing number of young feminists for the work she did. I don’t understand the science, but I know it was extremely important in the field of cellular regeneration in injured service personnel.’

She clapped her hands, and said ‘Bravo, Helen. I had rather thought you were a one trick pony with your obsession about those unfortunate girls and their fate. But, there is hope for you yet.

‘Come,’ she said, holding out her hand to me. ‘I think you have earned the right to know more. You have been, shall we say, dogged. All those letters. My goodness, you certainly have a very determined streak.’

I took her hand and she tucked me into the crook of her elbow. I drew close to her body and the deep fragrance of delicious roses and opulent gardenias from her perfume enveloped me as we wandered into the orangery. Another note, an odour of decline and decay drifted from somewhere – I looked around for a manure heap or a dead animal but there was nothing to spoil the surroundings. The suggestion of something tainted stayed with us as we set off on a path that led us beyond the house. Past the swimming pool shaped like a shell, past the pool house and the rose garden. I was drifting through my obsession, seeing in glorious technicolour the places I had roamed through in books and dreams. We came to a halt at an ugly concrete bunker.

‘This isn’t in any of the plans I’ve seen,’ I said, looking at her. This unknown quantity disturbed me; I had felt a buzz of satisfaction, as the familiar things and places I was sure of unfolded just as I knew they would. Now, I felt betrayed, my passionate recollection exposed as the sham it was.

‘Well, we all have our secrets, Helen,’ she said, pulling a key from around her neck and unlocking the small metal door. With a firm grip on my hand she dragged me in and along the low ceilinged tunnel. The walls were shiny and dark; pipes that ran along the walls just above our heads seemed to roar with clangs and drips into the shadows that had flown down upon me. Tiny bare bulbs hissing in cages chased away the phantoms I imagined. The vague odour now filled my nose and mouth.

We entered another room, bright and white. The only sound came from lavender liquid that fizzed and sparkled as it passed through a series of chemical tubes and bowls to dispense at the end a tiny, glowing amethyst drop.

‘Now, I know this is going to be difficult, dear, but I just couldn’t let you carry on with your plans,’ she said, patting my arm. She drew back a diaphanous curtain to reveal a series of tall tubes filled with bubbling liquid.

I moved to the nearest one, and through the pearly fluid came face to face with a girl, her dark hair floating over her shoulders. Her curls flared as the eddies twirled her like a ballerina in a music box.

She blinked, and I screamed.

I flew backwards and landed on the floor; from there I took in the whole scene.

A set of silver tubes snaked away from the head of each girl, gathering together at the top of her canister. Their short length then passed through a chrome plated box before reappearing as a single thin strand. These then coiled together, eventually joining to dispense a steady stream of liquid into the chemical array. It was a mad scientist’s lab designed by Busby Berkeley.

‘This is Lucille, I think you know about her,’ she said, stroking the tube.

I approached the swirling mermaids in the other tubes.

‘The girls? I asked. ‘I’ve spent years tracking down their families. Looking at fan letters to find someone who would kill them as a proxy…’ I turned around to face her.

‘…for you, Esme,’ I said.

‘Yes, dear,’ she said, ‘They all had to look like me, so that my regeneration experiments would not be obvious.’ She framed her face with her hands. ‘Ta da! Isn’t it marvellous?

‘After a few years, even I couldn’t explain my fantastic youthfulness away so I had to retire. The wheelchair figure – inspired, don’t you think? My performance as ‘nurse’ was one of my finest, I believe.

‘My work continued, but now the poor girls have become exhausted. I need more…subjects. I did think I would be able to use you, but obviously, you are not…’ she looked embarrassed, but I shrugged to acknowledge that I didn’t mind the characterisation.

‘I’m not anywhere close to being suitable,’ I said, ‘But perhaps I can be of service in some other way?’

She smiled, and took my hand, ‘Oh, Helen, would you?’ she said.

I saw the face that had fuelled my obsession and I knew I would stay with her to do whatever she asked me.

 

 

 

 

Acknowledgements

Cover image used as image no longer covered by copyright

 


The San Belvedere Incidents

The iconic movie mansion sits in the midst of modern Tinseltown - what secrets can an obsessed fan discover after she is invited into the reclusive world of the last great movie star? Helen Kiesler is obsessed with the mystery disappearances of movie starlets, and equally obsessed with the 100 year old Esme Lansom. Her invitation into old Hollywood is beyond her dreams, but what nightmares await her?

  • ISBN: 9781370220052
  • Author: Joanne Surridge
  • Published: 2016-11-11 12:05:08
  • Words: 2003
The San Belvedere Incidents The San Belvedere Incidents