We’re excited to publish an excerpt from Claire Messud’s forthcoming novel, A Dream Life. It’s 1971, the Armstrongs have moved from New York to Australia and reluctantly inhabit the role of gentry in a grand manor on the harbor. Alice Armstrong, by turns class oblivious and class consumed, seeks help with the considerable domestic labor their new life entails. Her first housekeepers (one named Africa is briefly mentioned in this excerpt) don’t pan out. Enter Simone Funk, who both recenters the story and expands its frame.
As a final note, Messud’s publisher, Tablo Tales, is a new imprint focusing on “short books by great women writers around the world.”
Alice couldn’t quite piece together the chronology of Simone Funk’s autobiography; nor could she gauge, exactly, the age of her housekeeper. For example, it wasn’t entirely clear when or for how long she had been married to the villainous Erik Funk, and once there was a veiled reference to an earlier, or later, failed union. She told the girls about her bush childhood in a shack in New South Wales, with no electricity until she was twelve years old, of living with her grandmother and father and four older brothers, who were all bullying and cruel to her, and of how she was saved by her schoolteacher, a single woman “of about the age I am now” who took a proprietorial interest in her. She had left her family at fourteen, she said, to stay in the house of this teacher, and yet she repeatedly insisted that she’d been bad at all academic subjects – “It was all Greek to me!” – and that this was why she had left school at sixteen without her Higher School Certificate (this particular fact was relayed as a cautionary tale, to encourage the girls to do their homework).
She had been a runway model in Melbourne at some point, she claimed, and had been courted by numerous handsome and wealthy bachelors, among them a Greek shipping tycoon with oiled hair and six fingers on each hand, and an Arab sheik who had wanted to meet her father so that he might offer to buy her (“like a pound of liver or a new car”) and take her home to join a dozen other wives in his Arabian palace. Martha insisted that Simone Funk had taken the sheik back to the Wagga Wagga shack, along the dirt track in his chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, where Simone’s father, in his singlet and well into the whisky, had given the millionaire a proper shellacking, pounding the table and saying that no fine Australian sheila was to be bartered away like a sheep, and he had threatened to run Simone’s suitor off the property, shotgun in hand.
Alice took these wild tales with a grain of salt –“Try the Pacific Ocean full,” said Teddy, when she repeated them to him – but she loved them all the same. There were others, too: Simone Funk had been an air hostess for Qantas for a few years, and while serving coffee to a fat Italian man on a flight from Sydney to Rome had been invited to star in his next film. “Fellini, this was,” she said calmly, pausing in her dish-drying long enough to preen her white locks, “and at first I didn’t believe him. But he gave me his card. It really was, I swear. When I think of it now . . .”
She’d once been homeless in London, and a sympathetic concierge from the Dorchester (or was it Claridge’s?), whom she’d met in a pub, had smuggled her into an empty room in the hotel and allowed her to stay, for free, for a fortnight. She’d lived, at some point, on Heron Island, and had earned a living giving scuba-diving lessons to wealthy tourists – “The gifts they gave me you wouldn’t believe,” she said, her crinkly eyes wide in their sockets, “pearl necklaces, designer clothes – all kinds of crazy stuff.”
And then there were her employers. The Holmeses had bred racehorses, and she’d spent the summers with their five children at the stud farm, riding former Melbourne Cup winners. The Beckers had wanted to take her back to Germany with them, to live in their medieval castle, “but I’ve had my fill of Europe,” she said, “and I know which country’s home.” The Walenskas were a mixed marriage, he Polish, she Swedish (“An actress, she was. She had a role in an early Bergman film”), and their daughter Elise was “the most beautiful child you ever saw, dressed all the time like a princess, with a tiara in her lovely hair”. As for Mrs Atkinson, “She loved talking with you,” said Mrs Funk to Alice. “She said you had the kindest voice. It’s terribly sad, her husband, only fifty, had a stroke a while back and he’s like a vegetable now. Thank goodness they’ve got a fortune and can afford the proper care. They’ve built a whole wing onto the house,” she added, “a real hospital at home, with nurses round the clock. And their boys are still in school, off boarding, you know, at Winchester, or Rugby . . .”
When she heard these stories, about the grandeur of the former Funk households, Alice felt a little nervous. What stories, after all, could be made of the humble Armstrongs, whose impressive surroundings were the bank’s indulgence, and whose origins (that little flat in New York City! That grimly ordinary clapboard back in Buffalo!) seemed less noteworthy by far than even Simone Funk’s own. Alice wished that she had tales to tell about her life’s adventures, if not about a moneyed and titled heritage, but finding nothing suitable, she kept quiet. And sometimes – rarely, but sometimes –she felt a twinge of longing for Africa, who had taken such pleasure in Alice’s accounts of Martha and Sadie at the zoo, or of their visit, by ferry, to Luna Park across the harbour. Simone Funk, Alice felt, would not consider such commonplace outings worthy of the telling.
One afternoon in August, Alice answered the telephone to a man with a broad Australian accent, the sort of accent Davy Jones had. The man asked if this was indeed the American Ambassador’s residence. Alice assured him that he had quite the wrong number, in spite of her clearly American accent. She was momentarily amused.
For mid-September, Alice planned a surprise party in honour of Teddy’s fortieth birthday. She started scheming six weeks ahead of time. It was to be a dinner for forty guests, with specially set-up round tables in the dining room, the library and the conservatory: two tables to a room, with eight guests at each and ten at the hosts’ table. She compiled an invitation list with the help of Ariel Boote-Smith, and tried to include as many of the local luminaries among their acquaintance as possible: three titled couples – two Sirs and a Lord; a well-known Frenchman who dealt in Far Eastern art; an up-and-coming violinist Alice had met only twice at the Boote-Smiths (Ariel was quite interested in the arts); and a Cuban woman who claimed to be born of the Spanish nobility, and whose fame derived from the variety and eminence of her lovers. It was said that in her large house in Mosman this woman had a magnificent art collection of her own, each Corot and Matisse and Modigliani a gift from one or other of her men. Teddy and Alice had met her several times on the social circuit and Teddy had said, admiringly, after one encounter, “Isn’t she spectacular, for seventy-five? With all that black hair, and her amazing skin! Do you realize, Al, she’s one of the great geishas of all time!”
“The hair’s out of a bottle and the skin’s the work of a clever surgeon,” Alice had replied, and then, “I didn’t know you were after a geisha, Teddy. You picked the wrong girl.” But she still thought he would be pleased and impressed to find Reina Maria Infanta among the crowd feting his fortieth.
The rest of the guest list comprised their regular acquaintances – people from the bank, a few couples they’d met through the girls’ school, and a smattering culled from the circuit. Ariel Boote-Smith deemed the final selection “highly appropriate”. Mrs Funk, looking it over at the kitchen table, whistled through her teeth. “It’s quite the party you’re planning, isn’t it?”
(Alice had briefly wondered whether it was incumbent upon her to include Simone Funk on this list, but when she mentioned the notion to Ariel, her friend gasped in horrified surprise.
“Don’t think it for a second, Alice! I thought you’d learned enough, by now, about this type of etiquette.” She pronounced “etiquette” very precisely, as though it were still a French word.)
Madame Poliakoff glared slightly, in the way she had that made her eyes appear to be too close together. “No, for some years, these are my clients. The best homes in Sydney. Señora Infanta, for example, she is my client six years now. So, we see in my books, make sure we make new menu, yes? Otherwise, your guests cannot tell, are they eating at home, at their party, or at yours, yes?”
“Quite,” said Alice. She was proud to think she shared a caterer with her grandest visitors, and was proud, too, to have had the wit to show Madame Poliakoff the list, so as to avoid producing an over-familiar meal. After much debate, it was decided that simplicity was of the essence: they would eat foie gras, “with sa petite salade”, said Madame Poliakoff, followed by sea bass in a light truffle cream sauce, on a bed of thinly sliced potatoes, surrounded by miniature vegetables: “The tiny courgettes, the tiny beans wrapped like a sheaf, the tiny carrots. And one tiny tomato Provençal. This is very good.” For the cake, Madame Poliakoff suggested what she called her cocktail cake, and although Alice shuddered at the name – “No rum,” she insisted, “no maraschino cherries!” – her caterer was adamant. “It is very light. Most delicious. Thin layers of sponge, like napoleon cake but sponge, not dry. With cream, and above all with cocktail of fruits, all fresh fruits, with very light glaze.”
“What kinds of fruits?” asked Alice.
“All kinds. All fresh. You must trust me for the chef. I know what is most delicious. Do not worry: Mr Armstrong will be amazed. And on cake, for birthday, we put sparklers, yes? More adult –” she pronounced it the French way, adult – “more celebration, than candles. So beautiful, the little sparklers, like a firework in the home.”
Alice was more than satisfied by Madame Poliakoff’s direction; she was in fact so pleased that she did not notice the expression on Simone Funk’s face when the caterer’s white van pulled away. It was sour, the corners of her mouth pulled down towards her slightly knobbly chin. It was, on the usually appealing Simone Funk, an unbecoming expression.
“She’s a royal nightmare, that one,” said Mrs Funk, rising from her chair.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Thinks she’s the Queen of Sheba.”
“I’ve always thought of Napoleon, myself,” Alice smiled. But Mrs Funk was not amused.
“She comes into your own kitchen and tells you what to eat for your own party, as if it were none of your business? That isn’t right, Mrs Armstrong. That isn’t right.”
“She’s the very best caterer in town,” Alice said, somewhat defensively. “She’s a wonderful cook.”
“And thinks herself too good for any of the rest of us, doesn’t she?” Mrs Funk snorted. “Pardon my saying so, Mrs Armstrong, but she’s looking down her nose at you just as much as at the rest of us. Davy warned me what she was like, so I wasn’t surprised, but she didn’t even look at me to say hello. Maybe that’s all right back in Russia where she comes from, but it’s not Australian manners, Mrs Armstrong. Everyone’s equal in this country, and we’re all entitled to respect.”
“Absolutely,” said Alice. “I don’t think she means to be difficult – it’s just her manner. But you mustn’t think . . . I’m sure she had no intention . . .
“Stuck-up cow. She doesn’t know the first thing about me,” said Simone Funk with venom.
“No, of course —”
“And I’m worth ten of her. I’ve been close friends in my life with far more important people than she’ll ever even cook for. And I’ve been friends with tramps, too. I don’t hold with snobbery, Mrs Armstrong. It’s my upbringing. I just don’t hold with it.” Mrs Funk put her coffee cup in the sink with a significant clatter and stomped up the back stairs to the privacy of her flat. She was gone for an hour and a half – in the middle of her workday – but when she returned, she made no reference to the scene, nor to her absence. She was again her sunny self, and she even bore discussion of Madame Poliakoff, at later times, with only a slight tightening of her thin lips.