Books: Brilliant Creatures — Chapter 9 |
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Brilliant Creatures: Chapter 9

~ nine ~

ancelot came home to a home where there was no one to come home to. The children were out. One of them, he learned from a note, had already gone to the country. Mrs Hydrostatics had once again gone out for the night, or gone back to Greece, or gone insane — from her written message it was hard to tell. MESAS WINDHOVER SAI TAIK WIKIN UPH it began.

* * *

Dick Toole came home after a hard afternoon on the telephone ringing up prominent men’s wives to check on the movements of their husbands and a still harder evening writing up the results. It was the kids who took it out of you: they usually gave you a lot of good stuff but only after you’d pretended to be interested in the fight to save the local school or how they had been given a green star for finger painting. He told his driver to push off until about opening time next day. Both the driver and the big dark wine Jaguar came with the job, like the expense account and the unlimited first class air travel. All of this on top of the hearteningly large salary. But Dick Toole was worth what he cost. The privileged orders who shove their wealth in your face had had it their own way too long. Dick Toole liked to see them hot and bothered. Letters of protest written on disgustingly expensive notepaper came plopping on to his editor’s desk, but Dick Toole had more on his editor than on anybody else and there was no denying that his page sold newspapers. Indeed there was nothing else in the paper that did, except for the TV listings. Dick Toole wore an alpaca pile coat even in warm weather, had his eye on the kind of Scampi Belt house that they show photographs of when they advertise it for sale in the glossies, and drank excellent whisky for pretty well the whole of his working day, which started in the afternoon after a long lunch. Tonight he was home in good time to see if Delilah was keeping up to the mark. He pressed the entryphone button and heard her embittered drawl, identifiable even when transformed into a squawk.

‘That you?’ she asked.

‘Yes. Pour me a double and get down on your knees with your mouth open.’

The door buzzed and he lurched through. So much more convenient than fiddling with a key. Having negotiated a flight of rather scrappily carpeted stairs, he paused sweating before the front door of his flat and adjusted his clothing — or, rather, did the opposite of what is usually meant by adjusting it. Then he pushed the door open and found Delilah in position as instructed. Without looking down, he drifted into place like one of those American bombers refuelling and took the half full glass from her upstretched hand.

‘You’re getting the idea nicely,’ he said, after the first large gulp. ‘No need to be quite so nippy, if you follow my drift.’

‘Ongar,’ grunted Delilah. ‘Alamo. Ulm. Ohio.’

It was, thought Dick Toole, amazing how irascible she could sound even when thus occupied. When they were both finished he slapped her face quite hard from each direction so that she fell back on the floor crying. Only then did he remove his overcoat, of which he was very proud. His three-piece suit he had once been proud of also, but it had been some time since he had sent it away to be cleaned and pressed. As you got closer to his skin you got closer to the original story. His aertex vest and saggy Y-fronts were of a greyish blue that no industrial colouring process could reproduce. It can occur only in nature.

With these final items of clothing left scattered on the bedroom floor, Dick Toole lay back on the bed in his short nylon socks and smoked an acrid panatella. Delilah knelt on the carpet beside the bed, her wrists tied together with a stocking. Another stocking tethered her to one of the legs of the bed, with just a large enough radius of operations so that she could pour drinks and hand them to him when so directed.

‘That thing between Nick Crane and Sally Draycott that I told you I thought might be on,’ she said scornfully. ‘It’s definitely on. Thinwall says that Nick was dropping large hints today at lunch.’

‘Great,’ said Dick Toole. ‘It’s the first hiccup in that slag’s façade. I’ll hold off a bit and see what develops. Don’t want to go off at half cock there. I’d really like to do that bitch. Toffee-nosed twat. She tried to drop me in it with the Press Council just because I rang up her mother. Her mother’s got some nervous thing or other but how was I supposed to know that at four in the morning and feeling a bit tired? Those telly tarts think there’s one law for them and another for the poor.’

‘Charlotte Windhover’s still being all brave and tolerant about Samantha Copperglaze.’

‘Windhover doesn’t ring too many bells by now. I’d use it but I can’t see how it would hurt him. We’ll save that one up in case the wife develops a new interest herself. Then we can run the whole thing as a sort of boutique of barbed wire about the idle rich and their cohorts.’

The word ‘cohort’ was a favourite of Dick Toole’s. He thought it meant ‘friend’. He also used ‘mitigate’ for ‘militate’ and invariably got ‘flaunt’ and ‘flout’ back to front. His editor, powerless to check his activities in any other respect, sent him memos about his bad English, which he flouted to his cohorts as blatant attempts to mitigate against freedom of speech.

‘Samantha’s supposed to be back from America but she isn’t and Lancelot’s frantic.’

‘Good. Pressure building up. In more ways than one, incidentally.’

‘Arles. Morpeth. Hanoi. Armagh.’

* * *

Elena was late home after an evening of excruciating boredom at Victor’s. The place had been littered with Bourbon and Savoyard relics of such an antiquity that their hearing aids had valves instead of transistors. How Victor could do this sort of thing to her she didn’t know. Or rather she did know but pretended not to, since they were never happier together than when amiably scrapping. She was already in bed when the phone rang.

‘How can you do this to me?’ she asked immediately, but it turned out to be the next President of the United States. Thinking he had woken her up, he was full of apologies, and had to be calmed down, which took time. It was a measure of his naïvety that he had not realised Elena would never have taken such a querulous tone except with an intimate. One only hoped that when the fate of the world became dependent on his judgement he would be more sensitive to nuance. By the time she got rid of him the phone was overdue to ring again.

‘Who on earth were you talking to so long?’ asked Victor.

‘Washington. I thought it was you and muttered some endearment. Then I had to stop him flying straight over in Air Force First.’

‘Air Force One. I don’t think he’s allowed to play with that until he’s President.’

‘How about that dance of death tonight? Never will I forgive you.’

‘I’m truly sorry. It all got out of hand. It seems you can’t get the pretenders without the pretenderesses. They all travel around together on a bus.’

‘The one you sat beside me was so near death there was no point trying. He kept telling me how he used to shoot pigs with my father and I couldn’t make the dates add up. Finally I realised he meant my grandfather. They shot them with muskets.’

‘I could see you were suffering but so was I.’

‘I don’t doubt it. You must have been choking in the talcum coming off that dreadful old hooker.’

‘She was quite interesting about the Duchess of Windsor. Said she was in Palm Beach with her.’

‘And at school with her mother. Do you love me?’


‘I leave very early for the country. Are you sure you can’t come until Sunday?’

‘Sunday in the late afternoon. Can I bring you back on Monday morning?’

‘Could you? That would be marvellous. You can help me with the guest list for my opera ball. Very few of the people you inflicted on me tonight will be appearing on it.’

‘Most of them will be dead by then anyway.’

‘Now we talk about next week here. On Tuesday I’m having the Windhovers and I thought perhaps Nicholas Crane and Black and White, which I’m told is now a big affair.’

‘Are you bringing them together?’

‘Who, Mr Crane and Black and White? Are you jealous?’

‘I meant Mr and Mrs Windhover.’ ‘It’s common courtesy. I like Charlotte very much. And I could never be a party to Lancelot’s walk-out with that Copperglaze floozy.’

‘She’s very pretty.’

‘The girl has a simply divine figure but there’s nothing in that head of hers except a lot of very small round objects loosely heaped. It shows in the face. Also I think she’s mad.’

‘But isn’t she supposed to be highly intelligent? In the sense of dozens of A levels and Oxford double first class honours and so on?’

‘They’ve all got that nowadays. It’s the muesli and the yoghurt. But she doesn’t know anything and doesn’t want to know. He won’t ever be able to teach her anything. It’s the most grotesque mismatch I’ve ever heard of.’

‘I think it worries him.’

‘Whereas your Mr Crane and Black and White are obviously made in heaven.’

‘The young in one another’s arms,’ said Victor[1], who often, when he wanted to avoid saying something himself, said what somebody else had said.

‘Exactly. And the not quite so young in one another’s arms on Sunday. Do you look forward to that?’

‘I live for that.’

‘I should think so, considering how I’m giving dinners for your editors and authors and their wives and mistresses. Do you want to come to that?’

‘I see quite of lot of Lancelot and Nicholas in the ordinary way.’

Good answer, thought Elena, but not the decisive outburst of bored rejection that might have been hoped for.

‘I’ll get Walter and Hannah that you like so much because they just sit there and listen to you. And you can always chuck at the last moment because I’ve got dear boring cousin Rudolph in town standing by with nothing to do except be a spare man. Or you can come in late and scare them all away.’

‘Or I can wait until they’re all gone.’

‘Exactly. So that’s settled. You sound preoccupied.’

‘One of the political magazines is running a big attack about how I’m a capitalist exploiter in a top hat.’

‘You should be used to that.’

‘Yes, but this time the facts and figures come from inside the building. It might look as if I have a case to answer.’

Are you a capitalist exploiter?’

‘As a matter of principle.’

‘I’m very glad you exploit me. Are you sure you don’t want to leave me for someone young and lovely who’s thrilled by rare books?’

‘Never,’ said Victor. In Italian the word for ‘never’ can sound like a baby’s cry or a last gasp, but is never quite neutral. ‘You’re already as much youth as I can take. Why don’t you marry me? You know you’re broke.’

He asked her that every night of their lives and she always gave the same answer. By now it was a ritual. But this time she could hear anguish in his voice, as if he wanted to be saved.

‘I like my life,’ she said as always. ‘And we couldn’t be closer than we are. I’m yours entirely.’ Reminding him that he should be able to say the same.

* * *

After midnight Lancelot rang New York in the hope of catching Samantha while she was dressing for dinner, but he got nothing. It was too late to ring his wife in the country so he rang Serena instead. She was not the kind of girl who was very often home on a Friday night but perhaps she would be back from wherever she had been. She was.

‘I was feeling utterly alone and lost,’ said Lancelot, exploiting the convention by which quondam lovers may confess to weakness, the sub-text being that nothing has gone right since you.

‘So was I,’ said Serena unnecessarily. It was well known that she always felt that way. ‘Anthony’s just been here crying on my shoulder.’

‘What was he crying about?’ asked Lancelot anxiously. ‘Business problems?’

‘Elena. He thinks his life would be all right if only he was married to her. He wouldn’t mind her being lesbian and all that.’

‘What does she think?’

‘I don’t think he even asks her any more. She’s got a dozen like him all wanting to be straightened out. But he knows she’d laugh at him so he comes to me. The last person on earth who could help.’

‘You’re very soothing.’

‘Only because I’m completely self-obsessed. Marvellous how little help it is, knowing that that’s what I am.’

‘We should meet next week and talk about those writers who could draw. I think it’s ideal for you.’

‘Come tomorrow.’

‘I could come now.’

‘It’s too late. Would have been nice.’

‘I’ve got squash with Nicholas tomorrow afternoon.’

‘Come for drinks after that.’

Something to look forward to. The children were still out or not coming home at all. The house was so empty Lancelot even missed the dogs.

Read on: Chapter Ten