Books: Brilliant Creatures — Chapter 1 |
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Brilliant Creatures: Chapter 1

~ one ~

ark!’ cried Lancelot Windhover, waking up in his usual frenzy of hyperventilation, or whatever you call it when you can’t remember how to breathe. ‘Whelk! Faugh! Noah! Quark!’ He gave himself artificial respiration. After a while it worked. When the panic was over the despair started. With heaving chest he mentally reviewed his troubles and could see no real reason for continuing to live. Elegantly he tottered to the window, his body, with the possible exception of a pair of small motorcycle-style panniers at the waist, looking like the corporeal manifestation of a fit man half his age — which would have been, should you have made it, a pretty fair assessment of his true emotional development, since nobody so old can look so young without a certain deficiency in the gift for self-criticism. Or so, at any rate, Lancelot thought, giving himself points for the critical insight but taking them away again because of the revealed proneness to soul-searching, which he regarded as self-obsession. Not quite the same thing as self-criticism, but more than enough to reduce him to desperation all by itself, even without the aid of the joke panorama visible when he dragged aside the heavy curtains.

Rain fell as if an expensive postal address gave you no privileges at all. Members of the Royal Family lived not far away. Were they getting rained on to this extent? Lancelot flaked crusts of yellow sleep out of his eyes. As a physical satisfaction this activity ranked somewhere below nosepicking but sometimes it takes only the tiniest success to bring a waverer back from the brink. He formed the intention not to commit suicide after all. It was his first big mistake of the day.

Elsewhere in the large house, his wife and children were no doubt up and about by now, if not gone shopping or to school or whatever it was they did. Although Lancelot still made love to his wife he drew the line at sleeping with her, and thus tended to get out of touch with her plans. Charlotte he had married for an automatic entrée to the less interesting but, he had presumed, more deeply satisfying world which lay beyond and above the Bohemia he had already conquered. In his then role as the stylesetter of his Oxbridge generation he had found many doors open, thereby gaining a perspective of further doors which only a judicious marriage could get him through. Charlotte was a particularly beautiful, particularly clever daughter of the academic establishment. Her family had been professorial since well before Darwin left for Tierra del Fuego. Lancelot, not wholly blinded by love, had seen a chance for the kind of respectability that mere brilliance finds it difficult to attain. Perhaps he should have realised that the pleasure Charlotte took in his company was a token of how the studious network in which she had grown up bored her to distraction. She wanted from him the excitement of primal creation, he from her the secure base of enrolment in a secular clergy. So each of them had in time found that the new door led into an empty room. But at least for him it was a safe place, where he had been at first surprised, and then saddened, to discover that his proposed exploitation of his wife’s connections had turned to an actual dependence on her stable personality. Nowadays he never fell in love without dreading the possibility of being forced to leave home. He was like that Chinese firework called a plate-spinner. It must have a plate or it won’t spin.

Nine in the morning in London meant that it was well before dawn in New York, so it would be foolish to telephone Samantha. Disturbed at that hour she would be spiteful even if alone. Not that there was any doubt about alone being the way that she would be. That she would be alone was so inevitable there was no point checking up. Also the question was moot whether being subject to a stream of abuse would necessarily be all that much better than not hearing her voice at all. Certain sections of her body came into his mind, inducing a rush of aching sweetness which he guessed must be what heroin felt like when injected — he was too old to know. Samantha probably knew, just as she knew everything else that was not worth knowing. She touched herself while making love but then all the girls in her age-group did that nowadays, just as they all had the same cursive handwriting. He supposed his daughters did it too. Telephoning her would be a mistake, no question of it.

‘You woke me up.’

‘It doesn’t sound like it. Have you got somebody with you?’

‘That’s difficult to say.’

‘Is he on the job at this actual moment or are you just lying beside each other radiating a soft glow of well-being?’

‘It’s impossible to tell at this stage. Why don’t you ask me when I’ve had a chance to go through the documents?’

‘Go to buggery.’

‘That would be marvellous. I’ll ring you at work.’

Feeling sick, Lancelot headed for the nearest bathroom. What he saw Feydeau doing on the stairhead landing[1] made him feel sicker. Youngest of the dogs, Feydeau was trying to screw his expensive behind into the weft of the carpet. Presumably this had something to do with an irritated sphincter, although whether the condition was being exacerbated or ameliorated by the treatment was hard to tell, since the resulting whimpers were open to either interpretation. Lancelot tried to take solace from his ability to do that sort of thing in a specially designed room. There was something to being human even when you were brought face to face with your inadequacies.

Not that what he saw in the mirror showed any particular signs of anguish long endured. Nor would it have done even to, say, Colette[2], who when analysing her hero Chéri’s physiognomy had been able to tell so much from the texture of his eyelids. In Lancelot’s case there was simply not a great deal to analyse beyond a pleasant regularity of features, the lower planes of which he now shaved, sealing the open skin with a liquid which boasted in Spanish that it had been created especially for men. His plenitude of straight blond hair felt itchy at the roots but he decided to postpone washing either it or the body which held it a slightly greater than average distance off the ground. Tonight would do. It was the second such procrastination in two days: Lancelot felt no compulsion towards a diurnal bath. If challenged he would invoke the threat it posed to the natural oils, over which he now drew various items of plain, well chosen and expensive clothing.

‘Feydeau’s doing something unspeakable on the landing,’ said Lancelot when he reached the kitchen, in which their cook, called something like Mrs Hermesetas, was currently ferrying bacon and eggs from the stove to the stripped pine table. At the window end of the table sat Lancelot’s wife. At the other end was his younger daughter Tessa, who was dressed in jet-black jodhpurs and a sequinned bomber jacket, as well as being painted and decorated like an extraterrestrial doll. Her hair was arranged in spikes, each a separate colour of Italian ice-cream and terminating in a tinsel star. Also present were two more dogs, Scribe and Sardou, snuffling in counterpoint as they sucked up separate platefuls, left over from the previous evening, of a chopped food which was supposed to contain so much meat that there was really small point in the dog-owner’s not sitting down to join the animal for an intimate supper by candlelight.

‘Did you walk him?’ Charlotte asked Tessa, who shrugged her puffed shoulders by way of reply and left the room with a tinkling of little bells. An independent observer might have supposed that she was absenting herself in order to compensate for her error by dealing with the result, but her mother knew that such a chain of cause and effect could be brought into being only with the kind and intensity of struggle which was not worth initiating until her husband was out of the way.

‘Will they let her into the school looking like that?’ asked Lancelot, adding hot water to the grains of a species of decaffeinated coffee whose name sounded like a man being tortured.

‘She isn’t at school, for God’s sake. Have you been ringing the inspirational Samantha?’

‘Just checking up on something at work.’

‘With the night watchman, I suppose.’

‘No, the secretaries have to get in early. Some of them do, anyway. Victor’s very strict in that respect.’

Charlotte looked around the racks of carefully displayed ceramics as if wondering what it all added up to, beyond an elaborate homage, brightened with half an acre of stripped pine, to the history of British crockery in the pre-modern period. Lancelot was pleased that what he had said was sufficiently up to snuff so as not to provoke outright contempt, belief having long since been out of the question. Scribe and Sardou had by now absorbed their morning ration of diced filet mignon. Sardou sniffed Scribe’s behind and looked away in vague discontent, as Pierre Balmain might perhaps have done before belatedly deciding that an early prototype of Jolie Madame verged on the unsubtle.

‘Are you gracing us with your presence tonight?’ asked Charlotte.

‘Only to change. Reception at Victor’s for Hildegarde’s book about India.’ Lancelot wondered how Charlotte managed to make her clothes look so staid. To the extent that he still paid her any attention at all he was prepared to admit that her smocks and so on suited her unassertive beauty. But only the unclad bits of her, it seemed to him, could plausibly be regarded as flesh. The bits that were covered up could not be said to exist. She was like a fashion sketch from a knitting magazine. Actually he felt about her body the way she felt about his personality, but he had fewer resources for guessing this fact than she had. The image of Samantha once more burst into his mind, this time holding one of its breasts in one hand while the other hand anointed the shadow between its thighs with baby oil.

‘Must go,’ he said through a mouthful of grains. ‘I’ll just try that call again quickly first.’

‘Secretaries weren’t there after all?’

But Lancelot was already half way up the stairs. Being far more willing to embrace tragedy than farce, he adroitly hurdled the still gruesomely preoccupied Feydeau, but did not hesitate to dial the same fourteen-figure number which had cost him so much anguish a few minutes previously. This time it did not answer at all. He redialled in case of a mis-dial and went on standing there for a long time while unacceptable imaginings attacked. He could picture the completeness with which, if suitably distracted, she would ignore the telephone. She would be capable of enjoying herself immeasurably even if the apartment house were under siege by black commandos with flame-throwers. On the other hand she might have gone for an early morning run. After all, she was on the east side of the Park and the buildings on Central Park South form an even more beautiful skyline in the first flush of dawn than they do after dark. Samantha, however, despite her scintillating academic record, could not be said to have any aesthetic interests apart from those she mugged up ad hoc as background for the feature articles she contributed to glossy magazines. What interested her chiefly was social adventure combined with highly concentrated erotic experience. He hung up, rang again, and found the number engaged. It was engaged a second time and a third.

On one of the shelves in front of him were twenty-five or so copies of Special Pleading. He had bought the surplus stock of his early and only collection of verse rather than see it go to remainder. Once the shelf had held two hundred copies but some of them at various times had made convenient gifts for business acquaintances and he had conferred one each on his successive mistresses as part of the initiation process. The collection had made a considerable impact when it came out. He had shared the political irascibility of his literary generation and indeed still did, to the extent at any rate of espousing socialist principles and voting Labour, or at any rate not voting Conservative. But unlike his contemporaries he had never climbed into a roll-neck sweater which did not emanate from Sulka at the very least. While his friends were proclaiming the advanced tooth decay and gingivitis of the social system, Lancelot was assembling an Adrian Stokes archive[3] which soon included Adrian Stokes himself, who found him brilliant. Maurice Bowra also found him brilliant. Isaiah Berlin had not found him brilliant but had found him charming. He spent a lot of time being found either brilliant or charming even before his book emerged. While being sufficiently combative to earn him a place among the dissatisfied, its constituent verses assuagingly reproduced, in soap and wax, the enamels and cameos[4] of his French models.

From that day his name stood for a tasteful eclecticism contained within an apparently rigorous formal symmetry. In the following decade his reputation deteriorated into fame. He graduated from writing poetry to writing articles, from writing articles to editing, and from editing to being a consultant. The Sixties he had spent being a celebrity. The Seventies he had spent profitably enough with harking back to the Sixties and helping pump oxygen into the guttering idea of flair. As half the board of Style Consultants — his Keble contemporary Anthony Easement constituted the other half — he was a keeper of the flame. One of the large firms most importunate for advice had been Victor Ludorum, owned and managed by Victor Ludlow. While retaining his interest in Style Consultants, Lancelot had joined Victor Ludorum the year before last as Senior Special Projects Adviser. It was one of those steps forward that feels like a step back before your foot has even finished travelling through the air. But Style Consultants was no longer doing well. If he were to go on bringing home any bacon at all he needed to do great things for Victor Ludorum. To do that he needed to please Victor, and the moment Lancelot needed to do something he lost his facility for doing it. It was like trying to walk while thinking about how to walk. It was like remembering how to breathe. The overseas operator said he had no means of checking the line. The operator in the US said she had but wouldn’t. Maybe he should just assoom, she suggested, that his party was tied up.

Burst tears thinly coating the whole area of his eyes, Lancelot strode out of his study in a commendably dignified manner and trod with his full weight on Feydeau’s tail, which was thus compressed, for the width of a shoe, to the thickness of a beer coaster. Since Feydeau was already in the blast-off position, with his legs splayed and his pampered fundament screwed well down into the carpet, he lost no time in becoming airborne, leaving nothing behind him except some roughly parallel dark smears and a brimming sonic reservoir of protest. Lancelot, standing against the wall with one hand over his eyes and the other on his fibrillating heart, was yet able to hear, if not see, that the dog had gone to the kitchen in order to swear out a complaint in front of the other dogs and enlist their vociferous aid as witnesses. Charlotte left them to it and opened the front door for him.

‘I might go to the country a day early,’ she said, ‘and leave you to get on with it. You’re miserable, aren’t you?’

‘A bit. Work, mainly. It’s all too awful.’

‘Did you get through to her?’

‘That was work, honestly.’

‘By the time she gets back I’ll be out of the road. She can have jet-lag on your shoulder. But tomorrow I have to be here because those people from Prestige are coming to photograph my Ideal Academic Table. Shouldn’t you have wellies on or something?’

‘It’ll probably ease off.’ He darted a kiss at her temple, raising a small puff of talcum, or at any rate the whiff of it. Under the columnated portico he hesitated long enough to notice all over again that the masonry was showing some ominous cracks[5]. Between the puddles in the gravel forecourt he zigzagged to his unassumingly smart foreign car, the rain speckling his light-weight trench coat to give an effect he quite liked. Of course he should have been wearing Wellingtons — at his age he should have been wearing waders and a sou’wester — but vanity, he told himself, would not allow it. He knew about his vanity and thought that that made it less. He knew he thought that and thought that that made it all right.

The spring rain sluiced down, differing from the winter rain in that you could see it for longer each day. Heading out into the traffic, he was reminded by his wet skin of Biarritz the year before last. The tide had been out far enough to leave room for a good-sized frisbee-throwing circle on the gently shelving sable d’or. Lancelot was just getting set to field a long-distance fizzer from his son Toby, when he noticed Samantha walking towards them from the direction of the southern beach. Samantha was the daughter of one of Charlotte’s academic colleagues, an eminent if irascible philologist who always holidayed at a big house down there, a tumbledown crenellated nonsense about a kilometre back from the cliffs. Once she had been a very pretty girl. Then for several years she had not been present, a fact noted with regret by the children, and especially by Toby, who had a crush on her even though she was several years older and notoriously cruel. Now, when she appeared again, she was a beautiful young woman. Her delectable body attracted the sunlight so powerfully that Lancelot could practically see the photons speeding up on their way towards her. While the frisbee was still in mid-air, the role that he might play in her life became clear to him all at once, like a clairvoyance. Absorbing these two revelations, the look of her and the thought of what he must do, he turned with elaborate casualness to catch the speeding frisbee behind his back. It hit him in the kidneys like a. discus. There was a good deal of uninhibited laughter from the assembled golden youth, abetted by a discreet but visible giggle from Charlotte, lazily guarding her pale skin under a driftwood shelter while she got on with her self-imposed task of keeping up with the serious new writers. The whole holiday arrangement was a flagrant example of everything that Lancelot believed needed changing. He was proud that his gauchiste convictions had never altered. That they had never been tested was a separate issue. What was the point of a bourgeois funk-hole beside a foreign sea? Only London was real. London, whose gritty actuality was turned by your windscreen wipers into grisaille fans on which no Mallarmé would ever write a poem or Conder paint a pink Arcadia[6]. And about time too. Give the people a chance, thought Lancelot, driving past a long wall comprehensively decorated with such rubrics as DEATH TO NIGGER SLIME and YID FILTH OUT.

Having completed the journey from the extremely fashionable postal district in which he lived to the extremely unfashionable postal district in which he worked, he found the car-park behind the Victor Ludorum building full, which gave him a chance to circle several of the surrounding blocks in search of a space, find one in a side street, and then run on tip-toe in his mandatorily minimal shoes for several hundred yards through the rain. As Senior Special Projects Adviser he was entitled to parking space but he was so senior that there was no one above him to complain to and as an Adviser he had no department below him through which to enforce an order. He reported directly to Victor, which effectively made him powerless while Victor wasn’t around, and Victor, for whom book publishing was only a minor part of an undercapitalised empire which also embraced at least two national newspapers and four magazines, spent as little time in the office as possible, running his enterprises either from his large house in Hampstead or from any one of a constantly fluctuating aggregate of other dwellings throughout the world. Consequently the only thing Lancelot could immediately make happen was the expulsion of his secretary from the office while he telephoned.

The rear view of his retreating secretary was not pleasant. Her name was Janice and he was convinced that even an independent observer would be able to guess the loudness of her voice from one glance at the size of her bottom, which at the moment was converting the normally parallel vertical lines of a pair of corduroy jeans into a spaciously curved magnetic field pattern. Swinging away from that grim spectacle as he dialled, he found himself regaled with an equally depressing outlook seemingly assembled for the specific purpose of characterising a fractionating society. Apart from getting wet, what were those three Arab women doing in front of the Indian cinema? Her telephone was still engaged. He hung up; folded his arms on the desk, and rested his head on them, like a child in school during an enforced period of quiet.

Read on: Chapter Two