The Hour Between: A Novel
By Sebastian Stuart
Paperback, 260 pages
List Price: $14.95
It was early September 1967. I'd just been kicked out of Collegiate, which is in Manhattan and claims to be the oldest boys' school in the country, and my folks were driving me up to Connecticut to enroll me in a boarding school known for being liberal, artsy, and, most crucial, for having a fast and lenient admissions policy. I felt guilty putting them through this but I just couldn't face another year at Collegiate—strangling ties and that itchy wool blazer, chapel and Latin and sports. So I didn't go. I'd leave the house in the morning and walk down to the Donnell Library Center on West Fifty-third Street, where I'd look at picture books about Hollywood and the movies until it was time to go home. I got the idea from a production of The Glass Menagerie I'd seen in London the summer before. My Laura phase lasted the first week of school and gave Collegiate the excuse it was looking for to give me the boot.
After getting off some turnpike or other, we drove along pleasant country roads for a while until we came to a battered wooden sign: The Spooner School. We turned down a long oak-lined drive. On one side was the small lake with its island and weeping willow, on the other side a field bordered by that old stone wall. And there she was atop the wall, Katrina Felt, her arms held out for balance, moving quickly, almost recklessly, but with such grace and buoyancy that I craned my head to watch: would she be one of my classmates?
We came to the school's main building, a rambling old pile sprouting porches, gables, turrets; across a stretch of flagstone sat an empty swimming pool, its cracked concrete faded a delicate pastel blue; the boys' dorm was across a green; little cabins dotted the grounds; the girls' dorm, a modern split-level house, sat atop a small hill.
The whole campus was neglected—paint peeling, hedges sprouting shooters, roofs home to tiny hills of moss—in a way that I found charming and romantic.
"Well, here we are." Mom turned and gave me a strained smile. "They're terribly keen on the arts, it's going to be smashing." Mom grew up in London in a family of scholars and academics and even after decades in the States held fast to her Deborah Kerr–ness.
As we got out of the car, a small bird-like woman in clunky black shoes clipped out of the main house and crossed the gravel with an excited step, her bobbed gray hair flapping at the sides of her head like wings, her tiny gray eyes alight. "Welcome to the Spooner School!" Her accent was English, as was her cheery avian smile, the tight little mouth darting up on either side of the small beak. She stuck out an arm, rigid at the elbow, in my direction, "I'm Miss Wimple, and you must be Arthur."
"It's nice to meet you," I said.
"Hello, Mr. and Mrs. MacDougal. He's in good hands."
"We've no doubt," Mom said, laying on the accent thick as marmalade. The two beamed at each other in a fit of Anglo bonding.
"Would you like a quick tour? We're busy as mad bees, of course.
Semester starts on the morrow, bright and early."
"We have a dinner," Mom said. "But we'll be back up."
Dad shook my hand, Mom kissed me.
"Thanks, and I'm sorry," I said.
They smiled, then got in the car and drove off, lighting cigarettes.
"After you meet Mr. Spooner, I'll show you to your room," Miss
Wimple said. A phone rang from inside the house. "Oh goodness! I feel like a piece of taffy! I'll be right back, dear boy. Com-ing!" she yelled to the phone as she sped away.
I looked toward the field and saw Katrina, now sitting cross-legged on the wall. I raised my arm in an awkward wave. She smiled, jumped down, and started toward me. She was small and had a springy step. I sat on the front stoop and tried not to look too nervous.
"Do you like my Gidget Goes to Paris look?" she asked when she was in front of me. Then she twirled around and struck a pose, fists on hips. She was wearing black capri pants, white sneakers, and a black-and-white-striped boat-neck top. Her black hair was short and spiky; her enormous round dark eyes, lined in black; her nose, slightly upturned; her lips, with that faint overbite, lipsticked in a lush red. Equal parts elf, urchin, enfant terrible, she was the most adorable thing I'd ever clapped eyes on.
"Oui," I said.
She sat down beside me and pulled up her knees. "Oh, thank God, I wasn't sure what was apropos for a tony New England boarding school. Although I'm not sure how tony this dive is. Isn't it divinely dilapidated? I wonder if Mumsie read the catalogue wrong. My last lycee was in Switzerland and it looked like a mountain resort. I could hardly stop myself from yodeling between classes. Cig?" She pulled out a silver cigarette case and matching lighter and snapped the case open. "Dunhills, got hooked on them one mad weekend in Sussex. Or was it Essex? Anyway, there was sex in it, wherever it was. A lot of sex." She tilted the case in my direction.
"I don't smoke."
"No one's perfect." She lit up, inhaled, and blew out the smoke in a faux grown-up way, as if she was infinitely weary. "By the way, name's Katrina. You can call me Kat, but I'd rather you didn't."
"C'est mon plaisir."
"Where are you from, Katrina?"
"Oh God, that question. I'm a nomad, tromping from oasis to oasis. And this is my latest watering hole. Mostly L.A. A bit of London. Rome sometimes. I was in L.A. all summer, got in a spot of trouble, I did. That's why I got shipped off to sturdy, solid old New England, to turn me into a Norman Rockwell girl."
"Oh, it was nothing," she said, a little too dismissively. She took a deep pull on her cigarette. "If you must know, the powers-that-be felt that I was involved with an inappropriate boy. I learned an important lesson: that one must move on-on-on. End of story, okay? And where are you from, Arthur?"
"Mumsie's just taken a place at the Sherry-Netherland. I think she's going to do a play. Sad. She hates theater. But the movie offers aren't exactly flooding in these days. Poor Mumsie," she said, and her face darkened. She raked her fingers through her hair and shook her head in a gesture I would come to know well, one that signaled a quick turn away from terrain she found foreboding. "Just to get it out of the way, I should probably tell you that my mother is Jean Clarke."
"The movie star?"
"No, darling, the cleaning lady. Yes, the movie star. Silly boy." She stood up and spun around, taking in the campus. "Can you imagine? Me in New England. Will I have to learn manners and all that? How proper. Shall we call Kate Hepburn? Mom hates her—professional jealousy, don'cha know."
Jean Clarke's daughter! Jean Clarke was so fabulous, not the world's most beautiful movie star, but what style and verve, you couldn't take your eyes off her. I wanted to ask Katrina a million questions about her mom, but thought it might be rude, not to mention pathetically star-struck and gushy.
"Don't tell me—you adore her. All fairies—no wait, gay is the new word, Laurence Harvey told me, over drinks in the Polo Lounge. Anyway, all gay boys adore Mummy. You should see them at parties and openings; it's moths to a flame."
Just like that, tossing it off, she'd pegged me for...gay. I mean, I knew I was no John Wayne, but was it that obvious? Before I had time to recover, Miss Wimple burst out the front door.
"I spoke with Mr. Spooner, he'll see the two of you together, come along now, chop-chop."
Excerpted from The Hour Between: A Novel by Sebastian Stuart. Copyright 2009 by Sebastian Stuart. Excerpted with permission from Alyson Books.