Books: Brilliant Creatures — Chapter 8 |
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Brilliant Creatures: Chapter 8

~ eight ~

hank God it’s Friday, thought Lancelot next morning. He was thinking it along with several million other Londoners who unlike him were not alighting from a taxi in front of Sotheby’s. What a perfect word for it the word ‘alighting’ was, carrying as it did the sense that whoever was debussing from the hired vehicle had first been stripped of all his assets. Even in the pit of depression, however, Lancelot still got the point of Bond Street on a mild day. From the shoe shop across the road a woman walked out and stood as if she was about to be photographed for pre-war French Vogue by George Hoyningen-Huene at his most fastidious[1]. She was a poem in cashmere and silk. You could laugh at some old boiler in a mink but try laughing at a vision like that. A jersey vision you could pull through a plain gold ring and it would give off the smell of young lust. Under Socialism, thought Lancelot automatically, all the women will be beautiful and there will be no artificial fabrics. The warm air was quietly alive with the pampered sound of Rolls-Royce doors closing. Lancelot stood there, part of it all, the collar of his lightweight trench coat daringly pulled up behind his head, the complete flambard. Then he ducked around the corner, found the lift to be under repair as always, and climbed the six flights of stairs to Style Consultants’ Bond Street office, which was tucked under the edge of a mansard roof so that you had to stand at an angle if you weren’t sitting down with your head against the ceiling.

Anthony was sitting there amongst the cardboard boxes full of pacily designed brochures for exhibitions which had taken place at some time in the previous decade. The Style Consultants’ clerical staff and accounting department was sitting at the typewriter against the partition. She was either erasing a typing error or else painting her nails white. Since she was good deal blacker than Egypt’s night the latter course might have produced startling results and thereby helped to wake her up. Her famous tendency to nod off had nothing to do with lack of intelligence. She had plenty of that — certainly enough to know when she was on to a good thing. It was just that there was not a lot happening.

‘You look hung over,’ said Anthony, who didn’t. Anthony paid the same sort of attention to his appearance as Lancelot but got even better results. His suits, hair and complexion all looked as if they were freshly sponged and pressed each hour. Anthony glowed. He was the swashbuckling, self-confident entrepreneur that prime ministers dream of.

‘You see Habitat took over Mothercare?’ asked Anthony. ‘He’s worth twenty-five million overnight.’

‘How much are we worth?’

‘Virginia, why don’t you go down and get us some of that real coffee?’

‘Yeah, why doan I? Cause iss miles, ass why.’

‘Cut along, darling. And get one for yourself, too. Don’t hurry. Pop along to the Royal Academy for a while and see the Japanese exhibition if you like. The netsuke are particularly charming.’

‘Yeah, fanks. Whennay gunner fissat liff?’ Virginia departed without removing her headphones, which judging from her syncopated gait were disgorging rhythmic music instead of the dictated letters and memos that Lancelot had at first imagined. When they were alone, Anthony’s smile became more insouciant than ever. He looked as happy as if he had just won the Queen’s Award for Industry.

‘We’re ruined,’ he said.

‘How ruined?’


‘But how can we be? We’ve got no outgoings except this office and her salary. How much do we pay her?’

‘Oh, only the standard rate for a secretary. About the same as the chairman of British Rail. But the outgoings could be a lot lower and they’d still be more than we’re bringing in. Look at these figures.’

Anthony, beaming as if Princess Caroline of Monaco had left a desperate message on his answering machine to the effect that her life would not be worth living unless she had an affair with him, unfolded and spread out several large sheets of paper with green lines on them and holes down the edges. Lancelot strove to grasp the import of the figures. They were not very large figures either way. Style Consultants could not go bust for much, there just wasn’t enough trading involved. But it soon became clear how providential it had been that he and Anthony had each gradually come to look on their little firm as a side-line, because very soon it would not be even that.

‘How did it happen?’ Lancelot asked.

‘Inevitable. First of all, your consultancy with Victor Ludorum is really a full-time job. So is mine with Astrotel.’ Anthony spent three or more days a week as a Special Projects executive for an independent television company. ‘But the main reason is historic. Nobody needs to consult us about style any more.’

‘Because they’ve all got it?’

‘Or don’t care if they haven’t. Other times, other priorities.’

‘These figures here, are they debts?’

‘Some ours and some other people’s.’

‘Do they balance out?’

‘They ought to, but the other people’s debts are mainly bad.’

‘So we owe money.’

‘The firm does.’

‘So what do we do?’

‘Wind up the firm,’ laughed Anthony, as if his OBE had just come through. ‘The personal cost to us should be considerable but by no means crippling. Giving Virginia a month’s notice will be the main expense.’

‘Munf’s wha?’ asked Virginia, entering with the coffee. Lancelot wondered, not very intensely, how she had heard what was being said, and then noticed that one of her ear-pieces was above the ear instead of on it, so that she could maintain contact with what he was starting to doubt could usefully be called the real world. Anthony began explaining the position to her, twinkling with self-satisfaction as he did so, as if he were H. G. Wells being interviewed by a very young and obviously smitten Rebecca West. Lancelot sat for a while lost in thought, or, more accurately, at a loss for words. Then he left them to it and walked towards Fitzrovia for his most cherished fixture of the week, the Friday lunch. It was hardly raining at all, really.

The prospect of lunch had been the main reason for thanking God it was Friday. At the end of a hard week with the empty box-files, Lancelot took spiritual sustenance from dining with his literary contemporaries. By now most of them were younger than he and all of them were more literary, it having been a long time since he had written anything. But he could still speak and in some circumstances he even enjoyed listening, so long as the periods of enforced silence were not overdone. The restaurant, an Italian establishment spread over several floors, was still called Foscari’s[2], although both the Foscari brothers had long ago gone home. It served a cheap menu at high speed but allowed its regulars to linger over the third coffee and the fourth brandy. Lancelot’s luncheon group, which Lady Hildegarde Plomley had once christened the Dregs, met upstairs in the front room. Nicholas was nowadays the leading light. The most brilliant caricaturist of the day was almost always there. Several literary editors of Sunday newspapers and weekly magazines were fairly regular attendants. Two Australian poets long resident in England turned up religiously in the forlorn hope of becoming civilised by osmosis, or at least of having their blunt features transmitted to posterity by the most brilliant caricaturist. Colin Thinwall, political correspondent of a left-wing weekly and tireless lover of aristocratic young men, made the Friday table a climactic point in his week’s drinking. On the rare occasions when women attended, the talk was of literature and related topics. On all other occasions it had mainly to do with sexual scandal, although digressions into other aspects of sex, and even other aspects of scandal, were sometimes allowed. Today David Bentley was appearing for the first time, sponsored, presumably, by Nicholas. In deference to David’s not yet fully brutalised ears, there were concerted attempts to discuss such normally quickly glossed over topics as the imminent economic collapse of the country.

‘How much do we really need the railways?’ asked Lancelot rhetorically, feeling a twinge in a back tooth. The minute you book a ticket for America, they start to ache, as if daring you to enter a country in which a single visit to the dentist can result in life imprisonment for debt.

‘Tell us about the railways,’ said Nicholas, signalling for more wine. ‘You’ve got a theory about the railways.’

‘He hasn’t been on a train in years but he’s got a theory,’ said Thinwall, his skin gradually turning a lighter shade of green as the wine topped his system up to normal. He had woken up feeling all right that morning: always a bad sign, because it meant that he was still drunk. But after quickly being sick he had felt worse, meaning that he was getting better. Now he felt fine.

‘Jesus, this snail is like a decayed Dutch cap in there,’ said one of the Australian poets. ‘I can’t get the bastard out.’

‘Apart from being a shameless advertisement for the class structure,’ Lancelot expounded, ‘the main thing the railways do is carry passengers, and coaches carry passengers almost as well. If you made the railway stations into coach stations and paved over the railway lines to make roads, you could run the coaches like trains.’

‘With a cocktail bar and a superloo in each coach,’ said one of the literary editors.

‘They’ve already got that now,’ said one of the other literary editors.

‘Cocktail bar,’ said Nicholas. ‘Cocktail bar. Yes, they’ve already got a cocktail bar all right. Some Chelsea Pensioner slopping gin over a formica counter. And the loo’s an enamel bucket behind one of the back seats with a lot of swaying drunks all hosing into it.’

‘Yes, but you could have a lot more coaches and they wouldn’t need to be overcrowded.’

‘They could leave St Pancras every few seconds, one behind the other,’ suggested David quietly.

‘Exactly,’ said Lancelot.

‘They could be joined together,’ David added.


‘If you put a big engine in the first one then you wouldn’t need engines in the others.’

‘The possibilities are endless.’

‘If you put flanged wheels on them and laid down some rails on the asphalt then the driver wouldn’t even have to steer.’

‘You could call it a train!’ shouted Thinwall. Lancelot enjoyed his own unhorsing as much as anybody. David was definitely an acquisition. The table could use some dry wit, having always suffered from an abundance of the other kind. The noise level was already high before the subject matter switched to scandal. At other tables, various luminaries from the worlds of publishing and television discussed the minutiae of office grievances, power struggles and forthcoming franchise bids. They were well used to the row the Dregs kicked up: it was a good cover for secret talks. Lancelot could see Gillian Jackson head to head with one of her television producers. Were they having an affair? If they were, it must be in its early stages: the man was still leaning forward when he talked to her. Lancelot’s tooth gave another twinge.

‘Put salt on your bread and bite on that,’ said one of the Australian poets.

‘It hurts worse.’

‘Proves you’ve got toothache,’ said the other Australian poet.

‘Everyone watch out, by the way,’ said Nicholas. ‘Delilah’s definitely falling into bed with Dick Toole.’

‘The aesthetic aspect doesn’t bear thinking of,’ said the most brilliant caricaturist. ‘Hitler and Eva Braun. Hitler and Mussolini.’

‘One wonders,’ said Thinwall, ‘if she knows what’s getting into her. At least one of his wives topped herself and the other two pooled their resources to get legal advice. A pool to fool the cruel Toole.’

‘Delilah sent a reporter to visit my wife yesterday,’ said Lancelot absently.

‘A close-up of Charlotte’s knickers will be in Toole’s column tomorrow,’ said Nicholas.

‘And a nice big candid,’ added Thinwall, ‘of you steering Samantha around some disco with your hand up her crack.’

‘I’m no longer famous enough, thank God,’ said Lancelot with barely disguised regret.

‘It’s a big break for Toole,’ said another of the literary editors. ‘He hasn’t got the entrée anywhere except possibly the London Transport system. But with Delilah he’s got eyes.’

‘And ears,’ said Nicholas. ‘She’s a great one for remembering what you murmur in the cot.’

‘You’d know,’ said Thinwall. ‘You were the one who told her I was so hot for those massive hips that I was ready to go straight.’

‘What happened?’ asked yet another of the literary editors with controlled curiosity, as if trying to clarify a point in the relationship between Benjamin Constant and Madame de Staël[3].

‘She came up to me in the Carambar one night and kidnapped me. I was feeling a bit unwell and I thought she was taking me to hospital. When I woke up she was sitting on my face. I thought I’d drowned in the Dead Sea.’

‘He thought a whale had lain down on him and died,’ Nicholas amplified.

‘She’s refreshingly straightforward,’ said Lancelot. ‘One shares that first chaste little kiss and then suddenly the air’s full of flying clothes.’

‘And fists,’ said the most brilliant caricaturist.

‘He’s right,’ said Thinwall. ‘She isn’t that straightforward. What she really wants is violence. She kept handing me tyre levers and things and then lying down submissively. Not my sort of thing at all. Unless, of course, the chaps actually insist on it.’

‘You give them what they want?’ said one of the literary editors.

‘Honourables and above, oh yes. One will do quite a lot to be there when the quail are flailing in their death throes. I’ll beat up a baronet any day of the week. I’ll bayonet a baron.’

‘He’ll mug a marquis,’ said Nicholas.

‘He’ll dump on a duke,’ said somebody else. Nobody could think of what Thinwall might do to a viscount, except perhaps vilify him. Vitiate? Vulgarise?

‘Anyone here hasn’t hit the mat with Delilah?’ asked Nicholas. David was the only one who put up his hand.

‘Means that prick Toole’s got something on us all,’ said Nicholas thoughtfully.

‘Your secret is safe with me,’ said Thinwall, to general laughter.

‘With you and Guy Burgess.’

‘What is your secret, dear boy?’ asked Thinwall. ‘Why so defensive? Don’t tell us you’ve finally inveigled that vision into the bunk?’

‘I’m saying nothing,’ said Nicholas, with a blank look that said everything.

‘Well, well. Not a word shall escape our lips. Right, chaps?’

‘No, seriously. The whole thing’s got to be a complete mystery or I’m a dead duck. Anyway, even if I said I’d got there, I might be lying.’ He was pleased that the hint had been given but afraid that a hostage to fortune might have been given along with it. David, he had already noticed, said very little about his private life. That was the way to play it: close to the vest. Except it was so hard to do when you enjoyed the company of the kind of men who wore their hearts on their sleeves. Vests, sleeves. The soul of this man is his clothes[4]. There was an idea there for the novel he was writing. If he had had his notebook on him he would have written it down, but there was an unwritten rule at the table against taking notes. It was held to be a damaging influence. As Lancelot, who liked French literary references, had several times pointed out, dinner at Magny’s would be an even more enthralling legend if the brothers Goncourt had not kept a diary of it. Nicholas made a mental note to read the brothers Goncourt some time before the end of the century, after he had dealt with Proust. Or with Dickens. It could all wait. Everything could wait. He let the conversation, now giving off wine fumes the way rapids in the Andes generate oxygen, swirl and pour around him while he sat nursing the memory of two nights in her arms. Tonight he would be seeing her again. Tomorrow morning they could march him out and shoot him if they had to.

After the coffee, when the bill had been paid and a new bill was being run up for extra drinks, only Lancelot, Nicholas and Thinwall were left at the table, or, for that matter, in the whole restaurant. Apart, of course, from the waitresses, who were very noble about not looking at their watches. This was the time when Thinwall liked to graduate from what he called the soft drinks and get started on a succession of little test-tubes full of some evil clear liqueur with black blobs like mouse droppings floating half submerged in its viscous surface.

‘One’s magazine,’ he told Lancelot, ‘is about to publish a tiny exposé about how your firm screws its hapless employees.’

‘It’s a lie. We’ve only got one employee and she’s screwing us.’

‘Not your firm. Ludlow’s.’

‘It’s still a lie. How did they find out?’

‘Not from you through me, so don’t worry.’

‘I don’t think we do screw them, really. One’s against all wage slavery in general, of course. Nothing can justify the way Victor carries on. But on the whole I think our people get what they’re worth.’

‘Not what they think. All the figures come straight from them.’

‘Can you play backgammon tonight?’ Lancelot asked Nicholas. It was no use asking Thinwall, who spent his nights in the kind of place where you paid young men to hit you when you weren’t looking.

‘Nights are sort of difficult at the moment. What about a game of squash tomorrow?’

‘I haven’t played for ten years.’

‘Do wonders for you. Tone you up while Sam’s away. Isn’t she supposed to be back, incidentally?’

‘Not quite yet.’

‘Doubtless being gang-banged on Eighth Avenue at this very moment,’ Thinwall suggested helpfully. ‘A whole football team of giant boogies shuffling their plate-like feet nervously as she urges them on with many a shrill cry.’ But Lancelot pretended extra toothache before they could improvise on that theme for more than about five minutes. Then he headed off to Victor Ludorum by taxi. He had meant to go by tube but was feeling a bit unsteady. His aim was to spend as little time as possible with Janice while he made an appointment with the dentist. He was hoping it would be for Monday morning but it turned out that next Wednesday was the earliest time possible. At that rate he would have to go straight from the dentist to the airport in yet another taxi, probably the last he would ever be able to afford. No doubt an oil sheik and all his wives were each having a full set of gold crowns installed, melted down from the dentist’s ample supply of Krugerrands. Having received advice from the receptionist on what tincture to try in order temporarily to relieve the pain, he consoled himself with a call to New York after Janice had gone off to unarmed combat class. Samantha was there, with time to talk, and even sounded glad to hear from him.

‘Where will you stay? Sorry.’


‘No, you go next. Where will you be st ...’

‘With Yonky Vollmer in some sort of chalet arrangement that Rupe Dibblewhite half owns.’

‘Good. I know just where he ...’

‘Where will you ...’



‘Sorry. I’ll be at the Casa Perdida about a mile away from Rupe’s along the boulevard. Do you think we’ll be able to get to bed togeth ...’

‘That’ll be marv ...’

‘Together soon? Sorry. Try and ...’


‘Try and wait for a bit after it sounds as if I’ve finished talking in case I haven’t.’

‘I do, but just when I think it’s all right to start, you start.’

‘I love ...’

‘I love ...’

‘You very ...’

‘You very ...’


‘Much. Sorry. Your turn.’


At least, thought Lancelot, after hanging up, we only had one voice each. Sometimes the voice went around the world the long way as well as the short way and gave you twice as many chances to get confused. There was a Boots on the way to the tube. He stood in the second row of people waiting at the pharmaceutical counter. He was almost the only person not wearing a turban, chador, yashmak or burnous. Getting the gum salve took a long time, during which the happiness caused by his successful telephone call ebbed away. Surely after all this he deserved a taxi home. But no, the time to start saving money was now.

The tube ticket did indeed cost a fraction of the taxi fare, but the size of the fraction was impressive — somewhere between a half and five-eighths. Down he went into the lower depths, the halls of Dis, the inane regions[5]. It was some years since he had been on the underground and at first he thought that the system had been occupied by a United Nations peace-keeping force of Norwegian ski-troops. The platform was full of young men and women wearing iridescent anoraks and huge knapsacks that bulked far above their heads and had blanket rolls hanging neatly underneath. But when the first train arrived it was as if its last stop had been somewhere under central Tokyo. The carriage opposite him was full of Japanese. There might have been people of other nationalities in there too but it was hard to see past the Norwegians. He let the first train go, being unable to imagine that he could get in without being ground flat between knapsacks. There was a long wait for the next train. The electric signboard that was supposed to say where the next two trains were going said nothing at all. The platform was filling up again with a Gurkha regiment in mufti and the Harlem Globetrotters travelling incognito. All of them were better dressed and healthier looking than the few whites, whose clothes seemed to have been bought at the GUM annual sale in Moscow and whose complexions and general comportment were a throw-back to the days of vitamin deficiency and rickets.

The large posters on the curved wall beyond the rails were only intermittently amusing when not erotically provocative. Lancelot turned round to look at the ones on the wall behind him and found them to be defaced with explicit sexual references and racialist slogans. In every poster every female figure, of whatever age, was impaled through all orifices by spitting phalluses thickly outlined with black felt-tip. In addition, verbal instructions and responses had been added. As for the political messages, they advocated pornographic violence with a stridency which would have made Julius Streicher hesitate to publish them in Der Stürmer. But all of this was familiar in kind, if not degree. What rocked Lancelot was the plethora of aerosol calligrams written in Arabic, or what he presumed was Arabic. The whole wall looked like unbound sheets of the Koran.

When the next train pulled in, the station was just as crowded as before and the train, if anything, even more so. This time he got on, and found himself standing face to face, at very close range, with a youngish, reassuringly well-dressed man who would have seemed quite normal if he had not been saying ’’no, no’ every few seconds under his breath, or almost under his breath. He didn’t even look worried, which made him look different from Lancelot, who did, and increasingly so as the journey went on. Yet it was more than a station and a half before a loud clanking sound, as of an outsized pawl slotting home between the teeth of an enormous ratchet, announced a hiatus. The youngish man said ‘no, no’ but probably would have been saying that anyway. From halfway down the carriage the noise of singing took on a sardonic tone. Lancelot had already vaguely apprehended, through the press of bodies, that a gang of youths of the football hooligan type were on board. As the train, walled in already by the tube through which it was meant to travel, continued to go nowhere, the youths grew more vociferous. Lancelot thought it would be only a matter of time before they pulled the emergency handle. Then he heard one of them advising against this, on the grounds that it could only cause further delay. A fresh outburst of derisive congratulations indicated that one of their number had relieved himself against the closed door, perhaps partly as a gesture of defiance. Lancelot was wedged in too tightly to move his head very far but if he looked downward to his left he could see a pregnant woman sitting there looking first apprehensive and then panic-stricken. But before things could get really desperate a repetition of the clanking noise promised motion.

The train jerked forward three or four inches at a time for a distance of about twelve yards. Then it stopped again. ‘No, no,’ murmured the youngish man, whose eyebrows, Lancelot now noticed, had been tweezed where they met on the bridge of his nose. There was a small wail of despair from the pregnant woman, who looked as if she might be from one of those parts of North Africa where emotion is never betrayed except in moments of catastrophe. Lancelot wondered if it would be physically possible to deliver the baby into an environment already fully occupied by human bodies. The hooligans were singing what must have been the Korean translation of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’[6]. Lancelot kept his eyes closed and tried to think of something comparatively pleasant, such as his benumbed tooth. Then the train resumed its journey at normal speed, steadily emptying itself as it got beyond the centre of the city, so that by the time he was three stations from home there was even a seat free if he wanted it. He remained standing because he felt that to sit down would be to indicate, to himself if to no one else, some degree of acquiescence in what he had just been through. Evidently everybody else was used to it. Nobody had tried to lynch the station attendant at the next stop after the big pause. Not that such an initiative would have produced a very substantial result, because no station attendant, or any other official of any kind, had been in evidence. No protests entered or apologies offered. Obviously all this was now regarded as normal.

Lancelot’s station was equipped with one of those big lifts like the ones that take planes up to the deck of an aircraft carrier. By the time it had raised him to the level of the open air he had almost given up hope, so that when the door puffed and crashed open he just stood there, like an institutionalised prisoner for whom the step forward into freedom is an intolerable novelty.

Read on: Chapter Nine