Books: Brilliant Creatures — Chapter 11 |
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Brilliant Creatures: Chapter 11

~ eleven ~

ate next morning Lancelot went to Paddington by taxi because the only other way to go would have been in an ambulance. Just bending down to pick up the Sunday papers had taken him some time and for a long while he had been obliged to stay down there, like an old man on a bowling green who had launched a particularly finely fudged wood and was executing a long follow through. But although he was, if anything, even more hampered in his movements than the previous evening, the actual pain was somewhat diminished, so that while taking his breakfast he was able to read the book review pages with unimpaired concentration. The number of implacable female critics seemed to be increasing all the time. Paula Thorax, the strictest of them all, was being scornful about coffee-table books. As an editor whose projects mainly fell into precisely that category, Lancelot felt apprehensive. He had met Paula Thorax at a rival publisher’s annual party and been struck by her rugged good looks, but one hesitated to think how pitiless her gaze would have been without the dark glasses. Doubtless she had some eye injury which necessitated the wearing of tinted glasses indoors, and it was that which made her so severe.

From where the taxi set him down, Lancelot moved to the ticket hall like a slow loris. The queue could not shuffle forward too gradually for his liking. If two or three people in a row paid cash then everyone behind them had to explode forward like sprinters. People paying by credit card took much longer, and mercifully there were more of them. Cash was going out of style.

Aren’t we all? thought Lancelot, taking his place at the window. At first he refused to believe the figure specified as the cost of a first class single to his destination. For reasons of hygiene or physical safety, the ticket seller was standing on the other side of a complicated glass filter through which even the air could not pass directly, so perhaps the sound got distorted too. The man — whose original language, judging from his appearance, was almost certainly not English — might have thought that Lancelot had asked for a return ticket to Bucharest or had put in a hid to purchase the locomotive. But apparently there was no mistake. Lancelot asked for a second class ticket instead, recalling dimly how Bianca Jagger or some equivalent philosopher had said that one should go first class or not at all. A good principle if you didn’t mind not going. A small brushed steel turntable looking rather like a piece of Japanese stereo equipment took his credit card past Checkpoint Charlie so that the man could put it through his little printing press and thus record one more unarguable debit to Lancelot’s account. Then his card came back accompanied by a ticket which was made only of cardboard, instead of the platinum or tungsten commensurate with its price.

Wheeling slowly like a rusty gun turret, Lancelot pointed himself towards the appropriate platform and picked up speed by steady increments, until finally he was travelling at the same velocity as a culture of mould forming on stale bread. The train promised to go a good deal faster. Billing itself as the 125 to indicate the number of miles it could cover in a single hour, it actually had these figures painted on the side of the shovel-nosed prime mover at each end. The second class carriages were at the further end of the train, which gave Lancelot an opportunity to wonder whether he would reach them before the train left. Getting there just as the last whistle was blowing, he was lucky enough to find a seat comparatively free of stains. Most of the seats looked as if someone had given birth in them but his merely suggested that a man had been knifed to death after a brief struggle.

The train surged into motion and went at a tremendous clip while Lancelot, who had brought the Sunday papers with him, read a brilliant book review by Nicholas which tore the heart out of some American tract about the alleged necessity to revise the English language in favour of feminism. Halfway through reading this piece, which he admired although deploring his friend’s unyielding hostility to progress, Lancelot had to put the paper down while a semi-articulate but dauntlessly self-confident voice on the public address system welcomed him to the train, told him where it was going, informed him of the whereabouts of the buffet car, gave a detailed breakdown of the type of sandwiches which could be purchased there, and thanked him for listening. In the other paper there was a quite funny piece by Thinwall making game of the Social Democratic Party. Lancelot couldn’t agree more. That one’s politics should indeed contradict one’s material interests seemed to Lancelot to be the very basis of public morality. A political party which reflected one’s own social position in every particular thus defined itself automatically as an irrelevance, not to say an anachronism. As caricatured mercilessly by Thinwall, the SDP was a public relations exercise aimed specifically at people like Lancelot. No question of it, thought Lancelot, enjoying his train ride. The 125 certainly lived up to its name.

The 125 went on living up to its name until somewhere between Reading and Didcot, whereupon a sudden application of the brakes filled the carriage with a urethral odour. Abruptly the 125 became the 12.5. For several miles the 12.5 ambled along past squads of men in luminous orange jackets who seemed to be engaged in some anglicised, alfresco version of the tea ceremony. Gradually the 12.5 converted itself into the 1.25. The men outside could be studied in detail as they sat, or, in some rare cases, moved about. Then the train stopped altogether.

For the first half hour of total immobility nobody told them anything. Then the voice came back on the PA system with what sounded at first like a specially prepared script. The phrase ‘owing to the engineering’ occurred several times and with remarkable fluency, perhaps because it was a standard utterance, like the admonition to make sure you had your belongings with you before getting off. But then there was a lot of other stuff about the special rail-laying equipment having become derailed. How could rail-laying equipment become derailed? The voice didn’t seem to know either. It stumbled over its words, interpolated crackling caesuras between sentences, and signed off with an assurance that the train would be under way again as soon as possible. Lancelot glanced yet again at his Cartier wristwatch. It was half past one and he was feeling a bit hungry.

* * *

After lunch, which the children gratified her by taking off their headphones in order to eat, Charlotte carried her prayer-mat into the garden and planted out a few expensive seedlings for the dogs to dig up. A taxi bearing Lancelot obstinately refused to arrive. Perhaps she should have fetched him from the station but that would have been going a bit far. Finally she went for a walk around the bend of the river to call on Elena. She would have gone the day before but certain thick-set men in blue suits had been standing about incongruously among the trees. During the previous government this would have indicated the presence of the Home Secretary. Who it had been this time Charlotte didn’t like to ask. She found Elena counting tulips.

‘People get off those little ships and steal them,’ said Elena from under her straw hat. ‘I’ve got some iced tea getting cold. It’s about a month too early but we could test it out. Some of my guests have departed and a new lot are about to descend.’

‘I’d love to,’ said Charlotte, and they walked together through the trees until Elena’s house appeared to them like a vision. It would have looked like a caprice by Rex Whistler if there had been any trace of tweeness about Elena’s fantasy. But its simplicity was the reason she had chosen the old square house in the first place, and none of the many adornments which had since accrued made any fuss. There was a barn for younger guests. There was a summer house where the garden walls joined, so that you could walk through from a lawn into an orchard. The swimming pool in the rose garden was only just deep enough for a diving board but looked inviting under its topiary arch. The boat-house behind the willows was missing one corner of its slate roof, so that the rain had got in and made a mess of Cleopatra’s Dinghy. Elena was rather proud of Cleopatra’s Dinghy[1]. It was a rowing boat that seated about eight people under a painted canopy. A wooden fairground swan fixed to the prow counted as figurehead and there was an old red plush armchair in the back for a commander. Trimmed with rope painted gold, it looked like the Venetian Bucintoro painted by Canaletto on the lid of a snuff box.

Elena liked the kind of visual treat that costs little in the first place and looks even better with age. One of the laurels had a fleeing marble Daphne disappearing into its storm-split trunk and when you looked down the path you could see Apollo just arriving around the corner. Unfortunately the laurel version of Dutch elm disease looked like spoiling the joke but she could always set it up somewhere else. Elena was always thinking of new things and nothing was ever quite finished. Charlotte wondered what it would be like to have so much imagination. Sometimes she doubted whether she herself had enough imagination even to wonder. But she appreciated it tremendously. She thought the world of Elena and loved talking to her heart to heart, although it had long ago become clear that the traffic was flowing in one direction. What confidence it must take, to give so little away. Charlotte would have given a lot to be enigmatic. Open books want to be mysteries.

‘Pretending for the moment that the sun is really hot,’ said Elena, ‘try some of this.’

‘It’s perfect.’ They sat at the white cane table on the lawn and talked. Some lone mayfly, the harbinger of thriving millions, spotted the mint leaves in the jug of iced tea and dived in, not making much of a splash.

‘Later on I’m giving an opera ball to which you and Lancelot must come. My nephew is getting married and his mother is helpless to organise anything. Buggins gets the job.’ Elena knew she meant Muggins instead of Buggins but the occasional malapropism was part of her defence system.

‘How wonderful. Will you hire a theatre or something?’

‘No, I’ll put up tents and have it here. The relatives will have to stay in the villages and round about while they dress up as Otello and Boris Godunov.’

‘I could put a couple up.’

‘How sweet of you to offer but I wouldn’t dream of giving you the bother. We’ll make them all stay in hotels. The whole enterprise is insane but so is my father, and he and my sister have given me all this money to do it. Might as well spend it properly for once.’

‘I think Lancelot will want to bring his girl,’ said Charlotte. Elena knew this to be the key item on the agenda. She would have liked to stop the girl outright but then the girl might stop Lancelot, leaving Charlotte, who had an overdeveloped capacity for guilt, to attend alone and not have much fun.

‘You should get in first,’ suggested Elena, as if she had just thought of it, ‘and say you’re coming with somebody else. My boring cousin Rudolph is always available but why not make it an adventure?’

‘I met a rather nice young man at Victor’s the other night. Terrifically left wing and no doubt he’ll disapprove of your relatives. But he’s a wonderfully talented writer and he ought to see things. I think he wants to, really.’

‘I think it’s perfect. A young lover.’

‘Is that how it will look?’

‘Let’s hope so. The professor and the brilliant young writer. Couldn’t be better. People will talk of nothing else.’

‘Do you think so?’ Charlotte was surprised to find herself excited by the idea. It was always like that around Elena. The possibilities multiplied. The white wine grew bubbles and stung the inside of your nose.

And it will do Lancelot the world of good,’ said Elena, clinching the matter. ‘It’s the only way you can ever teach people a lesson. Giving them what they want.’

‘He and I seem to have made rather a mess of things.’

‘Good God no. Married all this time and still caring what each other does? That’s a raging success. Some of us have a lot less to show for the time we’ve put in.’

‘Then I shouldn’t leave Lancelot.’

‘If you want to. But it might kill him.’

Charlotte felt powerful and decisive hearing this, while knowing she was not. Elena was powerful. Look at the strength in that figure. The time sped by. She should have gone back to make Lancelot some tea but it was too pleasant here. Then the nephew of the third or fourth last prime minister arrived in a pony trap, with his singing wife Dido not far behind in a Range Rover. Dido had picked up Elena’s boring cousin Rudolph from the station. Rudolph, although he didn’t actually click his heels, had an impressive line in stiff handshakes and deferential inclinations of the head. His vocation was baroque art history but he had a way of bringing the subject up that had been known to make even other baroque an historians start discussing snooker instead. Finally there was the crunch, whisper and thump of a very large Rolls-Royce arriving. If it had borne a pennant it might have been the Queen Mother, but it was Victor.

‘You must send that great thing back to London immediately,’ said Elena, offering her cheek. ‘I can’t have it standing here. It blocks the view.’

Victor sent the car away. Tea gradually turned to drinks. Charlotte was urged to stay but the thought of her crippled husband nagged at her conscience. She crossed the lawn and took a short-cut through the rose garden past the pool. One of those big jets went over, momentarily shattering the idyll. She looked back and could see them all looking up, except for Elena and Victor, who were looking at each other. Charlotte had sometimes wondered about Elena and Victor. Elena was famously asexual and Victor was reputedly much less interested in that sort of thing since the dreadful shooting business, but there was something too perfect about the timing. If two news-makers both stop making news at once, that’s news. Charlotte felt pleased with herself at this formulation, as if she were living dangerously all of a sudden. How disappointing to get back to the mill house and find Lancelot not there even yet. What could have happened to him?

* * *

The train had still not moved. Rioting had broken out at the beginning of the third hour, with teams of young men in Zec haircuts and Li’l Abner boots pounding back and forth spilling beer, shouting in languages which seemed to bear the most tenuous connection with English, and pausing only to form small malodorous choirs which competitively sang ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. Lancelot might have joined them if he had been capable of movement. The three other people in his group of four seats were up and down all the time on the way to and coming back from the buffet car and the toilet. The buffet car was soon stripped of everything except a few styrofoam sandwiches filled with tenderised hardboard and foot powder. The man on the PA system took advantage of the opportunity to launch himself on a career in broadcasting. He recounted similar incidents which had happened, he said, previous. He explained the perils of alighting from the train and walking along the permanent way. The slogan ‘owing to the engineering’ still recurred like the petite phrase in Proust[2], but in other respects his performance had taken on a fully organic, phantasmagorical bravura. He stayed on the air for longer each time and the space between announcements became progressively shorter. Eventually he broke into song, but was abruptly cut off, as if he had been overpowered by a colleague. Just after half past five the train moved. A woman who had done nothing all afternoon except shake her head burst quietly into tears.

Upon arrival there was an almighty mass sprint for taxis, buses and any other form of transport that was not a train. Lancelot was the only passenger left in the station to hear the public address system regret the inconvenience caused. He was in a toilet and laughed hollowly. By the time he arrived at the taxi stand there was not a wheeled vehicle to be seen. He contemplated going back to telephone Charlotte but was afraid of missing a taxi should one turn up. So he waited. If it was not precisely twilight then certainly the clarity had gone out of the air. A taxi arrived. He bent down to the driver’s window with some difficulty and named his destination. The driver, who had a joke Hitler moustache and oiled hair parted in the middle, dared say that he could find it with a bit of help. Lancelot completed the long process of opening the back door and getting in.

‘Muscular dyslexia, is it?’ the driver asked cheerfully.

‘Dystrophy,’ said Lancelot.

‘What I meant. You on that train, were you?’

‘Last one off.’

‘Yes, well, you would be, having the muscular. I got a short fare off that train so I nipped back hoping, and there you was. She was right stroppy too, wasn’t she, the train being that late. Come down to see her mother on her death bed. Be too late, I shouldn’t be surprised, what I told her. I don’t know why they don’t stop subsidising some of the people what’ve got no right to be travelling for nothing, do you know what I mean? Then you wouldn’t have these breakdowns. Money for repairs, isn’t it? Give you an example. Woman what her next door neighbour was in this cab March last year. No, April it was. Tell a lie, it was March. He said she goes up to London every week with her eight kids. None of them pays nothing. She pays a cheap day return or whatever you call it. Awayday, Playaway, you know, that. Kids pay nothing. Nothing! Meanwhile you and me pay the full, even if we don’t go, you know what I mean? And rates on top of it. Ridiculous. Give you another example. Suppose I’ve got a three months’ season ticket one month gone. That’s eight weeks. Tell a lie, nine. Call it eight. Well, the fifth, sixth and seventh week I’m still paying something, an incremental on the third or fourth, aren’t I? But what am I paying on the what do you call it?’

‘Eighth,’ said Lancelot.

‘What I meant. The eighth week I’m not paying nothing, am I? Which other people are. Meaning their subsidence of me is the same as what mine was of that woman last March. And what I’m saying is, I should be. Because if I’m not, then they are, even if they don’t go. Ridiculous.’

Lancelot, after only five minutes of this, had realised that there were going to be at least twenty more minutes of this on top of the five minutes of this he had already had. It was the first time he had ever been in a conversation to which he had been able to contribute only the word ‘eighth’. He didn’t see what he could do apart from suddenly opening the door and rolling out sideways like one of those crack infantrymen who drop off the back of a truck. The road threaded through several small towns and villages before dropping gently into the shallow valley which must have been worn into that shape aeons ago by a glacier even more irresistible in its ponderous attack than the tirade to which he was currently being subjected.

‘... they ought to scrap all that lot, know what I mean? Otherwise the running costs are out of, over the, what with all, aren’t they? Get rid of all that rolling stock and them engines at each end so one of them’s wasted, isn’t it? Just getting towed along. Rid of all that and cover the railway lines over with what’s it called?’

‘Asphalt,’ said Lancelot mechanically.

‘Yeah, that. And just run coaches every five, say every six minutes if you like, so you could catch one when you, go there when you, any time you felt like it, you know what I mean?’

‘Yes,’ said Lancelot, pointing out the side road that led across country. ‘You could even join the coaches together so that you’d only need an engine in the first one.’

‘What I mean,’ said the driver triumphantly. ‘Like you were saying. They ought to get it sorted. Don’t see why they’re still mucking, can’t get it right. Give you another example. Just after the war, must have been 1947. Tell a lie, ’48 ...’

Lancelot was thinking of the tramlines still visible down the middle of Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. Was it Santa Monica Boulevard or the other one that branches off it? Where the road bends to the left as you head out of Hollywood towards the beach. By now the concrete would be wavering under the sunlight of late morning. Down the tracks had come the musical trolley cars to shunt and squash and cut in half the Model T Fords full of Keystone Kops in the days when Mabel Normand was the same age as Samantha. But now Mabel Normand was inside the glacier and twilight was thickening to dusk in the meadows beyond those lilac walls of fitted stones.

‘... don’t know why they don’t do it, honest I don’t. Cover up the railway lines with you know, easy. Three, four coaches every five, six minutes. Everybody gets what they pay for, don’t they? And if you don’t, you can’t. No season tickets.’

‘That’s the ticket,’ said Lancelot absently.


‘I mean that’s the solution. You’ve put it in a nutshell. There’s a man I work with called Frank Strain that you really ought to meet. You and he think along the same lines.’

‘Along the same lines, that’s what I mean. So all that money for new motorways gets saved straight away, without having to do nothing. Don’t have to buy up no land. No compulsory purchase what is it?’

But by now they were turning into the gravelled loop in front of the mill house. The driver put on his glasses to read the colossal sum on the meter, and then asked for twice as much, presumably to cover his costs back to his starting-point plus depreciation on his vocal cords. Lancelot added a 10 per cent tip. Even as he did so he wondered why he did so, instead of deducting a 75 per cent listening fee. He accepted one of the driver’s cards. ‘LET ME QUOTE YOU’, it began ‘ON MY TERMS FOR A 24 HOUR SERVICE OVER ANY DISTANCE.’ How could any distance be greater than the one they had just travelled?

‘What on earth happened?’ asked Charlotte, helping him inside.

‘Owing to the engineering, British Rail apologises to passengers and regrets the inconvenience caused. I’m famished.’

Charlotte fed him a snack to tide him over and then very shortly afterwards sat him down to dinner. Two of the three children were present, and seemed neither pleased nor displeased to have him around. The dogs were wholly indifferent, except perhaps for Feydeau, who squatted facing Lancelot’s chair in order to display an erection that looked like a pink propelling pencil manufactured in Taiwan. Later they all got into the car and went back to London.