Books: Brilliant Creatures — Chapter 13 |
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Brilliant Creatures: Chapter 13

~ thirteen ~

guyen,’ said Lancelot as the dentist probed and chipped at the roots of his teeth. ‘Angkor. Ngaio. Ungam. Ingres.’

‘We’ll just clean out some of this plaque while the filling hardens,’ said the dentist jovially. Lancelot was almost horizontal and trying to focus on the discomfort of his bottom, but this by now had faded to the extent that when he was stationary it was barely noticeable. When he moved too suddenly he was instantly reminded of the benefits conferred by remaining stationary, but he was not moving now. So really he had nothing to distract him from his teeth, upon which the dentist was currently applying pressure from various angles in order to abrade flakes of scale like rust from a ship’s hull. Magnified inside Lancelot’s head, the noise was of trees being felled, furniture being moved and blocks of marble being split with wedges. On the upper left side of his mouth a different, steadier source of annoyance was provided by some sort of metal tourniquet which had been placed and tightened around the drilled and filled tooth. The tourniquet seemed to have a species of knurled handle effect sticking out from it, by which Lancelot’s lip was forced upwards into what felt like an Elvis Presley sneer. As if to compensate, a curved plastic pipe had been hooked into place over his lower teeth. The end of it was resting irritatingly on the floor of his mouth, which felt as if it was full of enamel chips, fragments of cement and the kind of debris associated with a small archaeological dig.

‘Not quite set yet,’ said the dentist, smiling at his nurse. She smiled back and shook her head knowingly, as if there was always one awkward patient whose fillings set extra slowly. ‘We may as well move ahead and do the bottom ones with this oriental thingummy I’ve just bought. Makes a pretty little squeal, doesn’t it? Like a mouse at bay. Comfortable?’

‘Arles. Annan. Ankara.’ By crossing his eyes Lancelot could just see that the dentist was holding the latest variation on the theme of the Japanese hook, a transistorised hypersonic device for producing gratuitous pain.

‘Good. When we get the clip off we can have a wash out. You’ve got some inflammation here so you might feel this a bit.’

Apart from feeling that his lower gums were being etched with a white hot pin while the string of his tongue was being sucked out by a bilge pump, Lancelot felt hardly anything at all. Transferred to his upper gums, the hook tried to lift him out of his chair. Finally the clip was taken off and he was allowed to wash out. The effluent looked like the strawberry and chopped nut sauce off some terrible ice-cream sundae. Then there was a bit more of the hook, topped off with a rousing five minutes from the fizzing brush coated with pink slime. During the last part Lancelot’s apprehensiveness eased to the point where he was able to recall how mixed his emotions would have been if all this had not been happening. Relations over breakfast had been rather strained and his bags standing in the hall a focus of attention, with the children tripping over them and Feydeau taking the opportunity to make a territorial signal against one side of the big hold-all. It was a rather good, leather-bound canvas affair from Harvey Nichols and showed the stain wonderfully. On the other hand he was elated to be going, or would have been elated if the necessity to suppress the elation had not made him impatient. Also he wondered what was happening to his car and could hear a cold wind blowing through empty box files. Then there was the tax position, his buttocks and the tooth.

Well, at least the tooth was mended now. Having been tipped back into the vertical position, he shuffled downstairs to the receptionist’s desk and was told that a bill would be sent in due course. Better than being arraigned as a defaulter by the Los Angeles police and locked up in San Quentin. Obviously it was not the first time the receptionist had seen a patient pick up luggage and head for Heathrow. She was quite sweet in a tarty way, with excellent ankles. How bright the world always looks as you leave the dentist’s, even if your legs hurt. But they were definitely loosening up. He was able to strike a quite debonair pose as he hailed a taxi.

It took him to the international terminal at a cost which with his recently acquired experience he was able to believe, but only just. The final sum ran right off the conversion chart altogether and had to be computed from a second chart attached to the first one. When checking in he had trouble finding the right queue. As far as the eye could see the hall was jammed with people standing shoulder to shoulder. Every racial, cultural and ethnological variant of humanity was present and wearing national dress, as if for the first day of the Olympics. Lancelot could not see any Eskimos but presumably they were in there somewhere, incurring excess baggage charges for their kayaks and harpoons. After a while it became obvious that everybody belonged to a queue. The problem was to find which queue was yours. The only way to find out was to make your way to the correct desk and then trace your way back. It all took a long time and was hard on the legs.

After passport control things got easier. Lancelot bought some reading matter at the bookstall. Nicholas’s latest novel had just come out in a bright paperback edition with an embossed polychromatic cover, like a small box of chocolates with an icon for a lid. It was all about a gang of young people so far gone on drugs that they die off one by one without the rest realising it, until finally only one is left, who writes the novel. It was called Anything for a Laugh and Lancelot had read it before it was published in hardback, but he bought a copy for Samantha. He also bought David’s book of short stories, which he had not yet read. Tactical Voting in the Eurovision Song Contest was a bad title because it meant the book would usually be put on the wrong rack. But the cover was rather sexy, unless it was a photograph of the inside of a flower, in which case it wasn’t. For enjoyment purposes he bought one of those collections of Victorian pornography in which the ladies manifest physiologically impossible reactions to stimuli. For some reason which he had never been able to fathom, the unlikelihood put you on rather than off. Magazines there would be on the plane, although perhaps not as many as in first class. Lancelot was going Club class, meaning that you ate the same food as economy class but with metal cutlery instead of plastic, unless you got lucky and were given the same food as first class but with plastic cutlery instead of metal.

Lancelot liked flying. A few days ago, he told himself, he would willingly have caught a slow rocket to Jupiter. Even today he was in no tearing hurry to get there. He felt he ought to be and it worried him slightly. He was worried about not being worried more but not too worried. During the mandatory one-and-a-half hour delay after boarding the aircraft and before taking off — apparently the baggage handlers were demanding to be either indemnified against prosecution for robbery or else paid overtime during appearances in court — he read David’s short stories. They were all about a way of life concerning which Lancelot knew so little that he couldn’t tell whether the prose was heightened realism or just realism. Everybody lived out of suitcases and believed what people used to say they believed in the Sixties, except that this lot were excruciatingly sincere and actually, instead of purportedly, penniless. But there was no doubt that the author could write. What he said, you could see.

Then the flight began. It proved as usual to take the form of an unbroken succession of meals which it seemed just as easy to eat as to hand back. The in-flight movie, Lancelot was pleased to find, was the very latest vehicle of the world’s most famous young female film star. She played a journalist assigned to the life story of a presidential candidate, played by that smiling actor, what was his name, Bulk Stores. The candidate was a happily married man but he had never really known true Intellectual companionship until he met the world’s most famous young female film star. At the end he went back to his wife, but the end was a long way from the start and in between there was the middle. Keep the middle going, that’s the secret.

Somewhere over the snowfields of Colorado, Lancelot had a shave, using a new throwaway razor from his sponge bag. If he had thrown the razor away before shaving instead of after, he would have done himself less damage. Wishing to avoid the jokey impression inevitably created by stanching the wounds with small scraps of toilet paper, he kept splashing on the free aftershave provided until the astringent effect took hold. Then he had to wait a while before giving his face a thorough hot water wash to damp down the pronounced floral odour of the aftershave, some distillate of rotting nasturtiums. At last he was ready to make a slow, go degree shuffling turn to the right and pull the folding door inwards. There was an impatient man just outside the door and another impatient man outside each of the other five doors just like it. Six men standing upright in small cubicles scraping hair from their faces while moving through the stratosphere at a speed approaching that of sound: it would have struck Lancelot as a conundrum if he had not already been feeling a bit sleepy.

Then they landed. By the time it was his turn at the immigration desk his internal clock was registering midnight. For the immigration officer, a black man who looked like a football player so recently retired that he was still wearing his shoulderpads under his blue shirt, it was bright afternoon.

‘Windhover,’ said the immigration officer[1]. ‘I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin ...’

‘I know,’ said Lancelot.

The immigration officer looked at Lancelot without altering the angle of his head. The sole unrehearsed opportunity which life would ever offer him to recite a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins had been interrupted.

‘You haven’t pressed down hard enough with your pen right here,’ said the immigration officer, ‘to make a clear copy on the counterfoil. Have you?’

‘I guess not.’

‘I guess not. You speak American pretty good. Why don’t you go back there and do it all over? Just press down hard on what you’ve written already and it’ll turn out fine.’

‘Can I come back to the head of the queue?’

‘Can you come back to the head of the what?’

‘To the front of the line?’

‘Dapple-dawn drawn, in his riding ...’

This time Lancelot waited until the end of the stanza, and was rewarded with permission to come back to the front of the line once he had finished pressing down hard. Tracing over what he had already inscribed gave him such a perfect sense of time wasted that he felt as if he himself were being pressed down on hard in his turn. Pressed down hard and then released, the way your hand floats upward after you press the back of it hard against a wall. His head was light. Perhaps it was the heat.

Laden with bags, Lancelot walked through into America with comparative ease. Sudden moves were still self-limited by a twinge in the glutei, but he reached the cab rank at a casual stride and bent down to enter the low cab without assistance or much comment from the driver, whose name was Joel. As the cab flew low beside the armco barrier rails of the freeway, Lancelot found out, without having to ask, that there had been no rain for weeks, that many visiting British writers had found Joel to be a useful guide to Los Angeles, that the weird machine which passed them as if they were standing still was a beach buggy chromed all over and driven by a celebrated dog surgeon, and that Joel’s brother ran the PX at a USAF base in England. Lancelot let it all wash over him like warm air. Joel’s conversation was the verbal equivalent of the freeway: endless, easy, hypnotic. Also you didn’t have to pay for it. The fare seemed to contain no hidden charges and even Lancelot, no great shakes at lightning computation, could tell that it was reasonable compared to Britain. If America became cheaper to live in than Britain, what was the point of living in Britain at all? To get Radio 3?

Lancelot’s room at the Casa Perdida had a boot-shaped hole kicked through the plywood door and the carpet had not been shampooed, so that his bare feet felt as if they were secreting glue. Or perhaps it had been shampooed and the shampoo was still in it. His feet were ill at ease but the rest of him, as he picked up the telephone while the bath ran with a generous American gush, was as close as it had come for a long time to happy anticipation.

‘She’s in Las Vegas,’ said Yonky Vollmer’s brain-damaged voice. ‘She said to tell you she was sorry she couldn’t tell you. It happened real sudden.’

‘When is she coming back?’

‘Tomorrow morning. She said for you to get some sleep and she’ll be with you there for lunch.’

Lancelot looked at his bath as if the only sensible thing to do was climb into it and open his veins. But he soon rationalised disappointment into relief. He was, after all, not at his best. His body would obey only the most elementary commands, and those with a sluggishness wholly unbefitting the challenge represented by Samantha, who looked on love as a variety of free-form dancing. In the morning he would be fresh and might not even feel hampered, especially if he lay now for some time in the luke-warm water. He lay in it and waited for tiredness to overwhelm him. It almost did, but the light and heat were all wrong, perceptible even through the air-conditioning and the drawn curtains. The drawn drapes. There was a theory that you should try to stay awake until the local bedtime, thus to avoid waking early in the morning. Perhaps he should try that. What about making his call on Ian now? The chances that Ian might be in were considerably increased by the known fact that he very rarely went out.

Lovely that you’re here. Where have they put you?’

‘I forget. It’s got a hole in the door.’

‘Sixteen. That was Julio. A very exciting evening. There were squad cars in the forecourt and all kinds of lucky people spreadeagled with these wonderfully well built law-enforcement officers doing the highly intimate body search.’

‘Are you available for consultation? I should be asleep but it’s a bit early.’

‘Of course. Can’t wait. I’m the last one on the second floor just around the pool from you. Climb the wooden stairs as soon as you’ve settled in. I’m actually in the throes of composition.’

Lancelot finished unpacking and walked slowly out into the brilliant air, to which his body in vain said midnight. Where was the second floor? There was no second floor. Oh, of course. Second floor meant first floor. After climbing the wooden stairs one step at a time he knocked on Ian’s door and was told to push it open. In the room the curtains were drawn and the lights were on. Ian was behind a desk looking with elaborate thoughtfulness at what was almost certainly a revised synopsis of A World History of the Short. He was sucking his pen as if he had just been told to suck his pen by Karsh of Ottawa. Then he smiled in welcome and stood up, ducking instinctively as he did so. Ian Cuthbert was six feet seven inches tall and like most outsize people had a rich formative history of collisions. Later on, his sensitivity to the nearness of the scenery had been sublimated into the inevitable, endless concern with shoes, shirts, suits and beds, but the old reflexes still showed. Seldom did you see him stand up suddenly without ducking: his central nervous system was imprinted with the continuously threatening image of a ceiling through which his head would protrude abruptly into the room above.

‘Faulkner,’ said Ian significantly.

‘Faulkner what?’

‘Faulkner. Willian Faulkner. Tiny. Absolutely minuscule. Nearest thing to a homunculus. Made Truman Capote look like Steve Reeves. It’s been staring right at me. He spent half his life only a mile away from here. And you’ve got all those marvellous photographs Alfred Eris look of him at the Highland Hotel in 1949. He’s sitting there in just his shorts and glasses tapping away at a typewriter bigger than he is. It looks like a Bechstein. We could do a whole chapter just on him. Faulkner. The bardic voice of the bonsai people. It staggers me I didn’t think of it straight away.’

Ian was back behind his desk miming creative frenzy and remorse. Folding his gigantic right hand into a fist, he bounced the heel of its palm off his forehead to indicate the imminent possibility of rent garments. Lancelot was impressed by the number of pills on the desk. The predominant colours were red and yellow but there were others too. Ian had always been like one of those scientists who work their way back through the putative history of the universe in search of a unification principle which might reconcile the forces operating in nature, except that in Ian’s case the reconciliation sought was between all the pharmaceutical products conceivably applicable to the human system. Judging from the beads of sweat on his forehead his researches were far advanced. He still made some kind of sense but it all came in fits and starts. He would be brilliant for two minutes and then sound catatonic, like a man who had just walked away from a plane crash. Lancelot persuaded him that there would be plenty of time to discuss A World History of the Short, but for now he would appreciate some help compiling a list of writers who could draw. He repeated the sample names he had already given Serena and was gratified, if not surprised, at the high recognition factor. Ian was off and running long before Lancelot had finished stating the general idea.

‘Lermontov would be the key man, of course,’ said Ian. ‘In fact that would be almost cheating because he probably would have been an artist if there’d been time. He’d have been in the same category as Ruskin and Rossetti. And Hazlitt. Marvellous portrait of Lamb by Hazlitt. Cummings and Montale would be modern day equivalents. Both serious painters. Both pretty awful, too, but that’s part of the point, isn’t it? You ought to have Tennyson. Baudelaire would be a must. Did you say Montherlant?’

‘No. Did he draw?’

‘Bullfighters. Started when he was a child. The grown-up drawings are marvellous. Son of thing you get on menus, only better. There’s one of Belmonte fighting where the bull’s all drawn in one line, like a Picasso.’

‘I would never have thought of that and I read everything he wrote. You really are invaluable.’

‘There’s Chesterton, of course. Would Evelyn Waugh be too obvious? Kafka did some very interesting drawings, sort of halfway between Klee and Thurber. Max Brod included some of them in that first little 1937 biography. And don’t forget Firbank. His notebooks are full of the most dazzling little doodles of ladies in cloche hats and madonnas with mascara. The Berg Collection’s got them. New York Public Library.’

‘That’s just what we want. Unknown stuff by well-known people.’

‘If you widened the basis from just writers you’d be opening the whole question of multiple talents right up. John Maynard Keynes did caricatures at Versailles. Caruso drew very well, of course, as well as being quite short. So did Chaliapin. And think of what you could do with Schoenberg.’

‘If you think his music’s tough on your ears, wait till you see what his paintings do to your eyes. Yes, that could be a good line.’

‘Then you could take it full circle and include the artists who wrote. You could have Michelangelo’s poems. Delacroix’s journal. Reynolds. Fromentin. Whistler. Quite short, Whistler: five foot five. Van Gogh in his letters. Cellini. Beardsley did some beautiful translations of Catullus.’

‘But that’s getting ...’

‘Degas wrote sonnets that Valéry thought were amazingly ...’

‘That’s getting into the area of a proper essay rather than just ...’

‘God! Why didn’t I see it! Vasari! Thought he was a painter but really exists only as a writer! Case of not even realising which of your talents is the real one!’ Ian was hopping about on his enormous feet. He grabbed a handful of pills seemingly at random and sprang hugely into the en suite bathroom with his head held low. Lancelot could hear him washing the pills down with water.

‘Blake!’ boomed Ian with a bathroom voice. ‘So obvious you forget him! Lousy poet and a lousy artist! Edward Lear! Wilhelm Busch! Walt Kelly! Asterix! Rupert the B ...’

Forgetting to duck as he danced out of the bathroom, Ian fetched his forehead a crack against the lintel that sent him reeling back out of sight. Lancelot found him sitting on the toilet wheezing and sobbing, but not holding the injured part. Instead his trembling, acromegalic hands were on his knees, palms upward. Either he was not badly hurt or else he experienced local damage only as a diffuse general effect. ‘It’s all right,’ said Ian eventually, lying on his special bed.

‘It’s all right. Leave me alone for a day or two and I’ll do a complete list. Wouldn’t mind writing it myself, as a matter of fact.’

‘We could consider that. It might mean abandoning A World History of the Short.’

‘Couldn’t. Must see things through. Must must must. So much time gone. So much.’

‘I know how you feel.’

‘Did you see Monty before you left?’ asked Ian with feigned drowsiness.

‘Last night at Elena’s.’

‘Has he found anyone?’

‘Not that I know of. No, I’m sure he hasn’t.’

‘Isn’t it awful how we don’t want the people we love to be happy except with us?’

Lancelot switched off the lights and left, startled to find that it was still daylight. He ordered a room-service hamburger and watched television for as long as he could. On a local news programme a man wearing a fake-fur catcher’s mitt for a wig told him that the actor who used to play Captain Video had died that morning in a Long Beach motel room which had been his residence for some time. Nobody had come to claim the body.