Books: Brilliant Creatures — Chapter 14 |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Brilliant Creatures: Chapter 14

~ fourteen ~

raline,’ said Lancelot, tasting his fingertips.

‘Mm?’ Samantha was weary at last.

La céleste praline. It’s what Rimbaud called it[1]. Perfect word. Gets the thickness.’

‘Wasn’t he a woofter?’.

‘Verlaine was mad about him but he had a soft spot for ladies. Soft spot for their soft spots. Especially this soft spot here. Chanaan féminin dans les moiteurs enclos. A feminine Canaan enclosed in moisture. Des filaments pareils à des larmes de lait. Filaments like tears of milk.’

‘How can you remember all that?’

‘It’s all I do remember. A few scraps of randy poetry that leave everything of mine in the shade. But there are other things in life. This, for instance.’

Through the early afternoon they had been lying there in his room, with enough light coming in through the drawn lemon drapes to excite the photosphere of her skin into incandescence. Practically singing with energy, she had appeared at his door in a tee-shirt and a pair of shorts that made her legs look more than usually endless. Slowing her down to this degree of somnolence had taken a long time, but Lancelot had never used time better. The idea of her tautness, firmness and creamy resilience had been haunting him. Now there was the fact at last. It was impossible to imagine yourself as having more conscience than you possessed, but even supposing he had twice as much, he suspected that he would still forgive himself. Men who thought they could resist this had never been offered it. By the time age turned it loose he would be gone. He looked along her stomach to where her face, slightly propped up on the pillow, was smiling down at him between her breasts.

‘Bum still hurt?’ she asked.


‘Cost you a groaning to take off my edge[2].’

‘There you are. You can do it too.’

‘Should bloody well think so. Me and my useless double First.’

Samantha’s reasons for having been in Las Vegas sounded plausible enough to anyone who believed that her reasons for being in Los Angeles were plausible in the first place. Lancelot had no intention, now at any rate, of asking any questions. But it emerged without prompting that she was bored with what she was doing. When she came back to England she would resume writing articles but she was bored with that too. Perhaps she was meant to be some famous man’s wife, managing his house and going to parties with him, or having the parties right there in the house if there was someone else to cook.

All this was suggested frivolously but it put Lancelot on the alert, so that in the next few days he strove to prove that a girl like Samantha could be a moderately famous man’s companion, with matrimony and a house left out of the picture but a lot of parties thrown in. His own connections in Los Angeles were with literary people but when he took her along to dinner she could occasionally show, if suitably prompted, what looked like real interest in the conversation. This was a relief to Lancelot, because some of his hostesses were acquaintances of Charlotte and there had been a certain amount of humming and ha-ing about blending Samantha into the placement. Indeed in the case of one notoriously successful husband-and-wife writing team the invitation had been resoundingly for one person only, take it or leave it. Lancelot had taken it while Samantha went to one of those roller discos where even at his most slavishly obsessed he did not dream of being seen dead — or, rather, did. Stretched out with an impacted occiput while his feet leaked small ball-bearings. Dancing below your age might merely be ludicrous, but doing the same thing on eight wheels would court disaster. Not that the simple act of dining out was devoid of hazard. The news would be back in London soon enough. He was like a man living on borrowed time, but that kind of time can do strange things to space and light. Look at her sitting there among all these lined and sagging people. Why bother to lift a face when it is no longer as fresh as hers? See how she shines.

It remained a constant wonder to Lancelot that someone with Samantha’s glittering academic record should betray so little inclination to open a book now that her last examination was behind her. In Pacific Palisades they ate Mexican salads at the pine tables of some of the most literate writers in the English-speaking world. What was more, these writers, unlike most English writers, or the same writers transposed to England, which was where many of them had come from anyway, liked talking about literature in the evenings, as a necessary corrective to having spent the day helping Barbra Streisand rewrite what they had written. But Samantha’s attitude was never one of deference or even of particular respect. Instead, apart from the occasional and unpredictable display of sudden curiosity, she seemed mostly long-suffering, as if wondering how long these fuddy-duddies could prop each other up. It wasn’t that she laughed in the wrong places, only that she laughed as if the real laughs were somewhere else.

Several times, instead of his taking her with him, she took him with her, to clockless pulsating black vaults in which coloured sparks chased each other through slits in the sprung floor and the music kicked him repeatedly in the head. While she occupied herself in a stroboscopic frenzy like a female mythological protagonist trying to shake off a shirt of intermittent fire[3], Lancelot capered dutifully in her reflected glory, praying that he could get her home while he had some energy left. But when Yonky tagged along with some dreadful teenage bio-engineering millionaire of a boyfriend then the night out would go on until Lancelot had nothing left in him except tiredness and leg muscles that begged for peace.

The house parties she took him to also featured a lot of cavorting in dark rooms full of auroras and subliminal electrical storms, but there were at least some areas of comparative silence, in what would have been gardens if not for the glass walls, or living rooms if not for the lianas. Unfortunately the indirectly lit personnel had nothing to say which Lancelot could easily comprehend. If he could understand it, he couldn’t understand why they were bothering to say it. Most of them were young actors and actresses or people trying to look like young actors and actresses. At the equivalent gathering in London the cocaine would have been sequestered in an upstairs room to which only the stars would be granted unchallenged access. Here it was laid out in lines on silver trays. Samantha seemed to be taking the stuff on board like one of those pipes that sucks grain from a ship’s hold. It would be an expensive proclivity — she wouldn’t let him call it a habit — to take home. She had no real money of her own and seemed to be not very Interested in earning any. What would she do if she were not interested in writing articles? Perhaps she would move up to being not interested in writing books. It was then that the idea struck him.

* * *

Only partly as revenge for Lancelot’s flagrant absence, Charlotte telephoned David and asked him to dinner. If hers had been a vindictive nature then retribution might have been the whole reason, but in fact curiosity outweighed it. She had thought that today’s young people were like her children — i.e., like her, but not old enough. David had impressed her with the specific quality of an idealism which you could not dismiss as callowness, especially when it was based, as it obviously was, on real experience. The Sixties, an era whose memory she reviled, had been full of fake rebels, but whatever David was up to was unmistakably genuine. Also he had real talent, you could tell by the way he spoke, and one of the things that made her a good teacher — she knew she was that, being surrounded by bad ones — was her instinctive respect for creativity. And he seemed to like being with her. Ringing him up would put that last proposition to the test instead of leaving it safe, so she hesitated for a whole day. But he said yes, no evening would be too soon. Well, what do you know?

David’s schedule at the house was heavy that week. Race relations in the area had reached the point where Trotskyites of different colours weren’t talking to each other. Gaga Ladbroke, David’s companion for the last two years, was conducting teach-ins every other night in the downstairs front room. All this on top of acting in a film during the day and running the workshop at the weekends. In the workshop some of the local youth acquired skills which might or might not keep them out of gaol until such time as capitalism could be overthrown. Press spies would have liked to suggest that they were learning to make bombs or rob banks, but David mainly contrived to keep the channels of communication open, at least as far as the radical and socialist magazines went. Also his efforts to maintain a dialogue with the local constabulary had so far managed to ward off one of those routine house-searches that leave the electricity meter lying in the bath and the bath lying in the back garden. David felt all the more involved for having rather gone off Gaga — not, he hoped, because she was tired all the time but because she was becoming repetitive. It was inevitable: staying true to your code largely entails repeating its slogans over and over to yourself as well as to anyone who will listen. David could see the political necessity for this but it grated on him as a writer. So with a clouded conscience he took a night off, plus enough money to get the tube there and back.

Charlotte thought at first of anticipating his culinary tastes. Probably he existed on revolutionary bean shoots and rice wine. But she was immediately out of her depth and anyway he had eaten those pieces of pheasant readily enough. Perhaps the thing to do was feed him up. She dismissed Mrs Hyperbolics for the evening, first of all because David might have advised her to seek political asylum and secondly because she, Charlotte, wanted to do all the cooking herself. On one level of the gas oven she set to roast a small tarragon chicken while she got on with concocting a spinach soufflé and an out-of-season fruit tart made possible by her preserves. Any children who turned up were fed hamburgers as they arrived and soon wandered away again. They were New Romantics and their hands were ever at their lips, bidding adieu[4].

One of the children let David in. He was instantly attacked by the dogs. Charlotte helped rescue him from his position behind the hall-way coat stand.

‘It’s the fear,’ said David apologetically. ‘They sense it. Dogs much smaller than these go completely kamikaze when I’m around. I get chihuahuas zooming up my trouser leg.’

‘I’m sorry. I had no idea you hated them. I’ll lock them outside.’

Charlotte sat David down at the kitchen table while she cooked. All he would drink was mineral water. She told him about a wasted afternoon of academic politics and he told her about the other kind of politics, with specific reference to Gaga and his house full of revolutionaries. David had in his jacket a copy of the magazine in which Victor’s shameful mistreatment of his employers was supposedly laid bare. Charlotte found herself defending paternalism, or at any rate defending Victor, whom she knew to be fundamentally honest, even if hopelessly flamboyant. David explained that personal honesty was irrelevant if the system was dishonest, but Charlotte professed not to understand the explanation. As they sat opposite each other at the thick table, Charlotte was surprised to discover that one of her daughters, having entered and been introduced, neither seized any further food nor sought a quick exit to escape adult conversation, but actually stood there, silently attentive and almost staring. In the course of time this daughter was joined by another daughter, and finally by her son. The offspring stood in a spangled group, their eyes, for once, glistening like their sequinned eyeshadow. Their bells and chimes were almost silent, except when one or more of them shifted his or her weight from one foot or more to the other or others. Then there were questions, which David answered. The questions and answers were so technical that Charlotte could get only a fleeting idea of the subject matter, but it seemed to be something to do with popular culture. This impression was reinforced when the children brought forth multiple copies of those frightful magazines of theirs which had titles like Fangs and in which very few words, almost invariably misspelled, eked out reams of pictures featuring young people in cargo-cult makeup. David signed all the magazines and eventually, reluctantly, the children went away, walking backwards, as if leaving the presence of the King of Siam.

‘I’ve brought home a hero, it appears.’

‘Sorry about all that.’

‘For God’s sake. You’ve raised my status around here to the highest it’s ever been. I had no idea they read short stories. I was under the impression they never voluntarily read anything.’

‘I don’t think it was for that. Until last year I was a bit of a musical personality. I played bass guitar in a band called Clutch Shudder. We were going quite well but it all depended on the singer and he had an accident.’

‘Inside of his nose fall out?’ asked Charlotte, feeling terrifically up to date.

‘Wet stage.’

‘Is that something else that coke does?’

‘No. The stage was wet. Rain. It’s an occupational hazard when you’re doing open-air concerts. Lot of juice about, so it’s very easy to get zapped. Rick had this ultra-complicated routine when he came on for his first song. Flinging his head around in a circle while he strutted all the way across the stage and back. Up in the air for a splits, then he dives forward and grabs the mike. Only this time he flings his head around in a circle, struts across the stage and back, up in the air for a splits, dives forward and there’s a blue flash. I had my eyes shut at that point because I was playing a dramatic lick. You know, my head thrown back in ecstasy. But I could see the flash through my eyelids. I can see the exact colour now. Like the Cherenkov effect[5]. Pure sapphire.’

‘Was he killed?’

‘Oh, instantly. Never felt a thing. But then he never felt a thing anyway. I took it as a signal and decided to enter the world of words full time.’

‘Don’t you miss your music?’

‘There wasn’t much of that left. We were too busy being successful. Which was never supposed to be the idea in the first place.’

‘You’re serious about all that, are you?’

‘About all what?’

‘About being against society, and so forth.’

‘I don’t have to be against this society. It’s against itself. It’s insane and I’d like to see it sane. It’s sick and I’d like to see it well. It’s careless and unfair and the way it’s going it might end up just hopeless. You can’t imagine what it’s like to be young just now.’

‘No. I don’t suppose I can.’

It was like talking to an exceptionally bright student, with the difference that she felt as if it were she, and not he, who had enrolled for the course and would eventually be tested. His hands were beautiful but he held his fork far too low down, with his index finger on the chines. Stop that. Squash the peas if you have to but don’t shovel them. Cut smaller pieces. Don’t put so much in your mouth.

When she led him upstairs It was to show him her books, which she had been collecting since her undergraduate days at Girton.

‘Wow. Are they all yours?’

‘The French ones are mainly Lancelot’s. There are more of them in his study. The Greek and Latin and Italian and German ones are mainly mine. And all the English ones of course.’

‘It’s a whole library.’

‘It’s a working library. I’m especially strong on English critical prose. That’s what my own book’s about.’

‘I know. I’ve been reading it.’

Normally she never lent books[6] but when David left he had an allegedly spare three-volume set of Saintsbury’s History of Criticism under his arm, plus a copy of Desmond MacCarthy’s Portraits, with instructions to read the chapter on Henry James. Charlotte reminded herself of someone who leaves an umbrella in someone else’s house, not so much as an excuse for coming back as to establish a connection.

* * *

When Sally saw the article about Victor Ludorum she rang her producer immediately. Her producer called himself Speed Blair and wore training shoes to indicate that he was classless, a tie to establish his qualifications for the executive restaurant, trousers that were almost jeans and a jacket one step up from a windbreaker. His character reflected his attire in every particular. Not only, he assured her, had he already seen the article and got the point, he had done his best to flush that old crook Ludlow out, with predictable results.

‘No way in the world, love,’ Speed announced, employing that patronising tone of misplaced self-confidence which she had come to know and loathe. ‘Every channel’s been on to it already and can’t get past his outer secretary.’

‘I might have an in. Can I get it on the air if I’m right?’

‘Oh ho,’ said Speed. ’So that’s how it is.’

‘That’s how it isn’t. To get this I’ll have to swear we’ll treat him fairly. No dodgy cuts.’

‘You can count on a full half hour. They’ll jump at it upstairs. Might even want longer. It’ll be the first time he’s talked since Carlos shot him.’

At Elena‘s soiree Sally would have made a point of not taking Victor’s private number if he hadn’t made such a point of not supplying it. Unfortunately that left her back at square one with all the other contenders. it would be a mistake to ring Elena. She rang the publishing house and was surprised when the switchboard put her straight through to Victor’s private secretary. She was more surprised still when the private secretary asked her which number and extension number she was speaking from and told her that Victor would ring her back.

‘I didn’t really want to.interrupt him,’ said Sally, momentarily thrown. ’Just perhaps to reach him when he had a spare moment.’

‘Sir Victor is in Vienna but he should get back to you very soon. I’ll ring him now and if he’s free he’ll ring you. Vienna is an hour ahead of us at the moment but he might not be at lunch yet. If you could just hang up and stand by?’

Sally hung up and stood by. Never, never would she get entirely accustomed to the prodigies that could be accomplished with Alexander Graham Bell’s invention. One of the reasons she liked machines was because they offended her scale of values. People were meant to walk there, or, failing that, send a letter. Either she was dazed or the phone rang straight away.

‘Can anyone reach you that easily?’ she asked, smiling. Stop smiling, dummy: it’s a telephone, not television.

’Your name is on a list of people who are to be put in touch with me wherever I am. It’s not a very long list.’

‘Which elegant Austro-Hungarian female am I helping you to keep waiting?’

‘Chap called Kreisky[7].’

‘Have you seen this stuff about you as the Simon Legree de nos jours?’

‘I had it read to me last night.’

‘Have the world and his wife been trying to get you on television to defend yourself ?’

‘Yes. I said no.’

‘What if it was me asking the questions?’


‘There’s a chance that they might muck it up but I ... ’

‘Yes. Take yes for an answer.’

Apart from fixing time and place there wasn’t much talk between them after that. Speed, for once, was slack-jawed with admiration, a desirable symptom because it shut off his knowing drawl. There were approving noises from upstairs. Anthony Easement came striding happily down the corridor to wonder if she could do a long version that he might use as a recurring theme in a projected series about the emigré intellectuals which had been going to happen for about the last five years. Also he asked her out to lunch as usual and she refused him as she always had since the end of a mercifully brief near-affair which had consisted almost exclusively of his crying on her shoulder. He had a typed list of extra questions with him. She threw him out and went incommunicado while she worked on her own questions. Victor would be already in the sky and on his way across Europe. The ancient professor of economics she had been meant to talk to had to be rung and put on ice. He asked her to lunch. To eat what, rusks? From the cuttings file and her own dossier she put together a short biographical introduction for autocue. On her note pad she put down ‘Do you love me?’ as one of her draft questions and then drew a line through it. Then she obscured it more thoroughly by cross-hatching it closely with her pencil. She tore off that sheet and the sheet underneath which carried the indentation. After copying out all the questions except that one she crumpled the two torn-out sheets and dropped them into the waste-paper basket. Then she reached down, took out the wad of paper, shredded it, and dropped the fistful of pieces back in.

A television studio is a perpetual count-down which involves everyone except the assistant scene-shifters in the automatic histrionics of an adrenalin high. Only two kinds of people can behave naturally in such circumstances: hardened professionals and those whose personalities, whether through unusual self-possession or the intensity of some past experience, are without a modifiable demonstrative element. Victor was one of the latter. There was neither bogus chumminess nor assumed hauteur. Perhaps he was such a born ham that he could fake naturalness, like a coward pretending to be brave. He listened to the question and then answered, although Sally could tell that while answering one question he was already preparing himself for the next. So she was not surprised, only impressed, at how he fielded the awkward stuff, which after some opening pleasantries they arrived at quite soon.

‘First of all we don’t pay editorial workers the minimum. We could pay less and still be above generally agreed standards.’

‘According to the figures in this article, and I must say according to the figures we’ve obtained ourselves from independent sources, if you paid any less you’d have a riot on your hands.’

‘I’d ask you about those independent sources if we had time. But let me resume by conceding the point. At that level of work we don’t pay very much. When the same people have stayed on for a while and learned something then we pay quite a lot — rather above the rates that prevail elsewhere. But you’ve got to realise that when editorial workers start out they get little because usually they’re giving little.’

‘There are complaints here about a fifty-hour week.’

‘Yes, but even if that were true, what would they actually be doing all that time? There’s no guarantee that the average young applicant for an editorial job, even when she’s got a degree or two degrees, can even spell, let alone that she knows enough to know what needs checking in a manuscript. Most of them do work that needs checking in its turn. You have to ask yourself whether it makes any sense for an apprentice to demand a skilled worker’s privileges. If we’re talking about membership of a guild. I only wish we were, because a medieval guild tried to make sure that bad workers couldn’t flourish.’

‘Are you saying your own employees don’t do satisfactory work?’

‘No, because they do. But they have to learn how on the job, and the real rewards don’t come until they make a real contribution. I’m all for unions and even for a closed shop, but I’m not for an adversary relationship between management and labour.’

‘Doesn’t that make you paternalistic?’

‘It would please me very much to be a patron. Especially a patron of the arts. But I lack the talent. Count Razumovsky was a patron. When he commissioned a piece from Beethoven, he could not only appreciate it, he could play it.’

‘You choose to misunderstand me, or perhaps I expressed myself badly.’

‘You expressed yourself impeccably. I chose to misunderstand you.’

‘Let me ask the question again. Doesn’t that mean you’re setting yourself up as an all-wise father figure to your work-force?’

‘Only in the best sense, I hope. The law doesn’t allow the worst sense. And nature doesn’t allow anyone to be as wise as that. Publishing is a risk business and I’ve made the mistakes to prove it. I was the man who published Random Thoughts of Rossano Brazzi. You can have a few thousand copies if you like. Not even the pulping mills would take it.’

‘You’ve been accused of dropping novelists ruthlessly when they cease to sell.’

‘All publishers do it and it always feels ruthless to the novelist. We’ve certainly dropped one novelist recently. I suspect he might be one of the principal sources for this celebrated piece of investigative journalism. He never sold very well and after six novels he had stopped selling at all, so we had to call it a day on his seventh book. It was no doubt very disappointing for him but the chance of not pleasing the public is the chance you take when you set out to please it.’

‘Isn’t that a thoroughly commercial attitude to art?’

‘It’s a thoroughly commercial attitude to commerce. As for art, it certainly has to be subsidised. But my firm already subsidises art. Most of the serious books published by us are subsidised by the unserious books — among which must be included all but the most exceptional novels, whatever the occasional embittered novelist might think. Half of the dissident writing that comes out of Eastern Europe is published by us. We publish African protest writing that hasn’t even got a market in Africa. We’re proud to do it, but commercially it’s a dead loss.’

‘But couldn’t you ... ’

‘No, we couldn’t. Writers want to be with us because we’re a prosperous firm. The firm is prosperous because it pays its way. If it didn’t it would have to be subsidised in its turn by other elements in the group which make profits. Magazines, for example.’

‘Which you own too.’

‘Which I own too. But there again, they don’t sustain themselves by magic. There is no limitless source of money into which I can dip and thus restore an ailing enterprise to profitability. I pay myself well and live high, but I’ve got no more pull at Fort Knox than you have. The kind of business I’m in is long on personal satisfaction but the profit margins are small. If they shrink to nothing for even a single year, no petrol for the Rolls. Two years, no Rolls. The way I live is an index of the productivity of the companies I’ve built up.’

‘Don’t you feel that it’s all your personal creation?’

‘All what? The world?’

‘Your companies.’

‘I have a lot of personal pride in what I’ve done but I hope humour saves me from megalomania.’

‘This article says you’ve got a sneaking admiration for dictatorial methods.’

‘As the last surviving member of a family systematically persecuted and eventually annihilated by dictators of various kinds I would take that hard if it weren’t so patently ludicrous. One of the reasons why the Left is now ceasing to be a force in British politics is its habit of forgetting that modern European history is not a debating point, it actually happened to people. The ground is full of them.’

Sally followed that line up and got a surprising amount out of him about democracy and liberty, two things which, in her experience, men of his manifest intelligence didn’t usually talk about in such unblushing terms. Apparently the first could be a threat to the second if the welfare mentality hardened into ideology, which in the course of time it would tend to do. She said that he sounded like a standard hard-core Tory and he, after reminding her that he had received his knighthood for services to the Labour Party, went on to point out that social democracy everywhere in Europe had been occupied with no other question since 1945. They were given an extra fifteen minutes on top of their first extension and Sally knew it was because everyone upstairs was glued to the monitor. In his quiet way Victor was word perfect and she thought that she had been pretty good too, pushing in hard behind the awkward questions, but as the public’s informed representative, not as a pest. Sally Draycott, tribune of the people. Not As a Wanker, a novel by Sally Draycott. She was as high as a kite.

‘Take this number,’ said Victor, while the man was unclipping his microphone, ‘and call me about what they decide to do with the tape. I’ll be here in the early evening and back in Vienna tomorrow. Now I must get out of here before they inflict hospitality on us both.’

‘You’ve still got your powder on.’

‘My driver will think Elena’s fancy-dress ball has been moved up. Will you be there?’

‘Apparently. God knows what as.’

‘Try Catherine the Great. She made torture attractive. Save a dance for an old man.’

‘Which old man is that?’

Victor was right to run. Speed Blair emerged from the production gallery doing his full casually triumphant impersonation of the P-51 pilot climbing down from the cockpit after scoring six victories on one trip. ‘Great stuff, kid. Fifteen rounds with Hitler. They’re crazy about you upstairs. Horace says come up pronto.’

Horace, whose grey hair was so distinguished that there had been talk of giving it a separate knighthood all of its own, told her that she was wonderful. All her interviews were wonderful but this one was particularly wonderful. How wonderful that she should have the inside track, as it were, with such a man as his good friend Victor. It went to prove that she wasn’t just intelligent, she was beautiful too, ha ha. So wonderful had the interview been that they would put it out straight away, tonight. Which would mean losing about half of it but that was inevitable. Because there were other things in the programme that could not be shifted. Yes, he understood that she had made promises, but Ludlow would be the first to understand that those were the risks you took. What she must do now was to look to the unswervingly wonderful future. A programme of her own, or almost her own, where there would be no question of such wonderful events being cut down or crowded out. Her own multifariously wonderful current affairs show in the evenings. They must have lunch and discuss it.

By the time Sally got back downstairs to VTR, Speed had already specified the cut and the computerised editing machine was searching for the numbers. Everything about the historical background was being taken out. ‘Sorry, love,’ said Speed, with every sign of sincerity, ‘but it’s go tonight or never go, so the best thing to do was to take out the whole chunk. It leaves the actual subject intact except for one little snip. A snipette.’

‘And which is that?’

‘Count Razoo-whatname. Bit of a sidetrack, that. Otherwise, perfect. Very, very sexy. The MENSA dad and daughter team. Oh, yes.’

When Speed gave you every sign of sincerity he left nothing out. There was even the concerned shaking of the head and the gentle encirclement of your quaking shoulders with the chaste arm. Sally restrained herself from strangling him. If she hadn’t had the nerve to throttle Horace, there would be no merit in terminating his lickspittle subordinate. Who wasn’t so bad, when you considered how many of the others were so very much worse.

Waiting alone in the large open-plan current affairs office until Nicholas should call at reception and pick her up, she tried ringing Victor, although he could hardly be home yet.

‘What did they decide?’

‘How did you get there so fast?’

‘I’m still in the car looking at the back of a 27 bus.’

‘They’re running it tonight and taking out all that marvellous stuff about the EEC and the German trade unions. Everything that gives it depth. I’m so ashamed of myself I hardly dare speak to you. It was my fault for giving them so much to cut. I should have stopped.’

‘But there won’t be any trick editing inside what’s left?’

‘No, they won’t do that. They’re not dishonest. Just crass.’

‘Good. Every man you ever meet tries to buy you lunch, I expect.’

‘All except one.’

‘You’re heavily committed to young Mr Crane, I understand.’


‘But you owe me an apology.’


‘I’ll he back in London as from Monday. Would you lunch with me at the house some time next week?’


* * *

‘And did you make a rendezvous?’ asked Elena later that same night.

‘She wanted to apologise.’

‘I should think so. She was at you like an interrogator.’

‘That’s what she was supposed to be. And she did it very well. If she writes anything it should be for me. And if I go into TV production she could be very valuable.’

‘And when is it to take place, this famous meeting of mutual guidance?’

‘Next week perhaps. I give her lunch, listen to her plans, make some comments and she goes away. And that’s all.’ He reached for a lamp switch but she stopped him. There was already far too much light making its way from mirror to mirror, spilling between the heaped cushions. Not that she had much to fear from being compared with a mere child.

‘Leave that off, please. Will you ring me when you get home?’

‘Of course.’ Taken literally, the Italian phrase means ’without anything else’, so it had an automatic air of falsity. By now they both knew there was something else. The mere possibility was enough.

‘Because I don’t think I’ll sleep tonight.’

‘Don’t be silly.’

* * *

For his last night in Los Angeles, Lancelot was invited to Randall Hoyle’s housewarming. To this he was able to bring Samantha, who was very glad of it, because Randall Hoyle’s housewarming was one of the events of that California year. You could be sure of that because it had also been one of the events of every previous year since Randall Hoyle had taken up residence in the Hollywood hills. He believed in redecorating and rewarming his house annually, as if it were the stage setting for a play featuring his wide range of prominent acquaintances, who periodically assembled so that he could get drunk and insult them.

Randall Hoyle was a screenwriter so famous that he was billed above the title in the possessive case. Randall Hoyle’s Sejanus was thus distinguished from Ben Jonson’s and Randall Hoyle’s Wallenstein from Schiller’s or Golo Mann’s[8]. Many a doomed project was taken all the way to a second draft so that Randall Hoyle could sit around his pool with the young actor under consideration and dote on his powerful thighs. Hoyle’s own thighs were quite shapely in their own right but that was because his whole body was a cosmetic rebuild, like his house, which was radiating white light from every shrub when Lancelot and Samantha arrived in Yonky’s spare Toyota. Samantha was getting hard to impress but she could not help gaping when she saw the first roomful of faces. She recognised them all. Anyone whose face you didn’t know at one of Hoyle’s parties was probably a Nobel prizewinner or something.

So Lancelot had scored a point. The previous evening he had seen boredom on Samantha’s face and it had struck him like finding blood in his sputum. But it was not there now. He left her with some agent she knew — you could tell he was an agent because he looked like an actor — and went to remind the world’s most famous young female film star of his existence. Once more ‘Zoom’ Beispiel was at her elbow. Without hesitation she made a date for dinner in London, stunning him by saying that her husband was an admirer of his work. What work? She couldn’t have been sweeter. Lancelot came away absurdly hoping that Samantha had been a witness to his casual intimacy with the great, but it turned out that she was doing a bit of that herself. She was with the celebrated actor, who was smiling at something she was saying. Distracted by his perpetually bared teeth, Lancelot missed his name again. Stoke Boiler? Stiff Cheese?

‘Hey,’ purred Stoke through his smile, leaning against a wall that wasn’t there. ‘This little lady of yours was great in Vegas.’

‘She was?’ asked Lancelot. Samantha had not mentioned Stiff’s presence in Las Vegas, but the fact that she betrayed no disturbance now was clear proof that everything must have been above board.

‘I’m telling you,’ smiled Stoke, ‘never bet on anything without asking her first. She has radar, this girl.’

‘I know,’ said Lancelot. ‘I’ve alw ...’

‘I think I’ll go in the pool now,’ said Stiff. The pool was in the middle of the house. As the celebrated actor floated in it fully dressed and face up, Lancelot and Samantha were among the many people looking down at his smile.

‘You’ll be back very soon, now, won’t you?’ asked Lancelot, trying not to sound plaintive.

‘Next week at the latest. Christ knows what I’ll do for a living.’ It was the ideal time to offer her the Gillian Jackson project.

‘By now it’s urgent,’ said Lancelot, ‘so you’d practically be on salary. And you’ll do it standing on your head. You’re just right for it.’

‘Meaning I’m aggressive.’

‘And you’re aggressive. I’ve already got a few bedizened dowagers lined up that you could talk to before you left. Your lover just sank.’

‘He can breathe underwater. It’s some Indian thing. He learned it on an ashlar.’

‘An ashram. You didn’t answer the question.’

‘He physically wouldn’t be able to, honestly. He’s so high he lost interest in all that years ago.’

‘You’re almost as high and you haven’t.’

‘That’s because it’s you.’

‘You’d better get your daughter some plastic wrinkles and a grey wig,’ whispered Randall Hoyle in passing. ‘Remember what happened to Polanski.’