Books: Brilliant Creatures — Chapter 3 |
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Brilliant Creatures: Chapter 3

~ three ~

t was perhaps only the shock effect of hearing all this at close range that stopped Lancelot felling his secretary with a flying kick to the throat. He wondered how she would look staked out face down naked on an ant-hill, with the ants drawing up plans for the huge task of consuming her posterior. For the ants it would be a public works project dwarfing the Tennessee Valley Authority in its awesome scope. They would have to build roads and set up base camps. They would need oxygen. There would have to be Sherpa ants to hump the equipment. He imagined a softer voice, the voice that he had been denied and which suitably prompted would have said it loved him. But no sooner had the storm of Lancelot’s anger gathered than it circled back into his own soul and vented its wrath there. He cursed himself for having given his bomb-voiced, Hottentot-bottomed secretary insufficiently explicit instructions. He cursed himself again for cursing himself instead of her, all unaware that his reluctance deliberately to cause pain was one of his charms, or would have been if it were not a leading ingredient in his capacity to cause pain inadvertently.

Nevertheless Lancelot was in the early stages of a melt-down. The gamma radiation might have damaged Janice’s large mass of organic tissue irreversibly if Frank Strain had not walked in and suggested, at a length wholly incommensurate with the simplicity of the message, that he had some figures upstairs Lancelot might like to see. In cold truth, the only figures Frank Strain might have had which Lancelot could conceivably have liked to see would have been an actuarial table establishing the statistical certainty of people who looked and talked like Frank boring themselves to death at an early date — tomorrow, for example. Frank was one of the firm’s four chief editors. The four chief editors were the editors who chiefly did the editing that Victor was not interested in or, after having momentarily become interested, did not have time for. Of the four chief editors, three actually edited, leaving Frank free to consider the business side of the business and thus check up on how much Lancelot’s projects cost relative to what they earned, i.e., increasingly a lot compared with a little. Frank’s would have been a dull job even if he had dressed and conversed like the Count Robert de Montesquiou[1]. But a dull job had found an even duller man. He wore large black brogues with short laces tied in small bows that looked like dead flies; baggy suits that would have suggested the existence of a special press to render trousers creaseless if it had not been for a rich network of transverse wrinkles radiating from the low crotch; and shirts that served no other function except to obviate the necessity of knotting his tie around his bare neck. This week’s tie, Lancelot noticed, before Frank turned to lead him very slowly down the corridor and up a flight of stairs so narrow that one bumped a wall if one coughed, was patterned after a colony of parasitic organisms stained and sectioned for microscopic examination. Last week’s tie had looked like the molecular structure of mud. The tie of the week before last had looked like this week’s tie, which meant that next week’s tie would look like last week’s. Frank’s office looked so like the office of a man like Frank that you felt it had been decorated by Julia Trevelyan Oman or some designer similarly renowned for being fanatical about detail. There were a lot of books to denote publishing, and several group photographs of Selwyn College Junior Common Room committees with Frank in the back row, these latter to hint at his dynamism and charisma.There being a varnished oak veneer door in each side of the office, Lancelot saw no reason why they should not make their respective exits and finish dressing for the coming scene. Lancelot could come back on with high horned wig, knee breeches, buckled shoes, lace stock, silk coat, white make-up, a beauty spot and a quizzing glass. Throwing one foot forward and bowing low, he could cry, ‘La, Sir! I see you have me!’ Frank could come shambling forward in gaping shoes, matted hair, a tattered suit lined with newspapers, a scraggled beard, forehead shiny with dirt, and toting a bindle.

As things were, the encounter was perhaps a trifle under-directed, especially considering the amount of dramatic content which it relatively promptly, and for Lancelot entirely unexpectedly, proved to have.

‘It’s about tax,’ said Frank with obvious relish. ‘Tax is what it’s really about. There’s what’s sometimes known, it’s not my phrase for it but it’s a phrase they often, and I suppose it conveys the sense as well as any other, and I wouldn’t say a crisis because that would be putting it, so perhaps it’s better to just bend with the prevailing, and call it what everybody else calls it.’

‘What do they call it?’

‘Mm? Oh, didn’t I say? A tax problem.’

‘What tax problem? To do with me?’

‘Yes, of course.’

Frank went on to elucidate, choosing words which would have affected Lancelot like a public recital of Motley’s Rise of the Dutch Republic if their cumulative import had not been so acutely and painfully relevant to himself. It seemed that the Internal Revenue Service saw no reason why he should not be reclassified from Schedule D to PAYE. Admittedly he had several sources of income and his arrangement with Victor Ludorum purported to be a freelance contract. Nevertheless he was, in the IRS’s considered view, effectively an employee of Victor Ludorum. The fact that he had signed the contract in the belief that it was a freelance contract was irrelevant. So was the fact that he had asked for no pension provisions. So was the fact that for all previous contracts, no matter with which employer, he had always been classified as Schedule D. There was no suggestion of fraud on his part. The rules had merely been changed retroactively. What was more they might well be changed retroactively all the way back to the beginning and with regard to his participation in Style Consultants as well, so that he would have to repay about a decade of expenses deducted against tax. He would have a chance to appeal, but meanwhile tax would be deducted at source. Frank showed him the first notification of payment under the new arrangement. The money had already been sent to Lancelot’s bank, and was not even half the usual amount. In fact the sum deducted exceeded the top rate of tax, apparently because a double National Insurance contribution had been taken away too, almost as if he were not already paying a double National Insurance contribution as a matter of course.

To an uninformed glance, Lancelot when leaving Frank’s office would have looked no more stunned than he or anybody else ever did when leaving Frank’s office. He was still upright and the glaze on his eyes did not exceed in thickness that on the average domestic pot dating from the Sung dynasty[2]. Privately, however, he felt as if he had been sandbagged, stripped naked and left to crawl home across a large desert he could not name. Back in his own office he fell weakly into Janice’s swivel chair, a feat of coordination made considerably easier by the fact that Janice had gone home. The electric clock always gave a soft click when the minute hand was exactly vertical. At five o’clock that click would not have been over before Janice was out of the starting blocks and barrelling down the street towards the tube station, with unwary subcontinentals bowled off their feet and unrolling out of their saris. By now she must be halfway towards whichever gymnasium she went to in the evenings in order to build up the muscles in her behind, before moving on to night school for her lessons in voice projection and how to write slowly. It was remarkable how secretaries had widened their range in his time. Once they could only not do shorthand. Now they could also not do longhand. Lancelot was spinning back and forth in a half circle, knocking his kneecaps without noticing. He caught himself. He was being obsessive. Compulsive behaviour declares itself through repetition and can thus be identified, he told himself, reaching for the telephone. At the office where the magazine Samantha worked for was published — it was called Courage in Profiles and consisted mainly of illiterate minor-celebrities interviewing each other—they said she had already gone to lunch. An early lunch, he thought, putting on his coat and arranging the collar. An early lunch finishing late. He imagined her sitting in Morton’s, or Joe Allen’s, or somewhere even more terrible such as the Palm Court at the Plaza, while some old young publishing executive with an Astroturf hair transplant told her she was talented. He could hear her rather piercing laugh momentarily drowning the resident quartet as they got on with the job of ritually eviscerating Schubert[3]. Well, two could play at that game. In twenty minutes, after a quick drive through the romantic London rain in his unostentatious but satisfactorily elegant conveyance, he would join his young friend Nicholas over a couple of well-judged Bellinis behind the wooden louvred windows of the Carambar in Covent Garden. The Girl Fridays and personal assistants of communications executives by whom they were just ceasing to be impressed would be perched on velvet stools and ready to vouchsafe him the sidelong glance befitting his residual measure of fame. Obsession did not stop you looking and could even be said to take the sting out of it. Anticipating novelty if not adventure, Lancelot felt marginally less unhappy as, head down against the fitfully spitting rain, he hopped and jumped rapidly between the puddles to his car, which at first looked as if it had almost nothing wrong with it.

Several long scratches down the driver’s side, forming a stave on which the paired lightning flashes of the SS looked like some son of musical signature, were the only external signs of damage apart from the deflated front tyre. The door, whose lock had been forced, opened after a brief struggle, to reveal that the chunkily named Krooklok had done its work. Indeed the Krooklok was the only piece of equipment inside the car which could be said to have remained intact, because although the rear-view mirror had for some reason been left unbroken it was nevertheless lying on the back seat. A festoon of variously coloured wires hung out from under the dashboard. The radio and cassette-player assembly might or might not have been harmed. There was no way of telling, because it was missing entirely, along with all of its attendant cassettes. The window in the door he was holding open with his hip had appeared at first to be wound down but now proved to have been redistributed around the car’s interior in the form of many-faceted opaque fragments, like lacklustre ice. The reason why the window had been removed was easily deduced. To soak the front seat with urine while sitting inside the car would have been difficult even if not degrading. The prospective thieves, their main intention thwarted, had obviously taken their revenge by removing the window and relieving themselves into the car from the outside. That there had been more than one of them was a conclusion impossible to avoid. No single human body, unless suffering from terminal beri-beri, could contain so much waste fluid. Lancelot found it hard to believe that any of the local Pakistanis, Punjabis, Sikhs, Sepoys or Gurkhas could have been responsible. Justifiably paranoid, most of them either never let their children out of the house or else sent them to school through a tunnel. Likelier candidates were one or more of the groups of white teenage neo-Nazis who, singing an impressionistic version of the Horst Wessel song, regularly marched through the area on their way from the Employment Office to one of those shops where for the cost of a week’s dole money you can buy yourself a pair of jack-boots, a ceremonial dagger or an old copy of Signal with Sepp Dietrich on the cover. What Lancelot could not understand was why the surrounding population of Satyajit Ray extras had done nothing to interfere with an atrocity which must have gone on for at least half an hour in broad daylight and part of whose aftermath was an expensively dressed man holding his face in his hands and having a mid-life crisis in their midst.

Snapping out of it, Lancelot strode purposefully into the nearest shop to ask the proprietors what they had seen. Finding that it sold incense, he changed his mind and strode purposefully out again. He thought of offering violence to a smiling onlooker but reluctantly decided against it on the grounds that she was probably Gandhi’s mother. He hailed a passing taxi with his right arm, thinking that he had better bag it and keep it waiting because it was the only taxi he would be likely to find. He hailed a policeman with his left arm on a similar principle. Neither the taxi driver nor the policeman seemed to see him, even though they were looking straight at him. Lancelot wondered, as he wondered often, whether he really existed.

‘A pity, isn’t it?’ said a man with the turbaned head of a maharaja, a double-breasted pin-striped suit over a Fair Isle sweater, and socks under his sandals. ‘This sort of thing is happening far too much nowadays. We say kerab. Accent on the second syllable. It means bad.’ Lancelot thought he could perhaps make a start on repairing the car by dropping to his knees and blowing into the valve in order to reflate the tyre. Then he saw that the tyre had been stabbed, and besides, the footpath was too wet.

Read on: Chapter Four