WRIT LARGE: Ch 4, Part 1
Louis Vuitton Island
Previously: In Chapter 3, Leann and Lucas talk with each other about confidence on the flight. They disembark and travel to the hotel where they meet up again next to the infinity pool (on the fifty-seventh floor). Later, they go to dinner with a group of Leann’s friends who are all creatives, and they talk to Lucas about Leann’s character. Afterwards, Lucas and Leann go to a bar called the Oriental Elixir where a mixologist makes them unique cocktails and talks about the meaning of tattoos. Afterwards, they walk down Haji Lane and Leann gifts a painted mask to a child they see. In this chapter we meet Bernard Ault, one of the richest men in the world.
I check my watch again. Leann is late. Only by seven minutes and yet I can’t help but feel a little anxious, counting down the hours in my head until my flight to Sydney, which departs at 7pm. I could think of worse places to be waiting for a lunch appointment, but that does nothing to appease my brain, which continues to remind me that the minutes are ticking by.
I glance around at the white columns of the Raffles Grand Lobby, its crystal chandeliers and the staff who have been watching my every movement, discreetly, while pretending not to see me. I wonder where in the world they teach them such a skill. It is impressive, but it almost makes me feel naked, exposed, like I am wading from the sea minus a pair of swim shorts, and they don’t want to embarrass me.
Just as well I didn’t unpack when I reached the hotel the previous day. I will only need to add my toothbrush and toiletries to my bag, and I will be ready.
Leann arrives at 1.12pm. I know the precise time because I have just checked my watch again. She isn’t alone; her arm is linked with that of a man in an impeccable grey suit. I recognise the man from photographs on the Internet, but even had I not recognised the face, I would have known that this is a man who owns the space around him. This is a man who arrives on a private jet and chooses a bottle of Dom Perignon above sparkling water.
This is Bernard Arnault, currently one of the richest men in the world.
Leann’s smile is wide as they approach me. “Lucas,” she says. “Allow me to introduce you to my dear friend Bernard.”
We shake hands and I remember too late to wipe mine on my trousers beforehand. “My apologies for our tardiness,” says the man. “I had an important telephone call that overran.”
I accept his apology and force myself not to check my watch yet again.
“Bernard would like you to write his biography,” says Leann, jumping in feet first, no preamble. At the man’s amused glance, she adds, “You know that Lucas would do a far better job than I would, and I am still working on my current project.”
“Leann has certainly been singing your praises,” says Bernard. “Not that I needed much persuasion, of course.”
I thank him, and tease Leann for not having given me some warning, as my flight leaves in less than six hours. I check my watch again as proof of the precious moments that are flying away from us. No one has introduced the children – two young boys – and a woman in a cool beige linen dress who entered with Leann and her companion.
“These are Bernard’s grandchildren,” says Leann, “and Marie, their nanny.”
We shake hands formally. The children are dressed as tastefully as their grandfather, and I am instantly reminded of the children in Mary Poppins who were expected to speak only when spoken to. I hope that I am wrong.
A concierge approaches and ushers us through to the pool where we are to take Raffles High Tea in the courtyard. He shoots me a look that implies I might have informed them that I was waiting for Monsieur Arnault. I am the only one who notices the look, but again that is probably the way it was intended.
“Bernard has arranged for our exclusive use of the courtyard and pool,” says Leann. I reply that had I known I would have brought my swim shorts along. “Oh, I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” says Leann.
I don’t have the opportunity to question her, as we are shown to our table in the cool tiled courtyard. The concierge waits for Leann to take her place before sliding her seat carefully beneath her. It is an artform, trusting someone to place a seat precisely where it needs to be without a glance in their direction, and one that Leann has seemingly perfected, along with smiling during all the right pauses and filling silences without waiting for them to become either comfortable or awkward.
“Bernard is here to view the collection of Chinese ink paintings at the National Gallery,” says Leann, “and I thought what better opportunity to introduce you to each other.”
I respond that it is almost as though the universe had orchestrated the whole thing, and Leann smiles.
“You see,” she says to Bernard. “He has this knack of always knowing what to say.” She winks at me, a gesture that says she knows that I know this is another appeal to be invited to join the Writer’s Guild. I wonder if she realises that I am enjoying keeping her waiting, far more than I probably should, before I announce my decision.
While the waiters bring silver stands to the table, laden with a selection of perfect, equally sized sandwiches, savouries, and desserts, and a selection of flavoured oriental teas, I ask Bernard why he wants to write his biography.
“Doesn’t everyone wish to tell their story?” he counters.
I tell him that I don’t always think that is the case as I know many people who would prefer to keep their personal lives private, and of course there is Google; anyone can type his name into a search engine and learn about his life.
It is a controlled gesture, like his movements, as though time and effort equal money, and none of it is to be wasted.
“Lucas, you and I both know that much of what is to be read on the Internet is either fake or manipulated,” says Leann.
Bernard smiles. It is a controlled gesture, like his movements, as though time and effort equal money, and none of it is to be wasted. “I wish to gift my biography to my grandchildren.” He gestures to the two boys who have been silent thus far.
I ask them what they think of me writing their grandfather’s life story.
“What will it cost?” asks the eldest.
I ask him to clarify whether he means the cost to his grandfather for me to write the book, or how much the physical book would cost to buy in a shop, and if the latter, what they think would be a reasonable price to place on their grandfather’s life.
The eldest boy smiles. “I think thirty euros.”
I suggest that would be a reasonable price to pay for the biography of Bernard Arnault, and then question what they would pay for my own.
“Fifteen euros!” says the youngest.
“I have taught them well,” says Bernard.
It is the first time that his emotions have played across his features, and I hope that I have done a little to coax the children from their shells. So as not to lose momentum, I ask Bernard what he wanted to be when he was a child.
“An entrepreneur,” he says. “You must remember, my father was also a successful businessman.”
I suggest that he might be covering up his childhood dreams of being an astronaut, or a cowboy, or a popstar. The children gawp at me as though I asked him whether he secretly painted his toenails pink.
“I wanted to dive with sharks,” he says.
Leann stares at him and dabs her lips with a pristine white napkin. “So, why don’t you? I have heard it is very popular amongst tourists in the Bahamas.”
Bernard smiles. “My wife would fear for my life. She says it would be the only situation that I would not be able to talk my way out of.”
“I am not convinced that she is right,” says Leann. “I have heard you charm a roomful of reporters myself.”
I notice that when the conversation does not interest the boys, they stare at the pool and, like the hotel staff, pretend to not be listening, while actually following every word. I ask Bernard to describe the most reckless thing he has ever done.
“Abseiling,” he says. I notice that he hasn’t eaten and is merely sipping from a delicate cup of green tea poured from a clear glass teapot with gold flecks continuously swirling around inside. “I once abseiled down a cliff-face. The opportunity presented itself for me to conquer my fear of heights, and I accepted.”
“Did it work?” asks Leann. “Did you conquer the fear? I went up to the infinity pool yesterday with Lucas and still had to work up the courage to go to the edge.”
“I guess my answer would have to be ‘no’ then,” says Bernard, “as I too would prefer to experience the infinity pool from a safe distance.”
I suggest that the fear was not conquered because the abseiling adventure was controlled; he would not have experienced absolute all-consuming fear because he was wearing a harness and attached to safety ropes. Then I ask him what he is afraid of. It is the question I ask of all my fictional characters when writing and so it makes sense for me to ask Bernard also.
He gives this some serious thought while staring out across the still turquoise pool. Eventually he says, “Waking up and not remembering who I am.”
I can see that Leann is intrigued by this statement. She was about to take a bite from a strawberry tart and paused, the treat halfway to her lips.