39. Visiting the Baroness

IN THE SUMMER, WE rented a house on the coast for a week owned by a woman we took to calling the Baroness. None of us had ever met her. Having paid for the house, Anita knew her name from her bank account details. She told us it was a double-barrelled Germanic surname with a ‘von’ before it, which was why Benedict began to call her the Baroness. Over the course of our week in the house, the Baroness became something of an obsession for us, an obsession heightened by the fact that the weather was unusually cold and rainy for high summer. We played endless rounds of the board game Empire, in which four players set out from Europe in 1789 to colonise the world. Throughout these days, the Baroness seemed ever present, like a ghost, although if a ghost then the spirit of someone who is still alive. There were signs of her throughout the house, and we studied these signs as if they could tell us something about this presence. We knew she was an artist from the paintings hanging on the wall, painted in the abstract expressionist style, signed with her initials, tasteful and well executed, but whose primary effect in every instance was to remind us of better paintings by other artists. We knew she was a glamorous woman from the photographs of herself in various locales and accompanied by miscellaneous unknowns pinned to a cork board in the study and stuck to the fridge in the kitchen with magnets. They showed an impish middle-aged woman with silky blonde hair and leathery skin, always with white-filtered cigarettes between her fingers, skiing, drinking, laughing, lying on a beach, standing in front of the Kremlin in winter, or trekking in the Himalayas. That she was a woman of means and taste was indicated by the tribal Afghani rugs, the Japanese furniture and the Scandinavian lightshades, but there was a welcome scruffiness about the way it had all been put together suggesting that the Baroness was not overly precious. That she was well-travelled was confirmed by the mementos of past travels: a Nepalese mandala in the kitchen, a Saharan head carving in the lounge, a Papuan bark painting in the bedroom. Then there were her books, in most of which was pasted an ex libris in an art nouveau style bearing her initials and the silhouette of a cat sitting on a bookshelf. There were, broadly speaking, four types of books: handsome, heavy art books on a variety of well known artists (Velasquez and Goya the most well represented of the classical masters, Klee and Ernst of the modernists) strewn prominently throughout the house (along with art magazines) on a variety of surfaces, including coffee tables, desks, bedside tables and drawers; well thumbed, dog-eared paperbacks that included poetry in a variety of languages as well as cheap detective fiction, piled in tall precarious heaps throughout the house; and scholarly works in German, English and French on a variety of esoteric subjects, substantial portions of which (sometimes entire pages) had been underlined and in which lengthy marginalia had been scrawled in illegible German. One such book that caught my eye was a study of Winchester House, the home of Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune, who, mourning the unexpected deaths of her husband and daughter, was told by a medium she was cursed to be forever haunted by the ghosts of the victims of the Winchester rifle. Through the medium, Winchester's recently deceased husband instructed the widow to build another home, adding that she would herself avoid death by ensuring that construction of the house would never end. In 1884, the heiress began building the home that would be a work in progress until her death in 1922. The renovations continued day and night without interruption for 38 years, surviving the 1906 earthquake, when it stood seven storeys tall, thanks to its floating foundations. At the time of the widow's passing it was four storeys high, and featured 160 rooms, of which 40 were bedrooms. Most notably, in order to confuse the Winchester ghosts, the house was built as a maze, featuring staircases to nowhere and dead-end corridors, an infinity of mirrors and windows and many allusions to the number 13. The Baroness had underlined so much of this book that it seemed more of it was underlined than not. Moreover, her unreadable marginalia covered almost every blank surface of the book, including the insides of the covers. As the week continued, we began scrutinizing the smallest clues for further insights, like detectives investigating the scene of a crime of which the Baroness was the only possible suspect: tumbleweeds of hair belonging to a long-haired dog in the corners of the rooms, an ashtray on the balcony table with the stubs of joints still inside, empty bottles in the recycling bin. Between games of Empire we concocted our various theories of the Baroness’s biography. She was Austrian, on that we were agreed. The ashtray and recycling bin suggested she drank and smoked rather a lot. She had met her husband, we speculated, while travelling as young bohemians. He was in all likelihood a scholar – in Renata’s opinion a humanities scholar who had turned out rather less bohemian than she. They had a daughter – an adult, the photographs suggested – and were now divorced. She painted but sold little and lived on an endowment. The marginalia suggested an obsessive personality, perhaps a quick temper. She seemed to have a lover – again, the photographs – a local man somewhat younger than her, perhaps a surfer, at any rate someone, Anita added, who would never understand her. There were several further speculations for which we had no evidence: Ben suggested that the only person who understood the Baroness was her daughter, and that her daughter despised her, and Anita imagined her family as being peopled with characters from the novels of Robert Musil and Thomas Bernhard. We even invented an moustachioed uncle, a career officer discharged from the military in disgrace after driving a new recruit to suicide.