I've worked with a lot of decorators over the years, but Isabella is the only one I've stayed with long term. I respect her. She's blond and cute and sometimes, when she goofs up, she says "I'm having a blond day." But she's no bimbo. We've worked together off and on for twenty years.
Today I meet Isabella at a spiffy new house in Cupertino to discuss some lighting. Isabella prepares me: "It's an unusual situation. The wife works and makes millions. The hubby stays home and plays with toys." Inside the house, first thing you see is a billiard table and giant model trains.
Featured on the mantle over the fireplace is an oil painting, a landscape in the old English style. Cows, a creek, fluffy clouds, peasant girls with creamy skin and ringlet hair. Engraved on a brass plate at the bottom of the frame is:
After the engraved "Bulwer," somebody has carefully hand-printed the letter "L."
Edward G Bulwer
Wearing my toolbelt over raggedy shorts, I study the painting and say, "I didn't know Bulwer-Lytton was a painter."
Hubby gives an amused little chuckle. "It's Bulwer," he says. Hubby has a British accent.
"In 1842 it was Bulwer. Edward George Bulwer. He changed his name in 1844, after his mother died. His mother was a Lytton."
"Are you quite sure?"
"I studied him in college. He was the 'dark and stormy night' writer, always over the top. Like this painting. It has to be him. How many Edward G. Bulwers could there be in England in 1842?"
"What did he write?"
"Pelham. Godolphin. The Last Days of Pompeii. Come to think of it, The Last Days of Pompeii was inspired by a painting. And here you have a painting by Bulwer-Lytton in the style of Gainsborough. I've always loved Gainsborough."
"Who was Gainsborough?"
"Thomas Gainsborough. You know - the English painter? He did those wonderful romantic old landscapes in the eighteenth century. And here a hundred years later is Bulwer-Lytton, a writer, imitating - "
I stop, look around, and realize that hubby is frowning mightily.
Outside, Isabella says, "Well, you blew that job. You showed him up."
"I'm sorry. I was excited. I liked the painting."
"Stay here. I'll go in and do damage control."
Isabella is a charmer. I wait in my truck.
Isabella returns. "You got the job. In the future, act like an electrician. Okay?"
"As long as you act like a decorator."
Isabella has no filter. It's part of her charm. We make an odd team. I always wonder what clients make of us. Being British, this client in particular might have a problem getting used to Isabella—and to California culture in general where no topic is too personal to share.
We return to the house and take measurements for the lights. Isabella chats with the hubby for a few minutes. He has the sniffles. Blowing his nose, apologizing, he says he hopes he won't infect anybody. Isabella says she won't catch it — she never comes down with a cold because she gargles with hydrogen peroxide. Every day.
Even after twenty years of collaboration, Isabella constantly surprises me. I ask, "Does gargling with peroxide work against other diseases, too?"
"Oh, I don't know, bubonic plague maybe?"
"I've never caught it." Isabella laughs. "So I guess it works."
Hubby observes with a proper British stiff-lipped smile.
Which somehow reminds me: I mention to Isabella that a mutual acquaintance, very dear to both of us, just found out she has breast cancer. A workaholic, she quit her job, had surgery, and is now undergoing radiation.
"That's what happens," Isabella says. "Cancer gets your attention real fast. I should know."
Hubby says, "Oh no! Oh dear. I hope you're all right."
"Oh, it's not me. I'm fine. George — my husband — has prostate cancer."
"I'm so sorry," hubby says.
"All men get it. You will, too." Isabella goes inward for a moment, closing her eyes, shaking her blond curly hair. She opens her eyes. "George had the seed treatment, you know, where they plant radioactive seeds. Now he's radioactive down there. It kind of makes me think twice about having sex."
It's my turn to cough.
Isabella puts her hand to her mouth. "We've got our measurements," she says. "We'll be in touch."
"I'm sure you will," hubby says.
***Note: After some research, I suspect the brass plate denoted ownership by Bulwer-Lytton, not artistry. The painter may have been Frederick Walker, but I'm just speculating.