Books: Brilliant Creatures — Chapter 10 |
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Brilliant Creatures: Chapter 10

~ ten ~

ith his squash racket protruding from an acceptably unfussy canvas hold-all, Lancelot arrived by taxi in front of Nicholas’s club in Pall Mall. There was nothing particularly exclusive about Nicholas’s club. Anyone could be in it who had been at any time a member of Cambridge University. Once in, you were set for life. A move to expel Kim Philby had been shelved for lack of a quorum. There were bedrooms so that you could stay overnight when being thrown out by your wife or before defecting to the Soviet Union. You could eat there as long as you weren’t interested in food. The squash courts were quite good. Pressing his tongue against the back of his temporarily quiescent tooth, Lancelot looked forward to this game as the first step in a new health programme by which he would take himself thoroughly in hand. He would keep his body in shape even if everything else fell apart. It could be said that a few more taxis would bring on total financial collapse but really there had been no choice. He had gone down into his local tube station and ridden a few stops, but found the experience even more nightmarish in the afternoon than it had been the previous evening. The Norwegian ski-troops had been joined by their main body of infantry. The knapsacks formed one vast interlocking mass in which one was jostled helplessly, dazzled by electric blue anoraks and powerless to guard one’s squash racket from danger. So up he had come, hailed a taxi, and now he was here. Put it behind you and make every new move count.

Nicholas had purchased the kind of ball whose coloured spot indicates that it travels comparatively slowly, which effectively means that the players must run further and faster if they wish to hit it. In the early stages Lancelot was careful not to be tempted. If the ball was out of reach he let it go. But when it came near he showed signs of the positional sense and economic stroke play by which he had been able to give a good account of himself when he was Nicholas’s age or even a few years older. Nicholas was impressed and said so. These accolades coaxed Lancelot into trying the occasional dramatic sprint. As a sinking cross-court shot from Nicholas drifted sluggishly off the opposite wall, Lancelot would explode into a death-or-glory-run in order to thrash it back before it hit the floor. If he succeeded, the ball would present itself to Nicholas in such a way that he could make Lancelot run just as fast in the other direction if Lancelot was so minded. Flushed with achievement, Lancelot was usually so minded. He could feel the muscles in the back of his thighs coming alive. The sweat flew off him like pond-water off a puppy. He breathed like the hooter of a police car. For three-quarters of an hour Nicholas stood in the exact centre of the court while Lancelot ran back and forth and up and down like a rat in one of those psychology experiments where rewards arbitrarily become punishments. The eventual effect on the rat is to induce immobility through neurosis. Lancelot eventually became immobile through exhaustion. He felt marvellous, but could do no more. Every little muscle in his legs, buttocks, abdomen, shoulders and arms felt as picked out and chromatically vibrant as in some anatomical illustration. He staggered in small circles, propped himself quaking against the wall of the court, and called it quits.

Having darted the usual covert glances at each other’s pudenda while getting dressed at an oblique angle to each other in the shower room, the two friends climbed the spiral staircase to the bar, one of them ascending seemingly without effort and the other moving as if tethered to his starting point by a strong rubber leash. The bar was upholstered throughout in the kind of buttoned blue leather employed on cross-channel ferries, but there were no windows or portholes. Lancelot asked for a double bitter lemon with plenty of ice, as part of his new policy not to drink alcohol except when he wanted to get drunk. Also he was simply very, very thirsty.

‘I hear we’ll be seeing you and Sally at Elena’s on Tuesday,’ he said when he could speak.

‘You will indeed. Daunting prospect. She’s so grand even Sally might get worried about using the wrong fork. Will we be seeing you and Samantha?’

‘She’ll still be in Los Angeles. Anyway with Elena it’s wives, not mistresses. Except for those lucky enough to be unmarried.’

‘I don’t know how lucky that is,’ said Nicholas.

‘You’re that serious?’

‘If I was going to be, this one would be the one.’

‘There’s certainly something about them at that age,’ said Lancelot. ‘Bring her down to Biarritz in August.’

It was an invitation to talk about Samantha instead of Sally. Nicholas accepted the invitation, partly because, although painfully eager to bring up Sally’s name in any conversational context including nuclear physics, he was aware that anything he explicitly said would be repeated sooner or later.

‘Samantha’s staying on for a while, then?’

‘That’s the plan,’ said Lancelot, making it sound as if he had magnanimously encouraged the postponement of her return. ‘I’ll be going over to bring her back. You can’t blame her for being pleased about all the experience she’s getting.’

‘Like the experience of a great scrum of thick-necked studs with tee-shirts and no foreheads all stuffing her full of coke and queueing up to boff her.’

‘That sort of thing, yes,’ laughed Lancelot, as if enjoying the jest.

And so they parted until Tuesday, with Nicholas heading for Westbourne Terrace and Lancelot walking towards Belgravia for drinks with Serena. Nicholas could have given Lancelot a lift to Hyde Park Corner but Lancelot had some time to kill and anyway, walking was part of his new programme for health and economy. Also a slight stiffness was setting in, which a stroll might loosen.

He set off up St James’s Street very slowly, but by the time he got to Belgravia he was moving more slowly still, not so much from lack of energy as from the fact that to move either foot too far at the one time was to induce a certain amount of discomfort at the back of the upper thigh. The last block to Serena’s very smart address took about twenty minutes. Several times he came to a halt altogether. At other times he was taking steps only a few centimetres long, so that he appeared to be stationary unless you were looking at him for a long while. Several people did so but he pretended to be either lost in thought or examining the architecture of the butter-white terraces. When he pressed Serena’s door button the entryphone squawk told him to come up. The lock having banged open, the crackle from the tiny loudspeaker stopped, indicating that she had hung up the receiver. Lancelot thought of buzzing her again to tell her that he might be some time climbing the stairs, but decided against it. Halfway up he came to a complete halt. Unable to go back and buzz her, and too far below to contemplate shouting, he waited until she appeared on the landing.

‘I thought you’d been kidnapped,’ she said, ‘or just decided against it.’ She looked wonderfully soft and supple, as if her shapely legs weren’t hurting her at all.

‘Temporary stiffening of the upper thighs,’ said Lancelot. think it’s passed off now.’

‘Poor darling. Can you make it?’

‘Lead the way.’ He strode manfully up behind her and on into her tiny flat, feeling with each step as if the point of a Samurai sword was being thrust deeply into the relevant buttock by a blow from a piledriver. Serena’s drawing room was all beige and pastel hessian and raw calico, dominated by a yielding sofa into whose thick square cushions Lancelot lowered himself with the delicate accuracy of a fuel rod being inserted into the core of a reactor. Even then the infinitesimal jolt when his posterior came to rest was enough to impale each hemisphere of his behind on its own individual spike.

‘Orff!’ shouted Lancelot.

‘Are you all right, darling?’

‘Carl Orff. The man who wrote Carmina Burana. Samantha thinks it’s a masterpiece, so his name’s been on my mind.’

‘Shouldn’t she be back?’ Serena had sat down with enviable fluency in a separate chair.

‘Change of plan. I’m going to see her in Los Angeles next week. But I thought that before I went we should get that idea under way about the writers who could draw.’

‘It’s so sweet of you to ask me but the only one I could think of was Delacroix[1] and that was because I was looking straight at Victor’s picture when you asked me.’

‘Delacroix was more of an artist who could write. What we’re after is famous writers in all sorts of languages who did drawings on the side. Sort of in the margins. There are tons to choose from. We’ll get a list made up and then all you’d have to do is go off to the London Library and look up the books.’

‘Wouldn’t I have to write about them as well? I’m definitely not up to that.’

‘No, that’s the whole idea. It’s more a set of captions than a proper book. You crib the biographical facts and then string them together so that Hildegarde can go through it and put it in her own style. Start with someone obvious. Verlaine is a good example. He did those little drawings of Rimbaud that bring out the whole business of their relationship[2].’

‘Beatrix Potter was the other one I thought of,’ said Serena, nodding with feigned decisiveness.

‘Yes, but she’s really equally famous as a writer and illustrator, like Max Beerbohm and Michael Ayrton and Osbert Lancaster and people like that. Whereas the theme ought to be that the art side is the writer’s violon d’Ingres.’


‘His hobby. At the moment, for example, you’ve got Zinoviev. The Russian dissident.’

‘Yes. I see.’

‘And that’s a very strong tradition in Russia, the writer who’s got a very strong pictorial imagination. In fact Lermontov would be your most gifted case of the lot[3].’

‘He’s a dissident too, isn’t he?’

‘In a way, yes. Perhaps more of a Decembrist. And of course Pushkin could draw very well. And you’ve got Proust, Cocteau, Éluard. Apollinaire’s calligrammes count as a kind of drawing[4]. Malraux did a sort of surrealist thing with a single wavy line, like Miro. There are a lot of possibilities.’

‘Stevie Smith,’ said Serena in triumph.

‘Exactly. When I’m in L.A. I’ll get Ian Cuthbert to help me draw up a list. He’s full of that kind of information.’

‘Oh darling, it’s so lovely that someone’s got confidence in me.’ Lithely she threw herself into the sofa beside him, but not so lithely that she failed to cause a critical displacement in the precisely calculated angle of his behind.

‘Arp!’ cried Lancelot.

‘Was he a writer? I thought he was mainly a sculptor. You see I don’t know anything.’

Her head was on his shoulder and her mouth, as lovely now as ever, was yieldingly a quarter open not far from his, so that he could feel her breath. He managed to kiss her without moving any part of his body below the neck, but the contact thus established had the consequence, welcome in normal circumstances but disastrous now, of causing her to press herself suddenly against him.

To cry out while kissing is a practice common between lovers, but takes tact and experience. Usually it occurs in that passionate half-world where real ecstasy finds histrionic expression — the most convincing evidence which life affords for the existentialist principle that we cannot be something without pretending to be it. To have the one you adore cry out into your open mouth is a reward for skill, a prize which the accomplished donor will sometimes give unexpectedly early for purposes of encouragement. By an heroic effort Lancelot just managed to modify his yell of pain into a moan of agonised pleasure. Serena drew back, looked at him with heavy eyes, got up and walked languorously towards her bedroom, reaching behind her to undo a button. In her bedroom there was a dressing table mirror which Lancelot could just see from where he was sitting, and which showed him various enticing fragments of her body as it undressed itself and lay on the bed.

Several minutes later Serena, clad only in her velvet wrist-bands, appeared at the bedroom door. ‘Don’t you want me?’ she asked plaintively.

‘Yes,’ said Lancelot, ‘but I can’t move.’

‘Are you sure it’s not an excuse? Because if one more man makes an excuse not to go to bed with me then I’m going out that window and no mistake. You can forget the razor blades and the pills. I’ll be a heap of meat on the pavement.’

‘My dear sweet love, you look like an erotic fantasy by Boucher and there isn’t a man alive who wouldn’t want to screw you helpless. But you couldn’t get me out of these cushions if you packed my bum in ice. I’m the man who came to dinner.’

It wasn’t quite as bad as that but almost. Serena called a taxi on her account service but getting Lancelot downstairs took so long that by the time he climbed into it the figure on the meter looked like a Weimar Republic bank-note dating from December 1912.

‘I’ll owe you,’ said Lancelot.

‘Don’t be silly,’ said Serena, looking wonderful in her submarine captain’s roll-neck sweater and designer jeans, although not as wonderful as she would have looked lying beside him with nothing on at all. ‘Karim gave me the account and he’ll never get round to cancelling it. Anyway it goes with the flat. Will you be able to get out at the other end?’

‘I should be all right by then. See you when I get back from America.’

He did manage to get out at the other end, but only by keeping his knees bent at 45 degrees and moving very slowly, so that he felt as if he was seeing the world from the angle of Toulouse-Lautrec or a large tortoise. Samantha by this time would be in the air between New York and Los Angeles. He felt he could survive the night alone if he had company tomorrow, so he rang his wife and suggested that he might come to the country next day.

‘Has she still not turned up?’

‘I’m very much alone.’

‘Hop on a train now.’

‘Well, I can’t actually hop on anything at the moment. I’ve hurt myself playing squash with Nicholas.’

‘You’re a damn fool, trying to keep up with people twenty years younger.’


‘Can’t you talk to them about books or something, instead of being so competitive? What did you do, break an arm?’

‘It’s a pain in the arse.’

‘Sorry for the lecture. I imagine you’ve torn your muscles. Sit in a hot bath and come down on the fast train at mid-day. I’ll be driving up again in the evening but at least you’ll have the afternoon in the garden. It was very pretty here today. There are plenty of cushions for the garden chair.’

‘I might have to lie face down.’

‘I’ll put you near the trellis to keep the birds off my seedlings. You are a fool, you know.’

‘I know.’