A case of pre fundraiser tension

Boston, 30 January 2001

It’s the night before the fundraiser and, entirely understandably, both Imaad and I are tense. There is a lot riding on this – not just our reputations but the boons that we now all owe to too many people. It’s also our entry, of sorts, into Boston Kindred society and we are all too conscious that there are many people we don’t want to let down; not just ourselves but we don’t want to cause embarrassment to any of the people who have supported us, in my case Johannes most of all. We feed early in the evening, and then spend the rest of it sparring with each other, it’s good to practice my sword skills with someone other than Johannes although like he does, I think Imaad is pulling his blows. I think – and hope – I am learning though.

We retire to bed relatively early and then it is time for sword practice of another sort, I smile when remembering Johannes’ comment about using a different grip. As I drift off to sleep, I am thinking of tomorrow and hoping it all goes well, and am also reminded of the last time I attended a fundraiser, and how different things are. Tonight, I lie in my house as a member of the Kindred, next to a man who is also Kindred, with whom I have fed on human blood and who I have kissed with fangs bared (carefully of course), but despite what we are – vampires – there is more tenderness and passion there by far than there was with the man with whom I attended that previous fundraiser. I’ll take the existence I have now gladly, thanks very much – but I can’t help remembering.

Ten months earlier

‘Eleanor, are you going to come downstairs? I want to have a word with you before Donovan arrives.’ I roll my eyes as I rummage through the bookshelves in my old room looking for a novel I particularly wanted to read, but I’m having trouble finding. My mother’s voice is as ever shrill and pejorative and I can tell instantly that I’m not going to like whatever she has to say to me. Marijke Van den Berg tends to have that effect on people, whether one is related to her or not.

As I walk down the central staircase of the family home – the grand residence in Boston in which I grew up – I’m struck, as I often am, by the portraits that line the stairwell, starting from the family’s founder in the US when they first came over from Holland in the late 1600s and leading right up to the portrait of my father, Willem Van den Berg (the third of that name), painted five years ago. There’s a set style to the paintings, they are all formal, the men’s backs ramrod straight and they look straight out of the painting, most of them looking disdainful or as though they have a pole rammed somewhere painful; they are also all painted with their subjects sitting in shadows, conveying a distinct impression of gloom. The exception to the general rule, and the picture which always strikes me, is the picture of Johannes, a younger son who fought in the 1812 war with some distinction but was otherwise considered the family black sheep.

He is looking out of the painting like the others, but unlike them his expression is devilish amusement, as though he is trying not to laugh; he is also, to be blunt, extremely attractive, as well as dissolute looking, the full glass of red wine he is holding in the picture adding to that impression. Indeed about the only thing that the picture really has in common with the others is the shadowy background, and the shadows seem somehow to be reflected in his eyes, which only adds to the debauched impression. I tried to do some digging into him a few years ago, as there is an interesting family legend about him, but was told in no uncertain terms not to pursue it – utterly ridiculous, why my parents would still care about what someone who died nearly 200 years ago may or may not have got up to, defeats me. I realise I’ve stopped to stare at the painting, and sigh inwardly going downstairs to where my mother is waiting for me in the drawing room.

‘You took your time.’ She says, looking me up and down. ‘Sit down. Are you really going to wear that dress to the fundraiser tonight?’ I sigh inwardly; I’d known that was probably coming but have got to the stage I’m no longer sure I care. ‘What’s wrong with it?’ I counter. It’s a nice dress; it’s black, with a top layer of lace overlaying an under layer of black satin, with a slash neck and elbow length sleeves. The skirt isn’t short, being just above the knee; entirely appropriate for the occasion. My mother looks at me with gimlet eyes, her pale blonde hair is as ever swept into a bun at the back of her head, not a hair out of place, not a line on her face either thanks to yet another facelift. ‘Do you really think you are still young enough to get away with black lace, Eleanor?’ This is ridiculous, I am a respected scholar and lecturer at Harvard and my mother still has the ability to make me feel like a small child with whom she is cross. ‘Of course I am. I saw Hillary Clinton wearing something similar on the TV recently.’ As I had known it would, this makes her purse her lips, the family is of course staunch Republicans. And then she goes for the jugular. ‘The make-up is too heavy as well – frankly, you look as though you are auditioning for an episode of the Addams Family. I’m not sure Donovan will like it either, though I suppose there is no time for you to change.’

She pauses. ‘Exactly when are you and he going to take it to the next level? You are far too focused on your career, Eleanor, and I’m worried you have left it too late to tie him down. He won’t wait around for ever for you while you carry on doing your research, I am sure there are lots of nice girls who would give their eye teeth to have him on their arms. You’re 36 in two months, Eleanor, you don’t have time to wait around. If I were you I’d try and extract a proposal from him, then give up that lecturing of yours and get on with making a home with him.’ She pauses then adds the coup de grace. ‘You might want to consider cosmetic surgery too, you’re starting to look your age.’ I’m almost incandescent with anger, but as ever, I follow family protocol and try not to show it.

‘For what it’s worth, Mother, Donovan has shown no indication that he wants to take anything to the next level. The ball is in his court on that one and if he doesn’t want to push it then I am not going to make him. And you know how important my career is to me.’ I’m not going to tell her any of the rest of it – that a night spent researching is on the whole far more exciting than a night spent with Donovan, that the physical side of it is completely uninspiring, that although we have plenty in common on the surface we don’t seem to connect on any deeper level even after two years together. That I’m pretty sure there must be something more exciting out there. That I’m really rather bored with the relationship, and that when a physics tutor at Harvard recently made it very obvious that he was interested in me I was actually tempted. ‘Please, just let us work this out in our own way.’

She nods, but her lips are pursed again, though she changes the subject. ‘Will the two of you be over tomorrow for Sunday lunch? Conrad, Emily and the children will be over, he mentioned that he hadn’t seen you for some time.’ I grit my teeth, Sunday lunch en famille with my irritating, arrogant younger brother – a highly successful hedge fund manager and the apple of our parents’ eye – and his pretty but insipid wife and two horribly spoilt small children, is not how I want to spend one of my precious days off, and in any event I have to work. ‘I don’t know – I have some lecture preparation to do that will take some time. I’ll let you know if we can make it.’ At that point I’m saved by the bell – literally – as Donovan arrives. ‘Don’t forget what I said.’ She adds as a parting shot. It’s all I can do to maintain even a semblance of composure but by some miracle I manage it.

Did any of my family ever know how to have fun? I wonder as I dutifully take Donovan’s arm and walk out to the car. There was at least one that did, I think, remembering the painting of Johannes; if only some of the joie de vivre in that painting had passed down through the generations. I know that the evening is going to be trying when Donovan says to me as we get into the car ‘I’m not keen on the dress. You should have worn the cream Dior one I like. Too late now, though.’

The evening doesn’t get any better when we arrive at the Grand Hotel . Tonight’s event is a fundraiser dinner for a local charity for the relief of poverty, specifically within the Native American population; it’s the sort of thing that it seems to have become fashionable for the Boston Brahmin set to support, or to be more accurate to be seen to support, to give the impression of being multicultural and ‘right on’ when the majority of them are anything but, though personally I couldn’t care less what colour someone’s skin, hair or eyes are, we are all people. We leave our coats in the cloakroom and walk through into the ballroom; I take the opportunity to have a good long look at Donovan. In his tuxedo, he’s a tall, blond, reasonably handsome, clean-cut all-American boy, he looks every bit the university second string quarterback he once was. Mother is right, a lot of girls would be proud to have him on their arm – so why am I secretly so bored? I make myself plaster on my best smile, take his arm and step into the room.

The seating plan is, as ever, a selection of the great and the good of Boston. Donovan is obviously on my left, and predictably he is seated next to and opposite what I would describe as two Boston Brahmin bimbettes, if there is such a thing. Two women in their early twenties, who no doubt have degrees from Yale (neither of them have graced any of my classes) but who clearly don’t regard academics as the key reason to do that, at least by the way that they bat their eyelashes. On my right there is a crusty old academic who I at least recognise, he had written some interesting works on the Native Americans and I engage him in conversation quite animatedly until I realise he is rather drunk. At that point, I look around the room and see quite clearly how the whole thing looks, an entire social circle of Boston flirting, drinking and politicking against the background of raising money for a cause about which the vast majority of them do not care one jot. It’s all rather distasteful and I excuse myself for a few minutes to go to the restrooms. On seeing my reflection in the mirror, I really don’t understand either what my mother is talking about regarding my appearance; if anything black rather suits me whereas the cream dress Donovan would have preferred I wear just makes me look washed out. I return to my seat, gritting my teeth; one more course and a charity auction and it will be over and we can return to my house for another night of perfunctory sex, at least there will hopefully be a good night’s sleep at the end of it.

On returning to my seat however I notice that the seats have been swapped around. I am where I was before, but Donovan is now several seats down and next to me is a quite handsome (though stern looking) Native American man who introduces himself as John Mankiller. He is tall, I would guess about my age, with red-brown skin and long black hair tied back in a ponytail and introduces himself with a wry smile that is more of a grimace. We spark up a conversation and it is clear he is finding this excruciating; whilst it raises money for a cause in which he has an interest he is quite obviously aware of the attitudes of many here and doesn’t like it one bit. For once, I don’t hold back either and as I talk to him am aware that someone is trying to refill my wine glass; I must have had at least three glasses already.

Instinctively I prepare to move my hand over my glass to prevent the waiter refilling it; Donovan doesn’t like me drinking too much. The bizarre thing is that as I do that I have a mental picture of the painting of Johannes flash into my head, and I remember that no-one in my family – at least no-one these days – seems to know how to have fun; I decide to throw caution to the wind and have another drink, though this will be my last, I need to work tomorrow after all. I carry on talking to Mankiller, who is interesting company, he heads up the archaeology department at one of the major museums and we commence an animated discussion about areas in which our research may have crossed over. In fact he is such interesting company that the charity auction more or less passes me by and before too long I see a tight-lipped Donovan holding his arm out for mine to escort me to his waiting car. I tell John Mankiller that I was pleased to make his acquaintance and then meekly follow Donovan out to the car park. He ushers me into the front seat and we make our way back to my house in silence.

I don’t have to wait long for the explosion. Apparently, I’m drunk (I may have had more than usual, but I’m not). Apparently, I was flirting with Mankiller. (I’m not good at flirting, but I wasn’t). Apparently, my dress was not appropriate (How? Charlize Theron was there, wearing a dress that was basically the same dress only shorter). Apparently, no-one else’s girlfriends still pursue their careers at our age ‘doggedly to the exclusion of all else.’ I can’t even be bothered to argue but instead nod tiredly and agree, so much of our social life is bound up together that any decision is far more wide ranging than what we might feel about each other. I let him rant for half an hour because I can’t raise the energy to react, and when he suggests we go to bed I let him make love to me (if you can call it that); he doesn’t need long before he collapses on top of me apparently satisfied then rolls off me and starts to snore. I look at him, this apparent paragon of Boston manhood, who my parents expect me to sacrifice my career for. A song pops into my head, Jeff Wayne’s ‘War of the Worlds’;

Is there something worth living for?
Is there something worth fighting for?
Even something worth dying for?

That swiftly leaves my head to be replaced by something even more bizarre, The Doors singing ‘Break on Through.’

You know the day destroys the night
Night divides the day
Time to run
Time to hide
Break on through to the other side
Break on through to the other side
Break on through…..

Boston, 31 January 2001

It’s dusk; I wake. I roll over and see that I’m in Imaad’s arms, all memories of Donovan banished, although I now remember that I had met Mankiller at that event, I’d forgotten about that with everything that has happened in the last ten months, my research, Johannes and Imaad. He is clearly waking at the same time as me, his eyes are closed and a smile is playing around his lips. His fangs are extended though for some reason, as I then realise are mine, tension I guess. I draw him into my arms and kiss him deeply (though carefully); whatever may happen to us today, or tomorrow, at this precise moment I feel happy. His eyes open , and we prepare to face the day that awaits us, two Kindred, together.

A case of pre fundraiser tension

The Hollow Crown Stuartpark