Books: Brilliant Creatures — Chapter 6 |
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Brilliant Creatures: Chapter 6

~ six ~

icholas was in the passenger seat of Sally’s Porsche 928 holding her high-heeled sandals in his lap while she drove in bare stockings. At the touch of a switch you could alter the angle of the squab so that you were either sitting up like a child at a kitchen counter.or lying down as if in the care of an expensive dentist. The seat did everything except eject. He had it selected in the forward position so as to miss nothing of her profile in the light of the spaceship-style dashboard. Up until now, being driven by Sally in this wingless jet had been the best thing that had ever happened to him. He rather suspected that it was about to become the second best thing that had ever happened to him, but you could never tell.

‘You realise,’ she said, while looking for an opportunity to get out of third gear, ‘that where we’re going isn’t much, don’t you?’ There was a sudden polite roar and the back of Nicholas’s head sank about an inch into the soft top of the seat.

‘I can’t imagine why you never took me home before. Have you got your old mum living in the cupboard?’

‘I just wanted to keep a few secrets.’

‘So why now?’

‘Because that pit you live in is full of writhing imagery. I can’t breathe for ghosts in there even when I’m fully dressed. It would be like taking my clothes off in a hockey club shower room. Hooray girls, let’s welcome Sally to the team.’

‘Give us a break,’ said Nicholas, pleased. As they came towards Knightsbridge a stretch of relatively clear road opened and Sally briefly got the projectile into top. It was like taking off from an aircraft carrier.

‘What’s the fastest you’ve ever been in this thing?’

‘Only about a hundred and twenty.’

‘Where was that, on the Autobahn?’

‘On the M5.’

‘Jesus Christ. Don’t the police send the RAF after you?’

‘There’s a doodah under here that sort of burps when it smells radar. It’s a bit illegal. But I’m a very safe driver.’

‘I know. You like it, don’t you?’

‘It’s what I would have done if I’d been a man. In fact I thought of trying it anyway. But I wouldn’t have settled for anything except Formula One, and women just aren’t strong enough physically to drive a proper racing car for any great distance. The g-forces are too powerful.’

‘Have you been in one?’

‘Not an FI. I’ve been in a Group 5 Porsche 935 K3/80 racing sports car on the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans.’

‘How fast?’

‘It’s not the top speed that’s important. It’s how fast you brake and accelerate. About two hundred and ten, I suppose.’

‘I don’t see the attraction. I mean even where I’m concerned, let alone where you’re concerned.‘

‘Beautiful machines, that’s the attraction. They affect me exactly like works of art. More deeply, in most cases I suppose I got it from my father. He was always staying on in the workshop to make model Javelins while the gentlemen who spent all day actually flying them were off at the picturesque country pub forgetting all about it. Tally ho, press on, pip-pip and all that palaver. I saw a Maserati with a Vignale body the other day that I’d love to own. I’d spend a lot of time just looking at it.’

‘Posh address. You’re practically a department of Harrods.’

‘It’s an address and nothing else. You’d better chew some barley sugar because you’re in for a long climb. Shoes, please.’

‘You weren’t kidding,’ said Nicholas as they neared the summit. ’Chris Bonnington gets sponsored for this sort of thing.’

‘Walk in slowly or you’ll hit the other side.’

‘Is this all there is?’

‘This is it.’

The flat was exceptionally neat, partly because there were so few things in it. One wall was covered with an intricate, fastidiously executed montage of magazine photographs and postcards featuring various interiors of houses, very few of them even vaguely contemporary. The effect was of the wall leading off into a hundred different imagined rooms. Apart from that and a workmanlike array of rather challenging books, there were two chairs, a table, a dressing table and a television set with two different kinds of VCR. The divan bed was big enough for one person to lie quietly. Two doors presumably led to a bathroom and a kitchenette, with the emphasis on the ette.

‘All my money goes on the car,’ Sally explained, taking off her small pearl earrings. ’It takes a week’s salary to fill the tank. I’d rather have amazing things or nothing, you see. I’ve only got about four really good dresses. So for now I lie in bed, look at the wall, and choose the way I’d like to live if I ever strike it rich. Which will probably he never.’

‘Would you care to show me how you lie in bed?’

She showed him with a generosity that made him feel all his Christmases were coming at once. At first he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Then, when he had started to believe it, he grew afraid that it would be taken away if he did not do all the right things. Experience helped him here, but not as much as she did, just by smiling at the right time, and in the right way. It had to be both, of course: if they smile at the right time but in the wrong way, or in the right way but at the wrong time, you might as well start looking for your socks.

‘I was afraid I’d want to so much that I wouldn’t be able to,’ he said eventually.

‘That’s the advantage of getting on speaking terms first, mug. No anxiety.’

‘Plenty of everything else but none of that.’ He was glad. Sally, who wanted to be in love, was sorry, but not as sorry as she was glad. This hadn’t happened for an age. Her body felt as if every atom had been taken out, polished, and put back. She looked it, too.

‘You’re lovely,’ said Nicholas, balancing precariously.

‘So are you.’

‘I have to stick my hand on the floor to stay on the bed.’

‘Already he’s complaining. Try it this way.’

He looked into her transfigured face as if into a clear pool from which a nymph had suddenly surfaced and shattered his reflection. For once he enjoyed the actual moment, instead of enjoying the knowledge that he was enjoying the actual moment, or enjoying the knowledge that the actual moment would be remembered, however diminished, among the array of actual moments which would inform, shape and energise the way he wrote. His callow sophistication dissolved for a short while into innocence. He knew it, too. Which meant that it hadn’t, quite. But let’s give ourselves a break, eh? If only he could stay this way. Most people would give an arm for such happiness. Most people would give their happiness for such happiness, but only a few get the chance.

* * *

‘I think we left before royalty did,’ said Charlotte, making conversation as she drove Lancelot home in the Maxi. ‘Victor might be offended.’ Rain spotted the windscreen. Lancelot felt that it had been raining continuously since the fall of the Attlee government[1].

‘She’s not really present even when she’s there, so it’s no skin off our nose if we can’t tell when she’s gone. Who was that dishevelled person you got yourself stuck with?’

‘Oh, he’s adorable,’ said Charlotte, surprised that Lancelot had noticed anything about her and doubly surprised to find herself defensive. ‘He wants to ban the Bomb, democratise the Labour Party and help young blacks in his area learn to mend cars. His name’s David Bentley and he writes short stories. Very good they are, too. I think you’re going to be his publisher.’

‘I certainly think we should go into children’s books. Books by children is a bit steep. He looks about seven years old. Sounds very mature politically, though.’

‘Oh no, he must be twenty-five. They look younger all the time nowadays. It’s the muesli and the yoghurt.’

‘Who wished him on you? Frank?’

‘Sort of. I must say I like the style of that girl Nicholas brought. I think Victor did too. Is it a big affair?’

‘Hasn’t begun yet. She likes Nicholas very much but she’s put off by his reputation.’

‘That’s refreshing to hear. Most of them are put on by it.’

‘No, I don’t think it’s the fact of his being such a success with women that puts her off,’ said Lancelot, who didn’t think a serious woman could really be put off by something like that. ‘It’s the kind of attention that it could bring with it. She’s got an irrational loathing for gossip columnists and all that sort of thing.’

‘If she’s got an irrational loathing for all that sort of thing,’ said Charlotte, ‘then she’s certainly started keeping the wrong company.’ But Lancelot’s mind was elsewhere.

Later on it was still elsewhere, even though he felt so comfortable. Probably because he felt so comfortable. Charlotte would have given a great deal for her mind to be elsewhere. For a minute she even tried to think of young David but since she hardly knew him there was nothing much to go on. So she came back to being with Lancelot. Intense pleasure there always was; the grief of jealousy there always was; and while the grief spoiled the pleasure, the pleasure only made the grief more perfect. Perhaps she had always been too quiet for him. Replete and desolate, she could not cry for either reason. It would be so nice to be next to his body if only it were really there. As if to prove that it had been there, it went away.

Charlotte had the button down on the telephone beside the bed, but she could hear the downstairs telephone ping in sympathy, meaning that Lancelot had lifted the receiver behind the closed door of his study. A short while later there was another ping, meaning he had not got what he wanted. For Charlotte it was a relief, because sometimes those two small sounds could be half an hour apart and she never slept between them, even after a mouthful of pills. She almost felt sorry for him, but not quite.

* * *

‘I’m alone at last,’ said Victor on the telephone. ‘The actors and the television stars got into a quiz about the movies. Endless, endless. It’s the only thing they know anything about. Are you in bed?’

‘Since ages. She’s quite pretty, the actress,’ said Elena. They were speaking in Italian, as they often did on the telephone at night. They always spoke on the telephone at night, but sometimes in English. ‘Was the actor drugged or just stupid?’

‘He almost drowned, in fact. Hildegarde’s daughters took him away eventually.’

‘They probably cut him up for souvenirs. What was his name again?’

‘Block Wood or something.’

‘And that awful so-charming young novelist of yours, the one who does the books full of disgusting words . . . ’

‘Nicholas Crane.’

‘He seems to have acquired a presentable companion at last. After all those tramps. What is she called? That one in black and white. Something to do with horses.’

‘Sally something.’

‘She’s mighty good-looking.’

‘For men who like girls instead of women. She might turn into something one day.’

‘Is that why you were showing her your etchings? So that she’ll turn into something one day?’

‘You forget that as a publisher I can’t help being at least momentarily interested in any member of the younger generation who picks up a book without being forced to. I wouldn’t want to lose a potential customer.’

‘Why is Lancelot in such a panic?’

‘He doesn’t know what his girl’s getting up to in New York.’

‘He doesn’t know what she gets up to when she’s in London. There must be more reason than that. He told me some policemen went to the lavatory in his car. I don’t think Her Highness was pleased to hear it.’

‘I suppose he’s worried about whether he’s doing what I want. It’s hard to convince him that’s the only thing that worries me.’

‘I’m lost.’

‘The way he tries to guess my wishes instead of getting on and doing something unexpected. Which is what he’s there for. That, and to amuse me.’

‘A court jester.’

‘Not at all. He has an enchanting comic imagination when he’s not dying of nerves. I don’t care how many ideas go haywire as long as he brings in the occasional unusual thing. Which he’s eminently qualified to do. But he feels he’s on trial.’

‘That’s you. People are bound to feel that way with you anyway, so with a big baby like him you can imagine. Did I see him making a rendezvous with the actress?’

‘I told him to do that.’

‘Has Charlotte been raising a love-child without telling anybody?’

‘Not to my knowledge.’

‘She was looking after some young person from the Red Brigades.’

‘He’s going to be one of our new writers, if I can talk him into it. Very left wing. I thought he’d better get a glimpse of what he wants to blow up.’

‘His eyes were everywhere. Charlotte would be a good Virgil for him, if you can have a female Virgil[2]. A Beatrice. If she loved Lancelot less she would enjoy life. She would even enjoy Lancelot. Should I worry about her?’

‘About Charlotte?’

‘Fool. I meant Black and White. The one who might be something one day.’

‘She comes from nowhere. No family, no nothing. Nothing has ever happened to her except a few A levels and a redbrick university. What’s there for my imagination?’

‘Everything. A thoroughbred without a pedigree. Think of the doors you could open for her. Quite apart from the door to your bedroom.’

‘Speaking of which.’

‘Speaking of which, perhaps tomorrow late. I’m going for dinner to the criminally boring Langweiles. Whom I’ve put off so long they’ve grown senile. She’s completely cuckoo by now and he makes passes under the table. I’ll be out of there like a shot. Eleven thirty at the latest.’

‘Meaning twelve thirty at the earliest.’

‘Will you come to me anyway?’

‘Of course. Don’t worry about Black and White.’

‘Aha! You mention her again! You bring up her name! She intrigues you!’

‘That’s just what she doesn’t do.’

‘Do I still?’

‘Always. Inexhaustibly.’

‘There’s my other phone. Will you hold on or shall I ring you back?’

Victor held on while Elena dealt briefly with the first of a string of admirers who checked in every night at about this hour from all parts of the world. Normally Victor would sign off so as not to block the traffic. He knew that by not breaking the connection he had tacitly admitted there was a speck of grit needing a few more layers of nacreous wrapping. He had surprised himself by protesting once too often. A twinge of guilt had unbalanced him. He had not even known the guilt was there until Elena had unerringly probed for it. The secret, consuming intimacy at the centre of their friendship had long ago reduced to ciphers all the men in her life and all the women in his. Both had sworn that it would do the same to anyone else either of them was likely to meet. Both of them had soon believed it where she was concerned. He had eventually come to believe it where he was concerned. But she had never quite believed it where he was concerned. She was too realistic.

‘I’m back with you,’ said Elena. ‘And now tell me how much you adore me.’

‘As if I needed to do that,’ said Victor, knowing he did need to. So he did, while Elena asked him his catechism. They had armoured themselves against everything except time. Now that it had caught up with them, they had it to burn.

‘Well, then,’ thought Elena while they searched their memories for the first and best endearments. ‘This is it.’ In Italian the expression has no close equivalent, but you can still think it.

* * *

David Bentley walked home that night, pleased at having met the most attractive woman of his life. Several times he had to shelter from the rain, so it was already three in the morning before he even crossed the river. He was miles past the affected area when the bomb went off but he heard the thump, followed shortly by a lot of police and ambulance hooters yelling their two notes. See-saw, see-saw, see-saw. A white police Rover lit up like Blackpool went past him very quickly with the policeman in the passenger seat swivelling to take a look at him as he walked. David supposed it was terrorists they were looking out for and that he looked like a terrorist, or at any rate like what a policeman would expect a terrorist to look like who was walking casually away after igniting the fuse of an infernal machine. Actually, he found out next day, the bomb had been of the sophisticated variety that explodes in the lap of one kind of Iranian who is just setting off to post it through the letterbox of another kind of Iranian. Either one group had been encouraged by the CIA to launch a holy war against another group or vice versa. Anyway, three men with bad shaves had climbed into a Ford Escort and promptly distributed themselves all over Marylebone. The police had already finished putting white tape around the area by the time David entered his own territory. A two-up two-down Georgian house shook to the rhythm of a reggae party. The whole place pulsed with light in time to the beat. They’ve plugged the mains into the bass, thought David appreciatively, keeping an eye out for muggers. In his district you could tell the muggers from the dossers a long way off. The muggers were the ones who set fire to the dossers. As he turned the second last corner he saw what looked like a small tribe of Mohawk Indians who had been painted white and drafted into the Parachute Regiment. They appeared to be relieving themselves in turn through the window of a Volkswagen Polo. He took another turn instead, approached his house from a different direction, and smoothly let himself in. Everyone was asleep.

Read on: Chapter Seven