Books: Brilliant Creatures — Chapter 4 |
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Brilliant Creatures: Chapter 4

~ four ~

n the populated half-light of the Carambar, Nicholas Crane, the successful young author of novels so horrifying that juries gave them prizes to get out of reading them, had good cause to be glad that Lancelot was late. From a concealed public address system an old Xavier Cugat record spoke of bad movies set in Acapulco. The ghost of Abbe Lane rattled the maracas while Nicholas gazed deep into the sea-green eyes of Sally Draycott, a girl he had been besieging for what seemed like centuries. Feeling he was not going to attain his object was for him such an unusual sensation that he had begun to savour it. Sally was so beautiful, so intelligent, so original, so mysterious and so incomparably the most exciting woman he had ever encountered that he had almost reconciled himself to going on giving her a few minutes of his precious time even after it had become established seemingly irrevocably that they would not be lovers. At this brief meeting today, which was meant to end with Lancelot’s arrival, the chief aim was to have been the generating of a moral climate in which the close friendship obtaining between Nicholas and Sally could continue without longing on his part and constant wariness on hers. When they met later that night at Victor’s, they would be enviable chums, enjoying each other’s company without anxiety and seeking other intimacies without recrimination. But just when Nicholas was congratulating himself on this further step towards maturity, something in Sally’s manner told him that the sincerity of his renunciation had tipped the balance. An overtone of complicity in her voice, a discreet but not wholly necessary licking of the lower lip, an extra degree of heat off her silken skin — these signs working in an unanalysable combination told him that he was like a man who gives the slot machine one last defeated crank of the handle as he turns away and then hears the air fill with the sound of cascading silver. He was in like Flynn.

‘You know what’s wrong with these Platonic relationships, don’t you?’ Nicholas pretended to ask.

‘No sex,’ said Sally, nodding with mock agreement.

‘That’s it. You don’t get to take your clothes off and lie down together.’

‘And that’s essential, is it?’

‘No, not essential. Just fantastically desirable and good even when you merely like each other. Fabulously good when you more than like each other. Inexhaustibly and transcendentally fabulous when you like each other very much indeed.’ The most prominent young novelist in his generation of young novelists, Nicholas favoured cumulative verbal effects. As in a Verdi aria, the same melodic figure[1] kept on coming back with ever more elaborate orchestration. Ideas exfoliated into rococo curlicues.

‘What about,’ asked Sally, with deliberately crushing emphasis, as if she were the kind of television interviewer who tries to make difficult concepts palatable by sounding like a kindergarten teacher, ‘the way that the fabulous passion tends to burn itself out in the gentleman’s case and leave the lady watching the telephone?’ Actually Sally was the other kind of television interviewer, the kind who tries to sound normal, and was thus only half as far ahead in her career as she might have been.

‘Which lady is this?’ asked Nicholas. ‘Most of the women I’ve known so far, familiarity bred contempt because contempt was the only possible emotion you could experience once familiarity had been established.’

‘So gallant. Will I get talked about like this?’

Striving to conceal his profound glee at her concessive use of the future tense, Nicholas pretended to consider. He looked at her while tilting his head to various angles. He sat back, held up his thumb, and measured the proportions of her face, a process which, even while he was making a joke of it, struck him as an act of necessary aesthetic homage. Women with eyes half that big got around without bumping into anything. So why all the superfluous material? In order to be lovely. An end in itself.

‘No,’ he said finally. ‘In the event that you granted me what I’ve obviously been seeking, I’d consider it highly unlikely that my sense of gratitude for being so deeply involved in your life could do anything except increase dramatically. Escalate exponentially. Hypertrophy to the most stag ...’

‘Right. Got it.’

‘What we’re postulating here is the attainment of the ultimate intimacy with the person loved. If the person loved regarded letting a man go through the contents of her handbag as the ultimate intimacy, that’s what this man would be after.’

‘Like Flaubert[2].’

‘Was that his number? Trust the frogs. I was thinking of the Birdman of Alcatraz, actually. Anyway you can see what I mean.’

‘I can indeed, and I think it’s rubbish.’

‘So do I. What I’ve been after from you is just sex. But what’s so just about just sex? I mean in the sense of what’s so mere about mere physical passion? It includes everything. It includes a complete appreciation of the adored one in all her qualities, or what you suppose her qualities to be. If it uses itself up quickly then you’ve picked the wrong person. But you weren’t wrong about the passion, only about the person.’

‘You weren’t wrong. You always say you when you mean I. And you think that your appreciation of me is a true one, do you?’

‘What do you think?’

‘I think that when you look at me or at anyone else you see yourself. What you don’t realise, thank God, is that it’s really quite a disarming self. No wonder we all roll over and kick our heels in the air.’

Nicholas smiled at this in a winning way, adding the touch of self-mockery that he supposed made it more winning still. He was not to know that she took his charm for granted and liked him for his energy. The day might come when he would be capable of such a reflection and so be a more formidable seducer than ever, although with perhaps less chance to achieve a woman like her. At this precise point, when matters were being settled in mid-air along their eye-line, there was a rustle in the shrubbery beside them.

In the Carambar the waiters behave as if they own the place and the people who own the place behave like waiters, so it is not always easy to tell employer and employee apart. Such outbreaks of industrial democracy are rare in Britain and soon cure themselves if left alone, but at the Carambar, even though it had been open now for three years, you still often heard your first name when being served a drink. ‘Message for you, Nicholas,’ said a handsome young man called Crispin as he leaned through a potted palm to deliver a fresh brace of carefully titrated Bellinis. ‘Lancelot can’t make it. Trouble with his car. Says he’ll see you tonight.’

‘Perhaps Samantha’s back,’ said Sally.

‘Not for a day or two yet,’ said Nicholas, shrugging off disappointment with an emphatic negative. He always enjoyed showing Sally off to his older friend and rival, knowing that her steadiness led Lancelot at least momentarily to regret Samantha’s theoretically desirable volatility. ‘The poor bastard is in a perfect frenzy of jealous anguish. He’s got visions of her taking a header into every bed in New York. I console him by saying that it won’t be every bed in New York. Just the beds of the really famous blokes. The really successful blokes with the antique cocaine spoons worn as personal jewellery and tufts of pubic hair plugged into their foreheads like an uncut carpet. Only the ones who are younger, richer, more virile than him. Only those. That’s what I tell him.’

‘You’d be a lot less frightening getting each other down than you are bucking each other up.’

‘Is that what you think happens?’

‘I know that’s what happens. You and he make it funny. Funnier in your case because you’re stronger. He’s just older. But take away the mutual hysteria and that’s what you’re all up to. Staging a conspiracy.’

‘It isn’t really like that.’

‘Then tell me what it’s really like.’

‘You tell him something so he‘ll tell you something,’ Nicholas explained. ‘But you each say the bare minimum because neither of you wants to give the other the idea that he could do better. At the outside you might subtly hint that the girl had succumbed to your blandishments. But you wouldn’t say she turned purple in your arms, had convulsions for half an hour and then spent the rest of the night at the foot of your bed saying prayers of thanks.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because he might be thinking: only purple? Only half an hour? Only saying prayers?’

‘I don’t believe any of that. But if we waited to meet men who weren’t vain and didn’t boast, we’d wait for ever.’

‘Because the kind of men you want to sleep with are vain and boast.’

‘Don’t be smug about it. Some of us can perfectly well do without. As it happens I am going to let you sleep with me tonight but I don’t want you to tell anybody and least of all Lancelot. People already assume that we’re doing it anyway just because that’s your reputation. But an assumption on their part and an open admission on ours are different things.’

‘I promise.’

‘And those other women you’ve been pretending you’ve given up. You’ll give them up?’

‘I promise that too.’

‘Don’t promise what you can’t deliver or you’ll be lying now as well as later. I just don’t want your crowd dragging me down to its level. It’s bad enough you let them do it to you.’

‘Which level is this?’

‘Oh, I don’t know. The level of unfeeling disguised as sophistication, I suppose. That level.’

‘I never thought you’d sound like advice to the lovelorn,’ said Nicholas, believing that he was stung on behalf of his friends rather than on behalf of himself.

‘Quite a lot of true things get said that way. You can’t imagine how I hate it when the joke’s supposed to be on Charlotte. It’s with Lancelot but it’s on Charlotte, isn’t it? He can tell the story against himself because the story’s for him really, because even if he’s a randy old middle-aged trendy diving around with a pretty girl at least he’s got the girl. What’s Charlotte got?’

‘Her career. The house. The children. Him. For a long time up to now and for a long time to come. While all around them the perfect marriages are coming apart like wet paper bags.’

‘You might be right.’ Sally’s gift was for setting herself high standards without thinking herself unique. She knew it could all happen to her and wondered what it would be like living for a long time with a man you loved and who was not faithful. Luckily she did not love Nicholas, whom she felt was being unfaithful to her already even as he sat there. Lapsing for once into the kind of married-lady fantasy she disapproved of, she imagined him as old as Lancelot, opening the front door after a bad day and looking right through her when he met her in the hall.

Read on: Chapter Five