Title: Recollecting Mansfield

Author: Margaret Scott

Publication details: Random House

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Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Recollecting Mansfield


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Meanwhile, who should turn up at my door but the King of Poland, with girlfriend and baby in tow. He was quite cross that I had not sent him my address and he had had to go to a lot of trouble to track me down. My door, of course, opened into my big room so he looked around it and observed with satisfaction that I had a double bed as well as a single one. They had just tried to call on his friend Prince Somebody-or-other, a few streets away, to see if he could put them up but apparently he couldn't so they would have to stay with me. There was not the slightest curiosity as to whether this was agreeable to me, or convenient or possible — it was just a fact. I was no good at this sort of thing so I meekly made room for them, remade the beds and so on. He knew a little about Mansfield — what New Zealander with literary aspirations did not? — enough to be aware that she had lived for a time in Ospedaletti, not far across the border into Italy. His mission was page 85to cross the border to get his passport stamped so he announced that the following day he would drive me to Ospedaletti so I could see it. Meantime, I was 'allowed' to look after the baby.

The baby worried me. He was an unusually appealing little boy, only five months old, but he had a bad rash on the buttocks and in the middle of it was a ferocious boil, or ulcer. Naturally he cried a lot. He seemed to be getting a hopelessly inadequate diet: no milk, just ground rice and water and a bit of tinned banana. But he was a quick, responsive, stoical child, in spite of being descended from titled Eurotrash.

Potocki was a bit like a puppy, following me around and talking constantly. But he railed against Charles Brasch because he was a Jew, and Graham Bagnall, my boss, because he was Chief Librarian of the Turnbull Library, and against numbers of other people because they were leftists. Eventually I felt driven to say, 'Look, Geoffrey, while you are under my roof you may not vilify my friends because of your prejudices, and you had better keep it in mind that on every issue my own position is left of centre.' I did not find this easy to say but to my surprise he took it quite well — raised an eyebrow, shrugged, but stopped offending. I had brought with me from New Zealand Vladimir Nabokov's Ada, which I had just finished reading and was enormously stimulated by. I couldn't resist talking about it, so the Count asked if he could borrow it. Alas, I wish I still had it, but he took it away and I never saw it again.

I vacated my double bed for them but did feel it something of an imposition to have to sleep in the same room. In the morning I made them a nice breakfast as a farewell gesture since the arrangement was that they would leave that day. But over breakfast they discussed whether the dogs at home would be all right if they stayed another day. They decided they would, and I was assumed to have overheard this so I didn't even need to be page 86informed, let alone consulted. We drove to Ospedaletti, with me in the back seat holding the baby, and had lunch in the little village square. We didn't look for Mansfield's Casetta Deerholm. Back in my apartment, as we were preparing to go to bed, and while Potocki was in the bathroom, I tackled Kathleen again about taking the baby to a doctor. She said she couldn't because the Count said French doctors were too expensive. I saw red and launched into a lecture about how she must override him because he clearly had no concern for human beings and must not be entrusted with the welfare of the baby. He was listening to this, apparently, and came storming out of the bathroom shouting about ignorant Pig Islanders who know nothing about anything. When he was in bed, still fulminating against me, I walked across the room to try to reason with him. He threw back the bedclothes and there he was, in the flesh, so to speak — a gesture later to be thought of as the Royal Flash. But it was inadvertent for he was in a fury. 'Get away from me! Get out!' he screamed. Since we were in my apartment, this seemed a little inappropriate. We all went to bed and I listened for a long time to his stertorous breathing — the first time I had understood the meaning of that word — until it became quieter and he went to sleep.

In the morning I woke to hear him shuffling about and muttering. I caught 'Pig Islanders' again, so I lay low. He had said something the day before about wanting to cross the border again before going home, and he did in fact go out. Kathleen went up to the street with him and then down the steps to the car and was away some time. When she came back she seemed upset and tried to explain to me how impossible it was to go against the Count's wishes. He had introduced her to titled people from all over Europe and they were all so nice! They didn't at all make her feel like an outsider but treated her just as if she were one of them. She said living with the Count was no bed of roses but she stayed with page 87him because she expected to make a packet writing about him after his death. I saw that I was up against a brick wall, although I did try once more to impress her with the need for the baby to have medical attention. I gave her some breakfast, and then, after an absence of about two hours, he returned, pottered about silently getting packed and then started carrying things down to the car. On the final trip he took one end of the baby's carry-cot while I took the other, and Kathleen carried what was left and we went down to the car. When everything was stowed I said, 'Well, goodbye.' He shot me a glance — whether challenging or defensive I'm not sure — and got into the car and pulled away. I went back up the steps feeling depressed by the whole interlude but unable to think how I might better have handled a man as paranoid as that. He came out to Wellington some 20 years later, and was fêted in newspapers and on television, but made no inquiry after me. Kathleen, though, to whom I must have given my home address, sent me a postcard a few months after I got back to New Zealand, telling me the baby had had medical treatment and was now very well and thriving.