Books: Brilliant Creatures — Chapter 5 |
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Brilliant Creatures: Chapter 5

~ five ~

pening the front door after a bad day, Lancelot looked right through Charlotte as he met her in the hall.

‘You look as if you’ve seen a ghost,’ she said, but what he had mainly seen was the taxi meter. It had been some time since he had watched one of these in action, so he had received a painfully sharp indication of how the financial structure of British society had changed in ways not necessarily to his benefit. Coming on top of his duet with Frank Strain, the revelation had been traumatic. When he had finally got through talking to the police and had made arrangements for the car to be accepted at a nearby garage whose personnel looked like the United Nations in blue overalls, he hailed the only other taxi in existence apart from the one that had ignored him earlier. Perhaps it was the same one coming around again. Anyway, he nominated his destination and climbed in, to be greeted by the sight of a new kind of meter which looked like a Japanese digital radio alarm clock, or digital alarm clock radio. Clock alarm radio digital. Lancelot assumed that the decimalised sum of money formed by the illuminated green diodes represented the fare charged to the previous passenger and had been left on display by mistake. He slid open the glass panel to inform the driver of this fact and discovered that it was not a fact. The large sum of money, which was already growing larger as he watched, was the price it cost to start the journey. Then he found that by referring to a chart stuck on the partition the passenger could convert the large sum shown on the meter to a sum very much larger still, provided he was quick. If he was slow, the calculation would be obsolete before it was finished. The green luminous figures changed in a continuous rush, as if a cyclometer had been attached to a coffee-grinder. The total fare cost Lancelot everything he had on him. He stepped out into the rain like a man in a trance. The ghost he had seen was his own.

‘Trouble with the car,’ he muttered. ‘Vandalised. They tried to steal it. Took ages to find a garage and then it cost me everything to get home in a taxi. Everything. Nothing left.’

‘Never mind. You can come with me in the Maxi.’

‘Are you coming too?’

‘Victor rang and said why didn’t I? No doubt it’s such a huge occasion that nobody’ll notice we’re both there, so your reputation will be quite safe.’ In the ordinary way of things Lancelot would have detected the sarcasm, but his mind was full of green telephone numbers that did not answer, or else did but told you nothing.

‘Are you going to change?’ he asked, heading upstairs like a man to the scaffold.

‘I’m already changed,’ said Charlotte without rancour, deploying her pleated sleeves with a papal gesture. ‘This is it.’

As if too tired to think of his own words, Lancelot said the same thing when they arrived at the gate of Victor’s house in Hampstead. ‘This is it.’

‘I know,’ said Charlotte patiently. ‘I’ve been here too.’ Years before she had seen a lot of Victor and had even, when asked, contemplated having a brief retaliatory affair with him, but neither he nor it would have been really her style. Nor she his, probably. By her husband she felt merely outshone. By Victor she felt obliterated. Or so she told herself, not to assuage injured pride — she had been too surprised that the possibility was there to be surprised when it evaporated — but to dull the pain of knowing that only her husband could touch her at the centre. Lancelot had been sincerely disappointed that her liaison with Victor had not flourished. Typically he had neither hidden his disappointment nor realised it would wound. In thrall to a permanent adolescent, Charlotte reflected that at least there would always be one child in the house. Provided, of course, that he did not leave.

She parked the car between a Rolls and something even bigger, which seemed to have no back wheels and was recognisable as a Daimler only when the light from the house struck the fluted grille. These and other large vehicles were patently the carriages of the very grand, but among them sports coupés of foreign provenance crouched knee high, suggesting that the gathering might be spiced by the presence of some of the successful young communications people. Lancelot, who was evidently not at his best, barked his shin against a lurking Ferrari. Nearer the inner gates there were more saloons and limousines, some of them with chauffeurs sitting in them already asleep, although away on the left there was a small group of men talking together whose peaked caps made their suits look vaguely like uniforms. Inside the inner gateway there was a swimming pool lit so brilliantly from within that you could barely notice how the surface was spotted by a light rain. If you bent down to touch the heated water you found it to be the exact temperature of the air, so that all you sensed was a change of texture A good way past the far side of the pool the house began in the form of wide eaves, which even further away became glass walls, beyond which the house began all over again, and kept on going. Under the wide eaves there were people and beyond the glass walls behind them were other people. There must be a hundred people at least, thought Charlotte, with a fear that went back to childhood.

Lancelot wondered how soon he could get to a telephone. He had tried a quick call while dressing and had been connected to a laundry in New Jersey. Several wives of the rich and famous absorbed Charlotte into their number while Lancelot, like the rich and famous, circulated in search of the unexpected. Most of the faces were celebrated in one way or another and one of them, belonging to an American film actor, was so celebrated that for once Lancelot was glad Samantha was not beside him, because she would not have stayed beside him long. The actor, whose name was something like Brick Veneer, was smiling at a story being told to him by Lady Hildegarde, with whom Lancelot would at some stage of the evening have to raise the question of whether she would approve Serena as her chief researcher on the book about writers who could draw. He would have to raise the same question with Serena herself, which would raise the further question of what manner to adopt when telling her that she was relieved from the project about how glamorous women led their lives. At the moment Serena, wearing something in polka-dotted silk which above the waist consisted mainly of sleeves in order to conceal the wrists that looked like trench warfare, was half reclining on a muscatel velvet banquette while several prominent men, one of them the Shadow Foreign Secretary, paid homage. The challenge would be to break the news in such a way that she would retain that posture, instead of running outside to jump into the swimming pool or else heading for the master bathroom to sample one of Victor’s wide selection of cut-throat razors.

Lancelot was asked what he wanted to drink by a man who looked like a cultural attaché. After a remarkably little while another cultural attaché simulacrum brought him the drink specified. Lancelot had often wondered how they worked that trick. The absurdity of generating books by artificial insemination, when there were already far too many books which had been brought into an increasingly ungrateful world by natural fecundity, was rubbed home by the spectacle of Victor’s personal library, some of which could be seen filling the walls on three sides of this, the outer reception room, and which continued through the house on both main floors as the house itself continued up the hill. Victor, a South African Australian Jew educated in three internment camps and four universities, could read fluently in both the ancient languages and at least five of the modern ones. His Hebrew, however, was rumoured to be sketchy. Famously he had read every book in the world except those published by his own firm. The bookshelves, made of black glass slung between silver rails to produce an effect which reminded Lancelot of Tilly Losch’s bathroom, contained rarities that would sometimes bring visiting scholars to their knees. The books gave way only to the paintings and pieces of sculpture, most of them collected during what Victor was fond of referring to as his Goering period[1]. Portrait busts by Troubetzkoy and Golubkhina[2] stood in niches of soft white light. The Nolan Ned Kellys were gifts from the painter. So, reputedly, were the Fairweathers, but the three Morandis had no doubt been obtained by other means. Hockney’s ‘An Even Bigger Splash’ had the space of honour on the left wall of the withdrawing room, which Lancelot now entered, pausing briefly to greet Hockney himself. It was even larger than the outer reception room and except for the paintings and sculpture all four sides were filled with books. Here were many more people, including some of the loveliest women of the day. Lancelot’s spirits, which seemed doomed never again to attain a reasonable level no matter how fast they rose, nevertheless went on rising. Even were he to be utterly deprived of libido, the presence of desirable women would at least reassure him that he was not in an undesirable place. Various well born and cared-for faces were tilted towards him in order to receive his formal kiss. Several of them he had seen transfigured by pleasure. What a pity you could not store those triumphs in a fund, to be drawn upon during lean times. But such reflections, he knew, were signs of weakness in themselves. You could not imagine Victor being thus bothered, any more than he was bothered by the eclectic voracity of his own taste. There he stood with his back to the long mantelpiece over which hung, to trick the eye and ravish the mind, a huge yet weightless Delacroix watercolour study[3] for a Moroccan window. The whole room, and indeed the whole house, seemed to be pointed in that direction, but it wasn’t just because of Delacroix. It was also because of Victor, who looked like a water polo forward run to fat and radiated proprietorial ease. At the moment the least popular female member of the Royal Family and the most popular female television newsreader were talking to each other across his chest. Lancelot received a small signal from Victor that now was not the time to approach, so he halted his forward drift, adroitly dodged various dangerously fissionable groups of bores, and threaded his way through into a sort of sit-down oasis in which, among other men of comparable age and stature, Nicholas was to be found comprehensively holding forth while young ladies sitting at various angles appreciated the results. It was evident that Nicholas was setting the pace, but as a sign of friendship he broke off from general conversation with only half his day’s supply of witticisms duly imparted to the public, and made space at one side for Lancelot to sit down. Space at the other side was already taken by Sally, looking so at home that you could never have guessed she was here for the first time. So at home but not too at home. Lancelot was impressed all over again by her beauty. It made him want to run away and ring up. Deep black hair, simple black shift, fragile black sandals, clear skin — she looked as lustrous as a black and white photograph taken on colour film. Tall and looking all the taller for lying back, she watched the two of them being friends.

‘What happened to your jalopy?’ asked Nicholas.

‘Everything. First thieves and then the police. They peed in it.’

‘The cops peed in it?’

‘No, the thieves.’

‘Was this in broad daylight? Or were you parked down some alley?’

‘It was practically in the main street. I was on a meter. There must have been half a dozen of them.’

‘You mean they all lined up and hosed through the front window of your heap? Great.’

‘I expect the chassis will more or less rust away in the course of time.’ Lancelot switched his attention to Sally, patronising her ever so slightly, or what he thought was ever so slightly.

‘How are you enjoying the high life?’

‘It’s certainly got more to offer than the summer ball at my university. Which was previously the smartest do I was ever at.’

‘Did they have a ball at your university?’ asked Nicholas with feigned surprise. ‘I thought they had a raffle or something. Wasn’t it more a sort of sale of work?’

‘Who’s that woman who’s just come in?’

Even before he looked over his shoulder, Lancelot knew from the way the room had gone quiet whom Sally must mean. ‘That,’ he said, with an assumed tone of formality, as if christening a ship, ‘is Elena.’


‘Elena. Accent on the first syllable.’ Lancelot sounded knowing, although not as knowing as he would have liked to sound. Elena would have looked statuesque if any statue had ever looked so alive. He had once called her Madame X dressed by Madame Gres[4], but it was a lasting regret to him that a single epigram was as close as he had ever come to being linked with her name.

‘Holy smoke. What’s her line of business?’

‘She’s a spy.’

‘Who for?’

‘The superpowers only,’ said Lancelot, answering Elena’s smile as it flashed momentarily towards him like a traversing searchlight. ‘She spies for all of them against each other. The most original woman in London by miles. Of a certain age, of course.’

‘Oh, of course,’ said Sally, wondering how anyone’s body could give off so much illumination when three-quarters of it was covered in a black sheath dress. Was it true that you could be radiant by feeling radiant? Alas, not so. What you had to be was the focus of every male gaze in the room. What lit you up was being looked at. ‘Suddenly I feel as if I’ve got a scarf tied around my head and I’m working at a lathe.’

‘She’s a wop dyke,’ said Nicholas happily. ‘Maybe she’ll take you on. You’re just the right height.’

‘Tell me he’s joking, Lancelot.’

‘Not at all. Her husband died from jealousy. She’s famously Sapphic.’

‘Doesn’t that just mean that she wouldn’t go out with you?’ Sally had quickly discovered that Lancelot enjoyed being taunted: it counted as intimacy.

‘Go out with,’ sneered Nicholas. ‘Listen to it. The genteelness of it. Go out with.’

‘She wouldn’t, as a matter of fact,’ Lancelot confessed largely. ‘Although she does have a score of male admirers. But apart from her shall-we-say very close female companions her life centres on Victor, whose emotional career is definitely over, he being so much older and what have you. It’s a sort of mariage blanc, all done on the social level. He never makes a move without her advice. She’s where he gets what taste he has.’

‘I should have thought his taste was perfect.’

‘Oh God no. Forgive me, my dear, but this place is a bazaar. It’s Playboy Mansion North.’

‘What’s wrong with a bazaar if everything in it’s good?’

Lancelot started to tell her while Nicholas sat back to enjoy the argument. He was enjoying everything. Having Sally on his arm made him feel as if he had recently invented the universe. The thought of what was scheduled to happen later made him try to unthink it, on the childhood principle that if you refrain from dwelling on a forthcoming treat then it won’t be taken away from you by circumstances. That day an articulated lorry had fallen sideways at a roundabout and crushed a panda car with two policemen inside it. Nicholas could easily imagine the same thing happening to him and Sally as they drove home. But it wouldn’t, because he was not being presumptuous. He wasn’t taking even his next breath for granted.

Charlotte was glad to see Elena arrive because the advent of the uncrowned queen of this little world meant that it would soon be the moment to approach the buffet tables, and she wanted to get away from the group of wives. They had all been talking married gossip non-stop and she owed them the chance to talk about her. Besides, she could see that one of Victor’s most notoriously tedious factotums, Frank Strain, was inflicting unmerciful torture on a rather heartrendingly grotty young man whose inaccurately shaven face she thought she recognised.

‘Frank, you’ve thrilled this young man long enough. Let me show him the way to the food.’

‘Oh, you know each other?’ asked Frank plaintively, but the words had the Doppler effect of a dying fall, the source from which they emanated having been left far in the distance.

‘I can never thank you enough. Another few hours of that and I would have been dead. I’m David Bentley.’

‘I thought you were. Your book of short stories was my bedside book just before Christmas. I can remember every bit of it except the title.’

Tactical Voting in the Eurovision Song Contest.’

‘Of course. Charlotte Windhover. I’m married to Lancelot Windhover, Victor’s Special Projects Adviser. Do you come under that department? I suppose not.’

‘I don’t come under any department yet. I’m not actually published by Victor Ludorum. Charrap and Warbus did that book you read. Although I might be. He seems to be making moves in that direction. He’s giving me lunch some time in the middle of the month after next and I suppose this invitation is a kind of preliminary ducking so I won’t get all hot and bothered by his poshness. I’m talking too much.’

‘Are you hot and bothered now? Don’t miss out on those, they’re usually pretty good.’

‘What are they?’

‘Pieces of pheasant.’

‘I don’t think I’ve actually ever eaten pheasant, unless they put it in the Wimpys without telling you. How many should I take?’

‘One should be enough. We can circle back later if we want more. Come and sit over by the wall and then you can watch everybody.’

‘I’m not hot and bothered but I disapprove like hell. This afternoon I was in Brighton talking to a lot of trained schoolteachers who can’t find a job of any kind. It makes you angry, walking out of that into this.’

‘I suppose it does.’

‘And on top of the anger I feel out of place in this radical combat outfit. I should have changed into a suit. Not that I’ve got one.’

‘What’s uppermost, embarrassment or annoyance?’

‘It’s a cocktail. I’ve never seen so many women who look like jewellery advertisements talking to men who look as if they buy jewels to give to women who look like that. If I tried to talk to one of those females I’d drop my plate.’

‘Thanks for the compliment.’

‘Yes, but you talked to me. Otherwise I’d still be with that man hearing about loss leaders and warehouse costing.’

‘All you have to do is relax, you know. You’re dressed exactly the way the painters are, so if you pipe down everyone will think you’re a painter too. There’s old Lady Walsingham over there and she already thinks you’re an abstract expressionist. Where did you get that jacket, incidentally,?’

‘My brother bought it off a wine waiter in Manila. It’s got an invisibly mended bullet hole just here. I think my pheasant is a bit stringy.’

‘All pheasants are a bit stringy. They’re a wiry bird.’

‘Have to be, I suppose. To have any chance of survival against the massed flak of the privileged orders. How do you defend all this?’ he asked, waving a bone from which a fine diaspora of spiced gravy transferred itself to his cotton drill lapel.

‘I expect you’re right,’ said Charlotte, dabbing the affected area with her napkin and wiping clean his CND badge. She shocked herself: even for someone not so shy it would have been a bold gesture. ’But if it could be defended, I suppose you’d do it by saying that in any free society there’s always something like it. The rich and the secure create comfortable surroundings so that the gifted and the successful can seek each other out and make the rest of us feel nervous. Anyway, how long will it be before you belong with the successful a lot more than with us onlookers?’

‘I don’t think in those terms.’

‘It won’t matter much whether you think in those terms or not. The famous huddle together for protection.’

‘I’ll always be nervous.’

‘You don’t show it much except when you wave your food about and if you don’t mention it nobody will know. I’m much more nervous than you are and I’ve had years more practice.’

‘You, nervous? I don’t believe it.’

‘Oh yes. Trembling. Look. But the nice thing about social life, as opposed to real life, is that in social life you are what you seem. It cost me a terrific effort to come and get you.’

‘So why did you?’

‘I told you. I admired your book and I couldn’t bear to see you being embittered at the outset by a tremendous bore. Listen, all this drives me practically batty with fright but it’s got its good side, you know. You’ll meet a lot of clever people here and clever people being clever together can be quite entertaining even when you don’t admire them personally very much.’

‘Isn’t that Sally Draycott over there?’

‘Which one?’

‘The one growing on that table like a black orchid.’

‘I don’t know. She’s very lovely.’

‘She’s just about the quickest thing on the box when they give her a chance.’

‘She’s all alone. Can’t imagine she’ll stay that way for long. Do you want to go and talk to her?’

‘I think I’d rather stay where I am, if it’s all right with you.’

Having eaten like a bird, Sally had left Nicholas holding forth to a suitably enthralled company and was now sitting alone at a small library table while she leafed slowly through a leather-bound volume containing a year’s run of what clearly, even to the uninstructed eye, had a good claim towards being the most beautiful magazine ever published[5].

‘Look at the Benois on the next page,’ said Victor’s voice from above. ‘The countess standing in the pool was the mistress of one of my great-uncles. It was a huge scandal. Do you read the language?’

‘Not a word,’ said Sally. ‘It’s one of my great regrets. I did French and German and it’s hard to find time even for those now. One of the good things about my university was the modern languages library. They had a reproduction of this but not the original. This is the first time I’ve ever seen what it really looks like.’

‘That’s the complete run, from 1898 right through until they had to pack it in. It belonged to my father. He brought some of his library out of Munich and got caught going back for the rest. He knew Diaghilev quite well. The really astonishing pictures are the little portrait heads by Somov. Look in the volume before that one, near the middle.’

‘They’re marvellous. Why isn’t he famous?’

‘Because he stayed in Petersburg. If he’d come to Paris with the ballet he’d be as well known now as Benois or Bakst. But he never came abroad except to study and when he finally emigrated it was too late. Now the Soviet critics tell lies about him and nobody in the West cares. It’s very heartening that you should be interested in these things.’

‘I don’t see how it’s possible not to be. Not that I know anything about it. If only we had nine lives.’

‘Young Nicholas tells me that you’re in television. I don’t suppose that leaves you much time.’

‘And it wastes a lot of the time it takes. That’s probably why looking at something as lovely as this leaves me feeling a bit depressed.’

‘No, it’s just that everything you see there is touched by melancholy. Because it all got stopped.’ Victor leaned down to a low shelf beside her, getting out a large-format edition of The Queen of Spades and spreading it open to show Sally the original Benois illustrations all tipped in by hand. From a long way away, Elena’s gaze swung over them and moved on.

The evening was advancing. The celebrated American film actor was smiling at something being said to him by the second most popular newsreader, who was using her hands a lot, perhaps because on screen they were always tucked away out of sight.

‘You don’t think she’s the quickest thing on the box?’ asked Charlotte.

‘God no,’ said David. ‘All aggression and nothing much behind it. Have you noticed how he never stops smiling?’

‘Just being polite, I expect.’

‘No, it’s the coke.’

‘Do you think that’s what he’s drinking? It isn’t a very big glass.’

‘The stuff I’m talking about is more of a powder, actually. The little spoon hanging around his neck is to tell you he can afford to snort it by the pound. He’s been smiling like that in every movie he’s made for the last ten years. It’s because if his mouth relaxed the inside of his nose would fall out.’

‘Good heavens. My husband has a friend who’s reputed to do a bit of that sort of thing. I’m glad to say my children never have. Not that I know of. Isn’t it supposed to be all over now, all of that?’

‘So they say, but some of it’s all right. Grass is all right. I grow my own.’

‘You do? Don’t the police come?’

‘Where I live the police only come when the sky’s red with flame.’

Later still, sitting at Serena’s feet, Lancelot approximated his posture to that of the young man in the painting by Fragonard whose hand stretches out to shield his eyes from the radiance of the girl in the swing, while some cherub or other plunks a lute. Or did the cherub belong to Titian?[6] No matter. He mooted to her the possibility of doing something about writers who could draw. Serena put two and two together but got only eight instead of her usual sixteen. She merely turned white. Tears of failure started down her cheeks, but at least she wasn’t screaming. Suavely Lancelot presented the whole idea as natural, logical, and calculated to make best use of her talents. Perhaps slightly flown with wine by this time of the evening, she cheered up. Lancelot felt better too. At this rate he would soon be only gibbering.

The evening advanced volubly, into the relative time that stretches beyond the coffee. Head to head with her young man, Charlotte was not surprised to discover that various friends paid courtesy calls. One of them was the widow of a Prime Minister to whose policies David took particular exception, although the last of them had been carried out to its disastrous conclusion the year that he was born. The celebrated actor was outside floating, fully dressed, face upwards in the swimming pool, smiling at the occluded heavens. Lady Hildegarde’s three beautiful daughters, their shoulders shawled against the chill, were arranged around the edge of the pool discussing philosophy with him and guarding him from harm, although he was apparently in possession of secret Eastern knowledge which would enable him, should the occasion arise, to remain underwater for some hours.

In what he liked to think of as Victor’s boudoir, Lancelot sat on the edge of the bed and dialled the familiar fourteen-figure number with the effortless fluency of Ashkenazy playing a cluster of notes from the Chopin Opus 25 Étude No. 1 in A flat major. He was rewarded with the sound of the sea. The sound of the sea reminded him of the smell of the sea and that reminded him of her. The walls of Victor’s bedroom were covered on three sides by a Gontcharova ballet backdrop[7] with various doors let into it so that you could barely see their outlines. Lancelot could never decide whether this was brutality or inspiration. On the grey batik-covered fourth wall, facing the foot of the bed, hung three matched Boldinis of a fine lady getting out of her clothes[8]. One of the Medici had had three Uccello battle scenes in a similar position[9], but everyone to his taste. Nowadays the Uccellos were in different cities. One day the Boldinis would be in different places too. After Victor’s death, when his empire was broken up. But what if he were immortal?

This time the telephone uttered a long silence followed by the sound, heard from very far off, of locusts eating a packet of crisps. Boldini’s fine lady was undressing after a heavy evening at the opera. There were so many layers of clothing that even after three canvases she was still not divested of them all, but you could see her long thighs. Boldini was supposed to exaggerate but Lancelot knew better. This time he heard the beginning of a connection and then a long howl. He matched it mezzo voce. Victor’s bed was like a raised tennis court covered in velvet the colour of a Raphael pope’s cassock[10]. The whole Borgia family could have climbed into it and still left room for a last-minute reconciliation with the Orsini. Samantha needed a large bed to do her justice. Quelling his imaginings, Lancelot was just reaching to dial again when Victor walked in. Lancelot dialled seven digits at random and then pretended to listen. He was disconcerted to hear the phone ringing at the other end and more disconcerted still when it was picked up and answered.

‘What you want?’

‘Could I speak to Mr Ashkenazy please?’

‘We are Cypriot people.’

‘I think I must have the wrong number.’

‘You do this to us any more and we kill you. My wife no sleep. My children no sleep.’

‘Sorry. Goodbye.’ Lancelot put the phone down with a fair imitation of calm.

‘You know Vladimir?’ asked Victor[11].

‘This is another Ashkenazy. He’s doing some freelance research for us.’

Victor opened a door in the faded canvas, thereby revealing a bathroom which was not really all that much smaller than the bedroom, and briefly disappeared. When he came back, Lancelot gave him a concise run-down of the new plans, such as they were.

‘... and Hildegarde quite likes the idea and thinks Serena would be ideal.’

Victor nodded all through this. In fact he had already been nodding before it started, a habit which made Lancelot feel like a chatterbox.

‘And where does that leave the Gillian Jackson project? With no one doing it at all?’

This was the awkward question to which there was no smooth answer, so Lancelot tried honesty.

‘Nobody, but it’s better to face that and think again than to go on as at present.’

‘All right. It’s your pigeon.’

‘And my neck.’

‘Don’t be silly,’ said Victor, an exhortation so often on his lips that it counted as politesse. ‘There’s something else you might look into.’ Victor explained that the world’s most famous young female film star was about to walk into the house. She had already promised to write a book and publish it through Victor Ludorum in the first instance, instead of in America. To obviate the possibility of her agent talking her out of this admittedly quixotic course of action, she would have to he wooed. She came equipped with a husband but perhaps they would like to meet other couples in small-scale circumstances, large occasions being not to her taste. Soon she would be in the country for some time, starring in a big budget, prestige feminist epic called The Woman Lieutenant’s Frenchman[12]. Lancelot and Charlotte might care to cultivate her and her academic husband when she arrived in early summer. Serious little dinners, that would be the ticket. Emphasis more on brains than on glamour. Lancelot could make the initial acquaintance tonight. She would be coming here straight from dinner at the Palace.

Lancelot went away cursing Victor’s habit of commissioning books from people instead of saying hello, but saw the advantages of such behaviour when the world’s most famous young female film star duly arrived. There weren’t many women who could make Victor’s busy house fall silent. Certainly the royal lady with the elaborate hairstyle was unable to do so, a matter of enduring chagrin to her. Elena, when she chose, could do it by sheer aplomb, just by pausing before advancing. The world’s most famous young female film star did it by transparency of expression. There was nothing special about her clothes: indeed she was notorious for purchasing the wardrobe of her last film and wearing it until she finished the next. She was neither very tall nor particularly shapely. But her face projected sensitivity Thoughtfulness was turned outwards instead of in. She was so human that she made ordinary mortals look thick-skinned. It can be imagined, then, what she made her agent look like, when your gaze finally got far enough down to find him. So influential that he was a star in his own right, ‘Zoom’ Beispiel glowered past the right elbow of his client while eroding between his lipless jaws a cigar the size of a salami.

‘I see she’s brought a puppet with her,’ said Elena, but the least popular royal female did not respond. Having long reconciled herself to not causing a sensation here, she was put out to see that someone else could. Elena leaned back so as to catch the ear of Lancelot, who was reclining between them, feeling like a faded manuscript between jewelled covers.

‘Who is that extremely graceful young lady on the arm of your friend Nicholas?’

‘Her name is Sally Draycott.’



‘I don’t think I know any Draycotts.’

‘I thought she might take your fancy,’ said Lancelot. He hadn’t thought anything of the kind, but it seemed a good thing to be saying now. ‘It’s a big romance, that one.’

‘She really is too beautiful. I imagine she must be very dumb.’

‘On the contrary, she’s highly intelligent. Too intelligent for her job, in fact.’

‘Is she a hooker?’


‘I knew it was something like that. You must bring them both to dinner.’ The least popular royal female, who had been angling for another invitation from Elena for a long time, was put out all over again, but Elena drew the line at the British Royal Family in all its branches. She found it a bit recent.

‘Is that who I think it is dangling from her wrist?’ asked Sally.

‘That’s him,’ said Nicholas. ‘Or at any rate the ten per cent that shows above the surface. Clock the special shoes. His feet are vertical in there. He gets lowered into them.’

‘What do you think of her?’

‘Great face. No tits to speak of.’

‘I think I’d better get you out of here,’ Sally said thoughtfully, but really she was talking about herself. She didn’t want to catch Victor’s eye. In a little niche of white light above the banquette on which they lay talking, a Troubetzkoy grande dame about two feet high[13] sat surrounded by the fine accordion pleats, looking friable as biscuit, of a full-length Doucet ball gown. She had a bouquet in her lap and her head turned to one side. She belonged to Victor and would never get away.

Read on: Chapter Six