INTERVIEW WITH SERENA FOLKES
NO LONGER THE COUNTRY BUMPKIN
Serena Folkes is the heroine of Primula Bond’s Unbreakable Trilogy. In the first book, The Silver Chain, she meets her hero, the gallery owner Gustav Levi, who offers to finance and launch her debut photography exhibition in return for her company and sexual favours. As they get to know each other and overcame the damage wreaked on them by her wretched childhood and his abusive marriage, the arrangement swiftly moves past the professional, and they have become passionate lovers. From being reserved and mistrustful, Serena has been drawn to Gustav’s magnetic power and his underlying need to love again, and he has returned that love and trust by asking her to live with him.
But just as they are celebrating the success of her sell-out exhibition and are making plans to travel to New York together, Gustav’s estranged, manipulative younger brother, Pierre, appears out of the blue. With Serena’s encouragement Gustav longs to restore their old closeness, but in The Golden Locket she realises that Pierre’s presence in their lives is not only re-opening old wounds but threatens their hard-won security and their very relationship.
Serena has torn herself away from Gustav’s side in their stunning new penthouse apartment on the Upper West Side, to have a chat with us tonight.
You’ve come a long way in the last few months, Serena. Literally. You’re living in New York now. But before we talk about life at the top, tell us a little bit about your background.
Well, it’s no secret that I had a very cold, isolated, unhappy upbringing. I was abandoned when I was four days old on some church steps and I was adopted and brought to Devon by the man who found me. The adoption should never have gone through. He and his wife should never have been allowed to keep a dog, let alone a child. I was treated like an infestation, an unwelcome intruder in their lives. The cuckoo in a very bare nest. Basically I was neglected for sixteen years.
What happened when you were sixteen?
I left home and went to live in a caravan with my boyfriend Jake. He was a bit of a rough diamond, but looking back on that traumatic childhood I realise now that he saved my life, and I hope one day I get the chance to thank him properly. Last time I saw him he was still pretty bitter about our break up, even though he’s doing OK now as a cub reporter on the local rag. But we were never going to be together long term.
How has that background shaped you?
I grew a kind of shell which protected me from the worst of it. I’m no psychologist, but I could have turned into a loner or inherited their monstrous ways. Instead I was lucky enough to bond with my adoptive cousin Polly on her rare visits to Devon, and there was Jake, and also the people at the riding stables I used to stay with at weekends, and also my art lecturers at college, and they all showed me that there were genuine, kind people in the world. On a personal level the shell, though fairly thin, kept me from trusting or loving too much. And on the outside it made me determined to work hard in order to get the hell out of there. Even so I take nothing for granted. I still pinch myself every morning when I wake up with a diary full of influential clients to photograph, and Mr Levi by my side. But I’m acutely aware that it could all be snatched away from me in an instant.
We’ll come to Gustav in a minute. First let’s talk a little more about the photography, which after all is what brought you two together. Why did you choose that as your career?
The first time I looked through a camera lens it encapsulated how I saw the world. A photographer is outside looking in, and as a child I was made to feel like the outsider. But I realised that I could turn away from all the ugliness. I could choose what I was looking at. When I had my camera in my hand I no longer felt lonely, or helpless. Through a camera lens you see what you want to see. Things become what you want them to become. You can place things, and frame them, as you choose. You’re not just seeing a flower, or a horse, or a sea shell. As a photographer you can give everyday objects an entirely different aspect just by composition or lighting. But it’s human beings that interest me most.
Which brings us on to the voyeuristic aspect of your work.
On my travels round Europe last summer, my first real taste of freedom, I was taking photographs as an art form, usually outside and in public. I soon discovered that if people know you are taking photographs they either get cross or inhibited, or they take it as a compliment. Either way they rarely behave naturally. So rather than pander to those reactions I wanted to become invisible. This is where the zoom lens comes in handy. It creates an intimate detachment, if that makes sense. A detached intimacy? At first I’d be out and about photographing girls oiling each other on the beach, or lovers kissing on benches, but it was when I followed this little nun in Venice right inside her enclosed convent and saw the sisters in their cells undressing and flagellating, that I got that real voyeur’s thrill. So now I either persuade people to let me come inside and act as if I’m not there, or I secretly watch my subjects through windows and doors as they go about their private business.
That’s pretty kinky, isn’t it?
Oh, very. I’ve been open about how I’m vicariously turned on by what I’m seeing. But it’s not just me and my subjects who get aroused. The people coming to my exhibitions and buying my work obviously enjoy this voyeuristic tendency. Since arriving in New York I’ve lined up several ‘at home’ commissions, at least two of which have already involved more than two participants, shall we say, as well as some full-on audience participation from me. So I reckon I’ve corned this niche of the market!
So let’s go back to Gustav. What first attracted you to him?
That’s like the Mrs Merton interview on TV years ago, when she asked someone what attracted them to their rich, successful husband? I mean, have you seen my Gustav? He’s got everything. Not just a huge wallet! He’s tall, dark, handsome, has great dress sense, a sexy deep voice, those amazing eyes – have you seen his eyes? They pull you in, like magnets. His hands, they’re really big, you know, and warm? As for the rest of him.. how long have you got? So yeah, it was a physical thing at first, I don’t mind admitting that. I bet he’d say the same thing about me – God, I hope he would! But I could equally have run a mile, because he was scary, too. I had him down as a vampire. There was this haunted, distant look about him. I know the reason for that now, but back then it just made me want to get closer to him.
And when was the moment you properly fell for him?
I think it was when he first touched me. Touched my hair, I mean. We went and had a martini in the Dukes Hotel bar, and when I left he helped me with my coat – did I tell you he’s a real gentleman? – and when he pulled my hair out from my collar he ran his hands through it, and it was the sexiest, most tender thing anyone had ever done for me. The people who brought me up used to hack my hair off when it got past my ears. They called it ugly and ginger. That’s why I have it so ridiculously long now.
We know that the silver chain was Gustav’s symbolic way of tying you to him and keeping you in his power, but what did it mean to you?
Life with Gustav is full of firsts. The bracelet he gave me to attach the silver chain was the first piece of jewellery I’ve ever had, so that made it unique and precious, and the silver chain seemed a pretty extension of that. I liked that he used it to keep me close. It may have been meant as a form of bondage, but also it made me feel desired, and safe. It was also a signal to the world, if the world was watching, that we were together. If he thought it would frighten or cow me, he was wrong. It just made me feel strong whenever he clipped it on. And it turned me on, if I’m honest. Because every time I see that silvery sparkle, I know what’s coming!
Ooh, you’re making me feel quite hot under the collar. So what is the significance of the golden locket?
It’s beautiful, isn’t it? The same jeweller made it as made the silver chain. So it’s my second ever piece of jewellery. Gustav gave it to me for Christmas. Our first Christmas together. And like the silver chain it symbolises our togetherness, because I can’t take it off. He’s still playing games with me though, because there’s a secret object inside that rattles whenever I move. A constant reminder of him, even when we’re apart. And he won’t tell me what is in there until I’ve earned it.
Does Gustav’s past bother you?
No-one likes thinking about their lover’s ex, do they? Gustav was even jealous about Jake at one point, for heaven’s sake. Gustav did tell me about his ex-wife and how their abusive marriage belittled him. She sounds like one of these temptress types who bewitch men and threaten women. But she’s history. So what bothered me was the other subjects that were taboo. The subject of his brother Pierre in particular. His Achilles heel. That was a huge barrier between us. So when Pierre turned up at the gallery unnannounced just before Christmas, turns out he’s my cousin’s American boyfriend no less, there was this awful showdown, but I was glad in a way because it was all out in the open. I’m a bit dismayed to find out that the crux of their feud was, you guessed it, the bloody ex wife. I had no idea how poisonous she really was, seducing his beloved younger brother right under his nose. But at least Gustav can resolve this terrible estrangement now. I love him, so I want to help him.
That’s very understanding of you. So what do you think of Pierre?
First impressions? He’s too like Gustav for comfort. They are almost like peas in a pod, and yet they are totally different, too. They look alike. Sound alike. But then you spot these little differences. Gustav is taller. Pierre has thicker hair. Gustav’s voice is educated. Pierre has acquired a kind of twang. Gustav is measured, cool, fair. Pierre seems to be quick-tempered, wary, and defensive. A therapist might sum up that he’s Gustav’s dark side.
You’ve obviously examined him closely. But I suppose the question was, do you like him?
In a word? Yes and no. Oh, that’s three words, isn’t it? He’s stimulating company, he can turn on the Levi charm when he wants, no doubt about that. I’m intrigued, but I do feel I’m on egg shells, too. I’ve never really been on my own with him but even so I can tell there’s still resentment, certainly from his side, and I worry that he could still find a way to hurt Gustav. Also, a new problem has arisen since we were all together at the New Year. Pierre has just dumped my cousin Polly, and it’s all very difficult because she doesn’t know why and she’s distraught. She thinks the influence of ex-wife Margot might be behind it. Or he may just be screwing his way round the dancers he works with. Polly’s asked me to find out what’s going on, but Pierre has a way of toying with me. He tries to get me to side with him against Gustav because we’re the same age and Gustasv is older. I think he might fancy me. I try not to respond, I don’t fancy him, of course not, I’ve got Gustav, but Pierre does have a way of catching you off guard. Dangerous. That’s what I reckon. He’s attractive, but dangerous.
Quite easy to avoid him, I would have thought. New York’s a big city. So how are you settling in?
Loving it. I feel as if this place was just there across the Atlantic, waiting for me to touch down. It gives me a real buzz and because I’ve had quite a lot of work on, I feel part of the fabric already. I’ve had some pretty kinky adventures since I arrived here. Gustav is really letting me spread my wings socially and sexually, but he likes his provisos, and the proviso is that he accompanies me on my more controversial commissions. Anything involving threesomes, in other words. And that’s fine. More than fine. I want him with me. It turns me on to know he’s watching me when I’m working. Viewing me when I’m viewing. So I’m the voyeur, viewed. And then we have a stunning apartment on the Upper West Side overlooking Central Park. The man I love is rooting for me. So most of the time I feel like a very, very lucky girl.
And what next for Gustav/Folkes Enterprises?
Well, I’ve got two big commissions coming up. One is with Pierre, in fact, at the theatre where he’s the set and cosume designer. I’m filming a day in the life behind the scenes as the dancers dress up and perform. Pierre wants to pitch it to some reality show producers in Hollywood. I’m a bit anxious, to be honest, especially as Gustav can’t be with me for that job. Then we’re off to Venice for the carnivale which will be fantastic! So there’s no holding me back at the moment!
Thanks Serena, and good luck with all that the future brings!
Thanks. I have a funny feeling I’m going to need it!
EXCERPT FROM THE GOLDEN LOCKET
The waiter approaches to take our plates and refill our glasses of wine. He hesitates, eyes flickering over where my hand is massaging my man’s thigh. I give him my best Bambi stare back, followed by a deliberate flutter of the eyelashes. Lower my left eyelid in a slow wink and see the flush creep up his thin neck.
Then I take a real twisted delight in pressing my hand against Gustav’s zipper, letting the waiter see the way my elbow and arm are moving while he tries to clear the plates and lay spoons without dropping anything in his eagerness to see. I rub my palm between Gustav’s legs, and feel the hardness growing.
The plates rattle as the waiter balances them up his arm. He backs away, and I see him retreat to the corner of the room where he nudges a fellow waiter and jerks his head over towards us.
Gustav is in my thrall now. He presses his hand on top of mine, moving it faster and harder over him. His face remains calm, other than the tell-tale spark in his eyes. The calmer he remains, the more determined I am to break his cool. If I take him all the way to the edge there will be the jump of his Adam’s apple, the black molasses glaze in his eyes which tells me he’s about to come.
His voice is husky now. ‘Never say never could be a risky adage.’
‘Risky is where the fun is, don’t you agree?’ Under the table I continue to massage him until he starts to buck gently against my hand. I glance over at the waiter. He’s still staring at me, his hand moving in his trouser pocket. I twiddle innocently with my wineglass before lifting it, puckering my mouth slowly, and taking a long sip.
‘Oh, you’re transforming before my very eyes, Serena,’ Gustav murmurs as I fondle and drive him to the point of no return. ‘What have I done to you?’
I laugh softly as he bucks against me one more time then slumps back. I remove my hand, tuck it under my chin thoughtfully. Glance over at the waiter and mouth at him show’s over.