Books: Brilliant Creatures — Chapter 7 |
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Brilliant Creatures: Chapter 7

~ seven ~

ext day, as a tribute to spring, the rain relaxed its tempo, sometimes stopping altogether for hours on end. Lancelot went to work in another ruinously expensive taxi and had his usual encounter with the cottage cheese, the cavernous box-files and Janice, the volume of whose voice had taken on, seemingly overnight, the sharp intonation of impatience betokening her bad time of the month. Janice’s bad time of the month took up so much of the month that the few days remaining could with better reason be called her good time of the month. Only with difficulty could Lancelot establish a connection between Janice’s menstrual cycle and such natural phenomena as human reproduction or the phases of the moon. On one occasion he had opened the bottom drawer of her desk and discovered a box of her jumbo tampons. Not so much a box as a crate, really. They had been called something like Tristar 747 DC-10 Super-Duper. Reflecting that he was not very fair to Janice in his thoughts, Lancelot would have thought even less of himself if it had been possible, but after finally getting through on the telephone to Samantha he had no self-confidence left to waste.

Her account of where she had been and what she had been up to struck Lancelot, who was keen to believe the best, as particularly unconvincing. But his fear swelled to terror when she told him that she would not, after all, be coming home straight away. Instead the magazine would be sending her to Los Angeles for three weeks or perhaps four, if not five. Courage in Profiles, which had already established itself in Lancelot’s awareness as a publication of impressive flexibility as to its scheduling and work requirements, now seemed to have adopted an inexorable dynamic of its own, like an epic film about Napoleon. Who was in command, Abel Gance? She was supposed to be giving advice on English tone and social mores, not dedicating her life to a chef d’oeuvre. Lancelot found himself shouting and whining to fill in the gaps left by the voice at the other end. Then she had to go. She always had to go.

Lancelot had to go to Los Angeles. There was, after all, good reason. Ian Cuthbert was out there, probably already working on yet another synopsis of A World History of the Short. He could be encouraged to hurry up: also his brains might be — must be — picked for a list of famous writers who could draw. The world’s most famous young female film star was back there by now, and would not be in London again for at least another month, so there was legitimate reason for thinking that some part of the necessary wooing would have to be done there. Also he could sound out some elegant ladies for possible interview by whoever would succeed Serena as Gillian Jackson’s ghost on the lifestyles project. Bel Air was full of women with tales to tell of how they had once entertained JFK, Eisenhower, Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Ulysses S. Grant. Besides, it would get him out of London long enough for his car to be repaired. Most of the trip could plausibly be charged to Victor Ludorum and even if he had to pay for it himself, hiring a personal Learjet in both directions and staying in the Khashoggi suite of the Beverly Wilshire, it could not possibly cost as much as another week of running around London by taxi. He started the long and ear-splitting job of leaving all the details to Janice, knowing that the expedition would take at least a week to set up even if everything went through without a hitch.

With all the dogs banished to the garden, Charlotte had her Ideal Academic Table ready by the appointed time of eleven in the morning, so she was not best pleased when the team from Prestige finally materialised at two in the afternoon. The photographer’s assistant, who was the first to enter the hall and who was carrying what turned out to be the harbinger of a whole series of large, heavy silver boxes, was dressed up as if to attend a riot on the terrace of a football ground. His boots would have looked extravagantly aggressive if two members of the Rapid Deployment Force had been standing in them, and his hairstyle, razored to follicle level, resembled a peeled hard-boiled egg which had been dotted all over with a blue ball-point pen. What looked like the scar of a bungled tracheotomy proved on closer examination to be a dragonfly tattooed under his Adam’s apple so that it wobbled when he swallowed. The photographer himself, who arrived next, was attired for jungle combat duty and had a three-day growth of beard plus eyes which had seen too much. As he went on to explain, in a succession of widely spaced expletives which gradually added up to a monologue, what he had seen too much of was Ideal Tables. He had seen the Ideal Media Table, the Ideal East End Playwright’s Table and the Ideal Political Hostess’s Table. He had seen tables, and died, ha ha. But he had to admit that Charlotte’s Ideal Academic Table was unusually daring, especially in the positioning of the willow pattern sauce-boats.

The photographer’s accompanying journalist wore green nail polish, a black satin bolero, a bisque crêpe-de-chine blouse, pistachio cheesecloth harem pants, thick opalescent grey eyeshadow and a shower of junk trinkets at the throat, but his gestures were comparatively restrained and after a while Charlotte ceased fearing for her crockery. What aroused her apprehension was the section editor who had tagged along unannounced. This was Delilah Ball-Hunt, and even Charlotte, who was not especially alert to the evil propensities in mankind, knew her to be an unusually perilous gossip. Dressed for World War II from her Veronica Lake peekaboo hairstyle down to the open-toed shoes through which her big toes pushed thin nylon membranes like twin hernias, the lumbering Delilah poked blowsily around in Charlotte’s kitchen drawers while asking questions in counterpoint to the journalist. Charlotte, who when asked a question was more likely to answer it than fend it off, might just have coped with Delilah had they been tête-à-tête. But to answer the journalist’s questions and to stonewall Delilah’s demanded a wariness of which she was not capable.

‘The embroidered napkins are wonderfully extravagant,’ cooed the journalist, proffering a small tape-recorder as if it were a packet of black Balkan Sobranie cigarettes. ‘Did you tat them yourself ?’

‘Oh yes,’ said Charlotte.

‘I suppose Lancelot’s work keeps him away a good deal?’ suggested Delilah sourly, folding her arms over her massive bosom and scanning the ceiling as if waiting for an overdue Lancaster to come home from the Ruhr.

‘Oh yes,’ said Charlotte. ‘That is, not really. We’re both very busy.’

‘A lot of those plates are just pretending to be vermeille, aren’t they? I mean you’ve very cleverly tarted them up with gilt.’

‘That sort of thing, yes.’

‘Does Lancelot go to the country with you on weekends?’

‘Not always. Nearly always. Quite often he stays here to work, but hardly ever.’

‘Ba-boom,’ said the photographer, pressing his button as if it were connected to a bomb-release mechanism. ‘Ka-pow. OK. Terrific. Put another gauze on that one,’ he told his assistant, pointing to a light that looked like a hairdryer.

The gauze caught fire at just the time when Mrs Halitosis was serving the whipped cream wild strawberry pie that Charlotte was so worried about because the strawberries had to be Spanish. The assistant with the blue-speckled alopecia and the huge boots opened the back door and tossed the smouldering gauze into the garden, whereupon all the dogs entered the house and circled the Ideal Academic Table very loudly at high speed. By the time the fumes had cleared and the dogs had been removed with much skittering of radially extended claws on the terracotta floor tiles, the heat of the lamps had transformed the whipped cream to a rubbery scum. ‘Pow,’ said the photographer. ‘Splosh. We’ve lost it.’

‘Is Lancelot still helping Samantha Copperglaze with her writing?’ asked Delilah sharply.

‘I expect so,’ said Charlotte, trying to make it clear that she resented, on general principle rather than because of a specific grievance, any interrogation along those lines. Even in the midst of her confusion she had time to wonder how Delilah could look so constantly embittered. She lived, Charlotte dimly remembered, mainly from feeding information to the tabloid gossip writers. Charlotte kept reviewing what she had let slip so far and decided that no cats had been alluded to which were not already long out of the bag. Ten years ago, Lancelot’s infidelities might well have made a story for the kind of newspaper in which vengeful illiterates keep the conscience of the fortunate, but nowadays he was on the verge of being a forgotten man. Once again she almost felt sorry for him. Perhaps she ought to invent a spectacular affair for him — with the world’s most famous young female film star, for instance — and give Delilah a taste of that. Or perhaps not.

‘I think the whole idea of eating in the kitchen is just so adventurous,’ said the journalist for the millionth time. ‘Marvellous buzz. Nosh and dash. No time to waste in the high-powered academic mealyou. Very Sixties aura about the whole thing. And yet with all this ravishing little-girl floral detail that you do. It’s now and it’s then. It’s Thierry Mugler for the Laura Ashley people, if you get me.’

Charlotte, who not only didn’t get him but didn’t want him, nodded glumly at the exact moment when the photographer swung towards her, dropped to one knee as if he had been shot, and snapped a candid. Not long after that it was all over. Delilah was the last to leave, having lingered in the bathroom to go through the cabinets and the wet-bags. Obviously Delilah would have liked a drink or two, a square meal to follow, and an invitation to spend the night under the bed, but Charlotte finally managed to bundle her out. The Ideal Academic Table sat there in the comparative darkness of the unassisted afternoon light. Charlotte gathered what strength she had left and loaded the Maxi for a trip to the country. With the exception of the collapsed Spanish cream pie she packed all the food she had cooked for the Ideal Academic Table into a hamper and took that too. The remains of yesterday’s steak and kidney pie would do for Lancelot. Those of her children who turned up in time were free to come along. They all declined, while retaining the option of coming up on Saturday by train. The dogs sat in the back on top of the hold-alls and the hampers. Popping and fizzing as it headed down the motorway in the slow lane, the ageing car looked, Charlotte was uneasily aware, like the poster for a Walt Disney film, but embarrassment mattered less and less as she drove further west along the valley of the Thames into an evening now lingering perceptibly longer than it would have done only a little while before, so that there was still some light left when she arrived.

The mill house was not very big. Nor were the lands around it very extensive. In fact they were a sort of yard. But a stream that fed the headwaters of the Thames flowed more or less under the living room and the setting in general seemed, especially in this silvered twilight, to have been concocted by Constable in a fit of romantic delirium. Everything was spongy underfoot from the recent rain. The cowslips were out but not yet the buttercups. Nothing you could see was out of place, except perhaps the concrete pill-box in the middle of the cow pasture on the other side of the river. Tramps sheltered there and used it as a toilet, so that the local children were forbidden to go in. The pill-box was a nuisance, but often the cows came between you and it, and anyway by now even the raw, brutalist cement of wartime was looking weathered and ready to be absorbed. Pockmarked by lichens, it was taking on the colour and texture of all the other stone in the district, whose houses and barns and boundary walls looked as if they had been made from chips and flakes knocked off St Paul’s Cathedral, the materials for which had been quarried not far away. One day the ivy would pull everything down and possibly even the pill-box too.

The money Charlotte had brought to her marriage as a dowry, together with the earnings of Lancelot’s first successes, had all gone into the London house, in the days when that much money got you a house freehold instead of a room for rent. What she earned as a lecturer was put into the mill house. Theoretically Lancelot put a portion of his earnings into its upkeep but in practice most of what he made went on their day-to-day living in London. Effectively the mill house belonged to her and the children. Since it was equipped with neither a disco nor an electronic games parlour they tended to boycott it nowadays. It was a while since any of them had been on a pony but perhaps it would happen again. Meanwhile the place was all hers. Here she could read, write, preserve fruit, coax the local freelance gardener to sterner effort, and visit neighbours. Many of the neighbours were quite grand. Three out of four of the most prominent London hostesses had their country houses in the area. Elena’s house was scarcely half a mile away in a straight line, screened by oaks, chestnuts, yews, limes and an intricate system of tall boxwood hedges. You could walk to it easily around the river bend, while hearing through the trees the regular purr and gravelled squeal of large cars bringing guests and taking them away. Two miles over that way lived the nephew of the third or fourth most recent prime minister and his singing wife Dido, and just up the first hills into the Cotswolds was the village in which the Liberal choice for the leadership of the as yet embryonic Social Democratic Party listened to his advisers at the weekend. And then if you drew a circle of rather greater radius, say three-quarters of an hour each way by car, you would include those very large establishments with names like Castle This, That or The Other[1], whose lands were like little counties. Like a treasure map, the district was all joined up by winding paths and crooked roads. Somehow the power-line pylons which marched so inexorably everywhere else were hereabouts seldom visible. The calm was Augustan, Arcadian, idyllic. Nothing disturbed it except for the Tornado Multi-role Combat Aircraft being tested overhead, while every twenty minutes a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker[2] lifted out of the nearby USAF base to begin the long, eardrum-cracking climb up to its rendezvous with the atom bombers flying forever, day and night, to and from their failsafe points at the edge of Soviet airspace. The Stratotanker makes a noise on the limit of human endurance and for a while, when it was first assigned to the area, cows gave birth to calves with two heads and five legs, like portents in Livy. But soon even the animals settled down and got used to the inescapable facts of the Global Strategic Environment, the chief fact being that there is nowhere to hide, although there is no denying that some places are more comfortable to skulk in than others.

Skulking was largely what Lancelot did once he was alone. He had been looking forward to it but it unsettled him when it happened. On the first night Mrs Hermeneutics left him a piece of steak and kidney pie[3] to heat up and went off somewhere, perhaps to a read-through of the Iliad. 1 GOINK AOUT, her note began. Lancelot put the piece of pie in the oven, preselected to gas mark seven, and went upstairs to do something sensible about his papers and bills. The smoke told him when the pie was ready but he was not prepared for the blast of heat when he opened the door. With singed eyebrows he donned the oven gloves and inserted them into the oven, groping for the pie dish. It burned him even through the gloves, a clear indication that it needed rapid cooling down. He thought that to tilt it slightly and play the rubber teat of the cold water tap on it would cool it. Judging from the noise and steam it did, but the segment of pie, which must have already been loosened in the dish when the rest of it was eaten at lunchtime, flopped into the sink. Lancelot fetched a knife and fork and ate it from there, following it with a generous helping of some strange strawberry-studded creation coated with an edible form of white latex.

It was a bad start to a period of what had once been known as ‘batching’, meaning you looked after yourself until struck down by food poisoning. He would have got Nicholas over to play backgammon but Nicholas’s telephone did not answer. He rather suspected that a call to Samantha’s business number in New York would earn him a flea in the ear. He made it anyway, and was relieved to be told by someone else that she was not in the office, instead of being told by her that he was getting on her nerves. He made a resolution to call her less often and felt himself breaking it even as he made it, like the Hunchback of Notre Dame trying to construct a balsawood model aircraft. He had refused most invitations for the impending week so as to be free for her homecoming. Now he was alone with himself, and it had been a long time since he had much profited from his own company. When he turned on the television he found himself looking at Sally Draycott refereeing a verbal wrestling match between a militant trade union leader and a right-wing Labour MP. For men with diametrically opposed views they had remarkably similar hairstyles, in which the hair was grown long at the side and deployed very carefully across the scalp, an arrangement to which the trade union leader had added an effect of studied exuberance by having the whole confection blow-dried and sprayed with fixative, so that it floated just above his skull like a ginger beret of sugar-floss. Sitting between these two solemn zanies and marshalling their conflicting opinions with impressive fluency and competence, Sally looked paradigmatically beautiful, an ideal of healthy normality from which the two specimens sitting on each side of her could be regarded as the first, comparatively mild but irreversibly aberrant, deviations in an endless series of variants which ultimately left the human race looking nothing like her. Lancelot was sorry for himself that he was obsessed with someone even younger and so much less governable. He played all the steps from meeting Samantha onwards backwards in his head, and then imagined how he would have been with someone like Sally: opening doors, showing her things, being interesting because she was interested. Thus we dupe ourselves into thinking that our lives could have been so different if only a few things hadn’t happened. Actually Lancelot had forfeited Sally twenty years ago, when he had lost the thrill of writing and when she was a little girl just learning to turn her nose up at cardboard-covered books with pictures and to ask for proper ones with all words.

Punching the ‘off’ button on the remote control before a strange man in a tweed kilt could tell him any more about dogs, Lancelot rang his business partner and was astounded to find him in. Catching Anthony at home was usually even harder than catching him at the office: embroiled in one glamorously doomed love affair after another, he spent most of his time crying on the shoulders of old mistresses while he asked them what he should do about new ones. Anthony agreed that it was certainly high time the accounts of Style Consultants were gone through, perhaps with a view to streamlining the cash flow structure. When Lancelot asked if that meant the company was in trouble, Anthony laughed reassuringly in a way Lancelot had long ago learned to associate with collapsing coal mines and the fate of Herculaneum[4]. They fixed a meeting for next morning at their Bond Street office. That decided, Lancelot drank himself unconscious, and was asleep in his narrow bed before the first of the children came home.

Read on: Chapter Eight