Books: Brilliant Creatures — Chapter 12 |
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Brilliant Creatures: Chapter 12

~ twelve ~

icholas abandoned his heap somewhere near Sally’s front door and pressed her entryphone button. He was allowed upstairs for the privilege of watching her in the final stages of getting dressed for dinner at Elena’s.

‘This little number’, said Sally, ‘is the only item in the wardrobe that you don’t know intimately. Now you’ve seen everything.’

‘You can say that again,’ said Nicholas, thinking how good a plain dark green skirt and little jacket effect could look if it was all put on the right person. He supposed it was made of velvet and the piping stuff at the edges of the lapels was satin, but would not have been surprised to hear that it was satin and the piping stuff at the edges of the lapels was velvet. All you could be sure of was that none of it was tacky. If tacky fabrics were cancelled on the spot, nearly everything that she had on would still be on her. He would have to take it off her himself. He made a ritual gesture towards this end, but had his hand beaten away as if it were an obstreperous pet that might be allowed back later. Would be allowed back later. Fancy being able to be sure. Bonanza.

‘Where’s the heavy metal conveyance?’ he asked as they descended the stairs. ‘I didn’t spot it coming in.’

‘It’s around the corner in the underground car-park. I don’t like leaving it in the street normally. Smart cars get scratched on principle and there’s this new craze for peeing in them.’

‘Let’s go there in your thing and leave mine here. If I’m lucky they’ll set fire to it and I’ll get the insurance.’

‘You like being driven around in a quick motor, don’t you?’

‘By you, yes.’

‘You should like the car-park. All the really good cars in the district are down there.’

The car-park went down for several levels, each of them clinically clean and looking like a private show-room for Arab League delegates to the UN. Nicholas had had no idea that this sort of thing was going on. There were Rolls-Royce Corniches standing next to each other with dust sheets over them. Ferraris and Aston-Martins were lined up as if for the start of a race. Cars he couldn’t even recognise crouched sullenly, waiting for an excuse to unleash their powerful beauty. Sally told him what they were.

‘It’s like royal jelly, isn’t it?’ she asked rhetorically. ‘Nothing down here but nutritious goodness.’

‘It’s probably a bit like that where we’re going,’ said Nicholas.

It was, too. A Spanish housekeeper who looked and sounded like a benevolent caricature of a Spanish housekeeper answered the door and showed them into a hallway which was already like a small Aladdin’s cave. The hallway opened on to a reception room which was like a large Aladdin’s cave. The house was in fact not especially big but mirrors leading into other mirrors[1] made its true dimensions hard to assess. Nicholas got an impression of comfort raised to the point of luxury. Sally got the same impression but could see it was achieved by the most economical of means. It wasn’t clutter, it was cunning. To prove the point, Elena was putting the finishing touches to the table. ‘Nothing’s finished and everything’s burned,’ she said as she turned towards them. ‘Total, unmitigated disaster.’ She offered her cheek to Nicholas, the first time that she had ever done so.

‘We can see that,’ said Nicholas. ‘Can I introduce Sally Draycott?’ Elena shook Sally’s hand while bestowing on her the smile that charmed without challenging. She recognised Sally’s suit immediately as being from the 1978 Chloë prêt-à-porter collection[2], not very expensive, especially when you allowed for how often it could be worn, but well chosen for someone of her height, colouring and unfussy knack with the accessories. Already at Victor’s she had assessed the girl as having a good eye but here was the fact confirmed. Meanwhile Sally had spotted Elena’s 1980 YSL pants suit as a couture original. Usually, in Sally’s experience, the couture clothes looked good on the models and forlorn on the eventual client, but it was clear that anything designed for Elena didn’t come into its own until it was hanging on her: the mannequin, by comparison, would look as juiceless as a coat-hanger. ‘Is it permissible to gush about that suit?’ she asked.

‘It is. The poor man[3] made it for me on condition I wore it in front of all the clever young people in London.’

‘Who made it?’ asked Nicholas, but they brushed him aside.

‘I know it isn’t done to ask,’ said Sally. ‘Next thing I’ll be pestering you for recipes.’

‘It’s a delicious change to meet someone English who’s also so visual.’ Elena, who knew that people don’t want to be charmed, they want to charm, would have pretended to be pleased with her guest anyway. But she was really pleased. How very displeasing. If the girl had so light a touch already then God only knew what she would turn into with practice. It was going to be a race. As for Sally, who had been impressed with Elena at Victor’s and was now enchanted, it was only a question of how much she could take in. She had already noted with relief that her hostess wore contact lenses. At least something wasn’t perfect. But how did she get so much light in her face? There must be a fluorescent tube in there.

Nicholas, who although standing beside them had no idea that any of this was going on, still felt momentarily out of it, but Elena now put him in charge of pouring drinks. All the bottles, decanters, siphons and cognate paraphernalia were grouped in a mirrored well sunk into the middle of a low table around which the hostess and her first guests now disposed themselves on a many-cushioned velvet banquette. The banquette ran around three sides of the sitting room and could have held twenty people in comfort. Three people it held in a state verging on bliss. Elena cast Nicholas as the man who did not know how to pour decent-sized drinks. Far from resenting this mockery, he found himself flattered, and mimed picking up the wrong bottle in order to improve the game. Sally already knew that nothing establishes intimacy faster than teasing but it was an education how Elena did it: Nicholas had a thin skin but he was purring like a cat. He was so accustomed to being a social catch that it did not occur to him he would have been slower to get through Elena’s door if Sally had not been on his arm. Nor would Elena, though she did not much like young men, give the game away by turning cold where warmth had once been offered. Sally knew there must be undercurrents but the overcurrents were enough to be going on with. She had never felt so at ease so quickly in her life. It made her uneasy.

The doorbell rang and an expensively unkempt man of about thirty-five was shown in. Clearly he went with the furniture, because after being introduced to Sally he sat down on some of it without even looking around. Nicholas already knew him to be a dilettante painter who was one of Elena’s celebrated assortment of door-opening and handbag-holding faggots. His name was Monty Forbes and in addition to his vocational expertise he was well up on opera, a subject on which Nicholas was well down. But Monty, eyes alight with obvious lust, started telling him all about it in a way that shut him out of the general conversation. Elena, who had counted on this effect when inviting Monty to arrive at precisely that time, spent the next quarter of an hour completing the conquest of Sally. She would have liked to tell herself that there was nothing to it, but it quickly became clear that the girl had much more to offer than a sense of style. Elena had long ago discovered that anybody was rated as a fascinating conversationalist who could, after saying ‘Tell me about yourself’ to an interlocutor, actually look interested while all the most intimate details of a mismanaged private life came pouring out. But Sally not only failed to gush about herself, she was genuinely impressive about her work, which in turn seemed to be concerned with the world at large. Elena was obliged to raise her game. A woman who liked only the kind of women who didn’t like women, she recognised and responded to a fellow sufferer. It would have been almost easier having to feign interest. To be really interested was, in view of the peculiar circumstances, to feel herself threatened. But then, the girl would never do as an enemy: that had been obvious from the first. She must be made an ally. Time, that was the enemy. And this girl might know a lot for her age but about that she knew nothing. Bind her with a spell.

Nicholas had been all set to prove himself a dry well where opera was concerned, but Monty was under instructions to get him talking at some point about his latest novel. The colloquy moved on to the subject of novels in general. Monty had read a frightening amount of them in several languages. Nicholas, who hadn’t known that about Monty before, found himself required to pedal hard. He also found himself quite enjoying it. Monty might be a fag but he wasn’t a shrieking fag. He wasn’t going to lean back and swat you with a powder puff. Occasionally these deviants were plugged into some pretty subtle vibrations, Nicholas had to admit. The front door bell rang again and Charlotte was shown in.

‘Has Lancelot fallen by the wayside?’ asked Elena, rising to kiss her.

‘He’s still outside in the car,’ said Charlotte, ‘and wonders if Nicholas could help him in.’ Her apologetic blush blended into her Brontë sisters look[4] with touching perfection.

‘What’s up?’ asked Nicholas, minding his language. ‘Is he drunk?’

‘I should have thought you’d know better than anyone,’ said Charlotte, looking rather cross. Nicholas strode bravely out into the night and bent down at the open door of Charlotte’s Maxi.

‘What gives?’

‘My legs. They don’t.’

‘Don’t what?’


‘I don’t get it.’

‘Temporary stiffening of the upper thighs. Afraid I tried a bit too hard in that squash game. They hurt a bit afterwards and then everything went tight.’

‘Christ. You’re too big for me to carry you in.’

‘No, I’ll be able to walk in all right. But I’d appreciate some help getting out of the car so that I don’t have to bend my legs too much.’

Nicholas helped to extract Lancelot’s feet from under the dashboard as Lancelot lay down sideways into the driving seat. Then came a difficult and audibly uncomfortable manoeuvre by which Lancelot’s body was turned through 90 degrees so that he was lying on his back with his bent knees pointing towards the top of the doorway. Then Nicholas grasped Lancelot’s extended hands and attempted to pull him upright, but although his feet made contact with the footpath his head would not clear the upper door frame.

‘We’re going to have to push you back a hit,’ said Nicholas.


‘Just enough so you can bend forward. Then I’ll hoik you out.’

Lancelot came out all right and straightened up very slowly, as if he had been photographed by a high speed camera. After a while Nicholas asked him whether it wasn’t time he was moving inside, and received the reply that he already was moving inside.

‘Look,’ said Nicholas, after further time had passed. ‘Maybe I’d better go in and arrange for your dinner to be sent out. By the time we sit down to eat you should just about be coming through the front door.’

‘It’s all right. Getting started is the hard part.’ And indeed by now Lancelot was detectably in motion with regard to his surroundings, in the sense that they were even more stationary than he was.

Lancelot‘s handicap gave the evening an extra impetus of hilarity. He was pretty good at taking a joke against himself, which was lucky, because Nicholas had no intention of letting the point go. The two last guests to arrive were a shy but internationally luminous piano player and his spectacular Hungarian wife, a fountain of ebullience who did most of the talking for them both. To clue them in on the joke, Lancelot was encouraged by Nicholas to be the first to start making the trip from the banquette to the dinner table which lay glittering beyond the archway in the adjacent room. Everybody else started the journey a good deal later. This encouraged the shy but internationally luminous piano player to reminisce about just how fast the supposedly crippled Klemperer had been able to move in his wheelchair when chasing young lady violinists. General conversation had thus already begun as they sat down. Such was Elena’s carefully nurtured technique: at her table there were rarely so many people that you could get stuck talking to someone on your right or left if you didn’t want to. Everyone could address the whole assembly, and did so less tentatively as the wine flowed. The food, billed by Elena as an incinerated ruin, was exquisite, but nobody noticed. Lancelot was very funny and then Monty was funnier still. Then Nicholas was funnier than that. Sally, who in her short life had already found out a lot about marshalling competitive male egos into a coherent conversation, quietly marvelled at how Elena orchestrated the talk so that it never disappeared down a side street of specialised knowledge, which with Monty and the piano player present it could easily have done. They would obviously have talked about Pfitzner or Kulenkampff[5] at the drop of a hat, but were not allowed to. The radiantly happy Spanish housekeeper and her even more ecstatic daughter kept appearing with new courses, each course ritually announced by Elena as the biggest disaster by fire since Krakatoa. Lancelot forgot first his bottom and then his tooth. Charlotte forgot she was angry with him for making a mess of the money and then running off to Los Angeles on such weak excuses. Nicholas forgot to worry about Sally, who was obviously a duck in water. Everybody except Sally and Elena forgot everything. Sally had seen Elena’s kind of calm before — in a television production gallery, where a really good director, who at first sight appeared to be doing hardly anything and never spoke above a murmur, was telling people all over the building exactly what to do and when. Elena knew Sally was watching her and occasionally tipped her a wink of complicity after starting Lancelot or Nicholas or both off on some new flight of verbal extravagance. By that time they all would have been drunk just from breathing the air, but the wine helped.

Eventually they all drifted back to where they had begun, for coffee and serious drinks. Other people began to arrive. The editor of the most prominent literary magazine in London was followed into the room by the editor of the most prominent literary magazine in New York. Sally began to wonder who had been left in charge of the world: they all seemed to be here. She had read about this sort of thing but only vaguely. Now she realised why. She had read about it vaguely because it had been written about vaguely. Nobody who could write about it specifically would ever get within a mile of it. Was that a good thing? It was a fact. When people like Victor entertained you it might feel like the inner sanctum. But there was another sanctum even further in, where people like Victor were entertained. By the time you found out about it all, you were in too deep to rebel. Unless you were born there, of course. Then you could rebel, but what a misleading and untrustworthy ally you would make for other rebels.

Sally was ordinarily very good at neither staring nor taking her eyes away too quickly, but when Victor walked in she looked away and smiled involuntarily at the same time. Victor’s gaze swung over her without hesitating and stopped on Elena, who rose to be kissed thinking that he had done that too well. There wasn’t a normal man alive who wouldn’t drink the girl in, and Victor, in that respect, was the most normal man she had ever met.

‘I’ve decided to seduce Black and White myself,’ she murmured through a smile. ‘Seldom have I been more Impressed. Will you join us? I’m sure Mr Crane won’t mind.’

They picked their way between Nicholas and Lancelot, who were down on the carpet playing jacks with walnuts, Nicholas athletically cross-legged and Lancelot propped elaborately among cushions. Elena sat Victor down between herself and Sally, so that when she drifted away to look after another guest their conversation would at least be taking place under her auspices. That bound them to her, whereas if Victor had made his own way to Sally’s side it might have been a conspiracy against her.

‘Elena is throwing us together,’ said Victor after she had moved away, ‘in order to remind me of my age and responsibilities.’

‘I’ve never met anyone like her in my life.’

‘A woman of infinite deviousness. There isn’t a man or woman here that she didn’t enslave in the first hour. I once saw her do it to Yasser Arafat. From a distance, thank God. A terrible sight when that man smiles.’

Sally liked the way he talked about historically significant people as if they were a cast of characters in a play put on for the world’s diversion. He seemed to know everything about what was going on everywhere. Sally’s job was to think like that but it was highly informative to meet someone who had been thinking like that for a lot longer.

Towards one o’clock the Ambassador to the United States got up to leave, presumably to go back to Washington. All the men stood. Sally hadn’t seen that happen before. Elena waved dispensation to Lancelot as he struggled among the cushions. The general amusement marked the beginning of the end of the evening. Victor left not long after. Nicholas and the most brilliant caricaturist helped Lancelot back into Charlotte’s Maxi: working together, they were able to pick him up and insert him like an astronaut into a capsule. The luminous piano player could not risk his fingertips in this operation but hummed Siegfried’s Funeral March to appropriate effect[6]. Rather too much laughter rang around the square for that hour of the night and Elena had to dampen it down.

‘You seemed to be getting on very well with old Ludlow,’ said Nicholas as Sally drove them home. ‘Lucky he’s got one foot in the grave.’

‘Don’t you believe it,’ said Sally, treating the tunnel under Hyde Park Corner as an excerpt from the Monaco Grand Prix. ‘Thirty-year-old men always think any man over fifty’s just under a hundred. Twenty-seven-year-old women think differently. That’s quite an attractive chap.’

‘Did he pull you?’

‘Not a bit. Elena did, though.’

‘No kidding?’

‘No kidding. I didn’t quite get what was going on but if that’s the sort of thing she’s after I can see how she does it. I was wooed and won. For life.’

‘I don’t blame her. If I was a fabulous-looking power-crazy diesel dyke you’d be just the sort of trinket I’d want for my collection. She sort of bequeathed you to him, though, didn’t she? What was he on about?’

‘This and that. Nothing much about himself, except that he seems to be in on everything that’s ever happened. He’s right in the middle of the Middle East business. Bullets still coming at him from both directions, I shouldn’t be surprised. I’d love to talk to him about it.’

‘You just have.’

‘On the air, stupid. But he never gives interviews.’ They left the Porsche in the royal jelly car-park. ‘You aren’t too drunk, are you?’ she asked as they climbed the stairs to her flat. ‘I’d hate to be wasted.’

‘You won’t he wasted in that sense,’ said Nicholas with mock bravado, although the real bravado underneath felt a trifle shaky. What had Elena put in the wine? Wine, mainly. Good wine, that was what the wine had been full of. But he didn’t waste her. He was too grateful for his perfect evening, which had come at the end of a perfect day and already looked like paving the way for a perfect day after that.

‘Have you got them all out?’ asked Victor, telephoning from his car.

‘Where are you?’ asked Elena, taking off her other earring. ‘Come here immediately.’

‘Crossing Westminster Bridge for the second time.’

‘Finally they’ve all disappeared. Extraordinary scenes getting rid of Lancelot. They had a funeral for him. Even Charlotte was amused. I must admit your young man Nicholas is quite funny with that filthy tongue of his. I suppose that’s what she likes.’

‘All his Christmases have come at once. She’s an interesting young woman.’

‘Meaning she listens raptly while you talk non-stop.’

‘She spent the whole time looking at you. I think you’ve made another conquest.’

‘She was just taking notes. And send that monstrous car home when you get here. I don’t want anybody putting bombs in it outside my front door.’

* * *

When Lancelot and Charlotte got home there was a protracted, whispered struggle. At first Lancelot thought he would have to sleep in the car, but after complicated manoeuvrings he finally emerged. The awkwardness seems to be growing slightly less at last, thought Lancelot, shuffling carefully around the recumbent Feydeau in the hall. High time, because now that they were home and alone the running joke was wearing thin. Like all strained couples they spoke about other couples. They were agreed that Nicholas had struck it lucky. It must be good to be at the beginning of things. The trick, thought Lancelot, is to stay at the beginning of things. Lancelot would be back at the beginning of things tomorrow. You could practically call it today, because it was already tomorrow and the flight would consist largely of the time that doesn’t count. Charlotte helped him take his socks off and get into his bed, sparing him all but a few sarcastic remarks about stiffness and how it might come in useful where he was going. He touched his tooth with his tongue and said goodnight.