Books: Brilliant Creatures — Chapter 16 |
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Brilliant Creatures: Chapter 16

~ sixteen ~

unch was at a table beside the pool. When Sally arrived, Victor’s manservant Galtieri was setting out the wine glasses and the tumblers. Victor, who had probably heard the 928 crunch to a stop on the gravel of the outside courtyard, made himself manifest just as Sally was circumnavigating the pool. They shook hands like two near-strangers at the start of a business meeting, an impression reinforced by Victor’s suit, which although light in weight was formally at odds with the setting. Sally was in a sort of thin pale biscuit overall which managed to look shapeless and well cut at the same time. She liked the way he did not give her an appreciative glance. Maturity, she reflected, is what they don’t do. Why did it take me so long to notice that? Because I was immature.

‘You look like a paratrooper from the Mount Olympus Defence Regiment[1],’ said Victor. ‘I suppose I should have climbed into my seersucker slacks and worn a Hawaiian shirt outside the pants. It’s a bit of a package holiday out here.’

‘It’s perfect,’ said Sally. ‘Why go inside on a day like this?’ This struck her as a stupid remark even before she uttered it.

‘Especially when this might be the only day like this. You sit over there and let me do the squinting into the pitiless tropical sun. Actually I might well have greeted you in snorkel and flippers but at 3.30 I have to be somewhere else and if I’m dressed to go there then at least it gives me a few more minutes with you.’ This must be a nice way of telling her that she wouldn’t have to worry about being dragged into his lair for a post-prandial grapple. And indeed the conversation could not have been less burdened with hidden meaning. Clearly he was interested in her, but it was like an archbishop’s representative, or the archbishop himself, trying to compile a report on the younger generation. Except, of course, that no cleric could have been so un-weird, so definitely not a wimp in a cassock. She found herself explaining what a provincial university was really like and how she had left journalism for television when she found that journalists who wrote tripe got paid more for less work, because tripe could be written more quickly. He didn’t pretend to have read much of what she had written but said that he had heard it had been very thorough. She liked the way he did not pretend.

‘I’m sorry for the interrogation,’ he said eventually. ‘We must get out of the habit of interviewing each other.’

‘It’s the television age.’

‘Don’t think I’m not aware of it. Fairly soon now a lot of book publishers will have to think about going into the video cassette market. It’s a logical step from that to making their own programmes.’

‘Have you any idea what that would cost?’

‘Some idea, but not as good an idea as you. Would you consider giving me some advice?’

‘If I didn’t already have a contract.’

‘This would in no way interfere with that. All I do is ask you the odd question. And one day, perhaps, you come and work for me. When you’re sick of being famous.’

‘You don’t have to promise any rewards. Anything I know already I’ll certainly tell you as long as it’s not a house secret.’

‘How do you know I’m not just looking for a cast iron excuse to seek your company?’

‘Do you need a cast iron excuse?’

‘It’s a censorious world.’

‘More fool it.’

You couldn’t call it flirting, thought Sally, but it was something remarkably similar. Intimacy without innuendo? And it was catching. The late spring air helped. Or didn’t help, depending on your viewpoint. What was her viewpoint? It was early summer. He had a knack for starting up a separate history which both of you inhabited, outside the real one. Even to establish where they stood would sound like a declaration of intent. After all, nothing had happened.

‘You asked me whether it was a serious matter between me and Nicholas,’ she said.

‘Yes, I did. And you told me it was.’

‘You and Elena are very close, aren’t you?’

‘Extremely. For many years.’

‘I don’t believe a man could be anything else except totally involved with a woman like that.’

‘You’d be right. But total involvement becomes self-defeating if one loses touch altogether with the rest of the world.’ Pick the bones out of that.

When he walked her to the car their footsteps on the gravel made them laugh. Their footsteps were self-conscious but the laughter was not. All kinds of numbers and addresses had been exchanged and put in diaries. They were in touch. If it was a pretext, she was glad it was a believable pretext. But she supposed that even if he was bent on possessing her, it was her whole personality he valued. She almost wished his interest were Platonic, it was so deliciously novel to be fully appreciated. No she didn’t. She trickled the 928 into motion so as not to squirt gravel on the yellow roses. In the rear-view mirror she could see him standing there looking, hands in pockets. He was overweight all right. When she raised a hand without turning her head he just inclined his forehead and shrugged in a way that said he didn’t know what the younger generation was coming to. The younger generation is coming to you, she thought. On its hands and knees, you sly old bastard.

* * *

‘Hands and knees,’ said Dick Toole, matching up Delilah’s pose to the picture in the catalogue. It was afternoon outside but they had the blinds down and the lights on. ‘Get your knees further apart.’ She was a bit slow on the draw today.

This is an extremely erotic leisure playsuit, said the catalogue, and we won’t take responsibility for what happens when you put it on! Cast a tantalising spell over him in this ravishing creation styled in sensuous nylon and trilobal satin! The saucy bra has arousing peepholes for full nipple appeal while the daring panties offer a delicious open-crotch invitation! Actually this catalogue wasn’t as good as some of the magazines he had, but the girls were better. Scrubbers but not slags.

‘OK,’ said Dick Toole. ‘Hold it there.’

‘Lancelot and Samantha were an item in Los Angeles,’ said Delilah.

‘Openly flouting her, was he?’

‘He was scared she’d gone Hollywood. Anyway, she’s back here now, working for him.’

‘Nespotism,’ said Dick Toole. ‘He’ll keep. Shut up for a minute.’ He’d come to a particularly good page of the catalogue. This one is the most exotic suspender-brief contribution in our range, he read. Ravishing frilly belt and stunning see-through rose coloured maneating crotch piece, plus the added excitement of having only a thin elasticated strip at the back to hold everything in place — phew!

‘Try putting your hands behind your back again,’ said Dick Toole.

‘It hurts like hell.’

‘That’s the whole idea, you great prat.’ She was really slow today.

* * *

‘Slow today,’ said the man in the garage to Lancelot, thus explaining why he was available. ‘You’ve a geezer what owns a pew, Joe?’

‘Mm? Oh. Yes.’

‘Nice motor, vat pew, Joe.’

Lancelot agreed that the Peugeot was indeed a nice motor and wondered aloud when he could have his own particular example of the marque restored to his possession. They stood there looking at it. Nothing appeared to have happened to it, apart from what had happened to it on the day it had been vandalised.

‘Been a hold-up,’ said the man, with surprising clarity. Lancelot could well believe it. The man, whom Lancelot did not remember having seen the last time he was there, looked as if he conducted hold-ups for a living. All he needed was the stocking mask and the sawn-off shotgun. Elsewhere in the garage, other men sat around smoking, obviously waiting to be summoned into the prefabricated office so that the latest plan to blag a payroll could be sketched out on the back of a Unipart calendar. But in the course of a difficult conversation it transpired that the firm had gone through a change of ownership and some jobs had had to be put to the end of the list. Lancelot could rest assured, however, that in a matter of weeks he would once again be in possession of his pew, Joe.

So, as a fitful succession of warmish days began palming itself off as summer, Lancelot took to getting himself about on a bicycle. It belonged to his son Toby and thus had first to be divested of various irrelevant decorations, but it had a very useful set of five-speed gears. Lancelot had not many hills to negotiate going to and from work, but starting off from the traffic lights would have put unacceptable strain on his still valetudinary buttocks, so it helped to have a gear sufficiently low that he could get the bike into motion with almost no pressure at all, if he did not mind his legs temporarily becoming a whirling blur of activity. Samantha was a bit of a strain on the buttocks too, what with one thing and another, but as a ghost interviewer she was throwing herself into the task. On many an occasion Lancelot found reason to visit her in her basement flat with the small sunken paved garden where he could lounge about feasting his eyes on her as she sat in jeans and blouse typing at an old wrought iron pub table painted white. As he had predicted, the famous ladies were obviously finding her the ideal confidante: while intellect usually has only a sneaking respect for money, money’s respect for intellect is open and unashamed. He could hardly believe some of the stuff she was getting. Who would have thought that even the notoriously indiscreet Sewanee Phu Sok, for example, would ever pass on her secrets about how to keep half a dozen lovers on a string at once? And yet there it all was in Samantha’s notes. She had soon abandoned the tape recorder as too inhibiting. All she did was talk to them and write it all down afterwards from her fresh, young memory. Making her read it all out helped fill the silences. Not that he had anything to worry about on that score. It was, of course, inevitable that she should feel caged, but there was nothing unspoken between them.

* * *

There was nothing unspoken between them, but on one subject they had tacitly agreed to touch only fleetingly.

‘I’m having your Mr Crane and Black and White to the country next weekend,’ said Elena, ‘if you think you can spare her from your consultations.’

‘There have been no consultations.’

‘Not yet.’

‘When there are consultations, they will be consultations.’ They were speaking English, always a sign of incomplete ease.

‘You’ve convinced me. Will you be able to come up at all?’

‘Perhaps Saturday afternoon?’

‘Perfect. On the Sunday we have the German ambassador for dinner. Also the Windhovers, if he can tear himself away from London.’

‘I’m told that the girl is now working for me.’

‘I wouldn’t expect great things from that. Lancelot begged me to let her ask some questions but after half an hour I had to show her the door very firmly. She was no better than a journalist. So nervous, all that brightness of hers. I think she has bad habits.’ It was another delicate subject. In the decade before last, Victor’s daughter had died from bad habits.

‘You could always ask Charlotte to come along,’ said Victor. ‘I like seeing her.’

‘She has a young man which one day might be a romance, after she’s asked my advice a few more hundred times. A prospective author of yours called David Whosis.’

‘The incorruptible young radical. I’ve put off lunching with him for weeks but tomorrow it finally happens.’

* * *

‘It finally happens,’ thought David, crunching through the gravel of the courtyard after a circuitous and often seriously aberrant walk from the tube station. ‘The very big lunch.’

Apparently it was to take place beside the pool, where a swarthy man built like a domestic boiler was laying a small table. Victor, who had probably been informed of David’s arrival by closed-circuit television or an AWACS overhead, made himself manifest just as David was circumnavigating the pool. They shook hands like two near-strangers at the start of a business meeting, an impression reinforced by Victor’s suit, which although light in weight was formally at odds with the setting, not to mention with the hulking bulk of the whacked-out weightlifter inside it. David had tried on the plain new blue suit which Charlotte had quietly egged him on to buy but after an uncomfortable few minutes of feeling like a traitor to his values he had reverted to his usual Red Army Faction summer walking-out dress. He regretted having shaved his face more thoroughly than usual, but there was no way back, apart from glueing some of the tufts back on.

‘I see you’ve been sensible and dressed to suit the weather,’ said Victor. ‘I suppose I should have climbed into my seersucker slacks and worn a Hawaiian shirt outside the pants. It’s a bit of a package holiday out here.’

‘No complaints,’ said David. ‘Why go inside on a day like this?’ This struck him as a needlessly compliant remark even before he uttered it.

‘Especially when this might be the only day like this. You sit over there and let me do the squinting into the pitiless tropical sun. Actually I might well have greeted you in snorkel and flippers but at 2.30 I have to be somewhere else and if I’m dressed to go there at least it gives me a few more minutes with you.’ This must be a nice way of telling him that every moment was valuable. And indeed the conversation could not have been more to the point.

‘Whatever course you take as a writer, I think we should publish you. So this discussion isn’t about that. The offer’s there if you want it. But for my private satisfaction, how do you see your work developing?’

‘Towards novels, I should think. Is that what you mean?’

‘I mean do you intend sticking to the line you’ve been taking about the imminent collapse of civilisation in the West?’

‘I’d certainly find the bourgeois frame of mind artistically very restricting. I mean on top of being politically just plain wrong.’

‘That’s what Karl Kraus thought about Schnitzler[2]. He thought that Schnitzler’s little world of comfort and adultery couldn’t possibly be of any lasting interest. But that little world turned out to be the only one that mattered in the long run. People were literally dying to get back to it. By the millions.’

‘I just think the liberal viewpoint is essentially self-serving.’

‘Liberal values are the only kind there are.’

‘There we’d have to differ.’

‘We’ve been differing since about 1789. It’s a perennial disagreement. But as long as we know where we stand.’

‘I’m not sure,’ said David, ‘whether I know where you stand at all. You and people like you have seen this precious civilisation you talk about collapsing all around you for as long as anyone can remember. What has it ever done to protect you?’

‘That’s an argument for reinforcing it, not replacing it. Radical politics wants too much. Right or left, they all want too much. They want what they can’t have. They think they can imagine what life should be like.’

‘Isn’t that what the imagination’s for?’

‘It’s a failure of the imagination. Freud used to say[3] that if you could manage to reduce the number of civilisation’s enemies to a minority, you would have done all that was possible.’

‘It sounds like pretty comfortable advice.’

‘Well, he did die here in Hampstead, which I suppose is comfortable enough. But then so did Marx, more or less.’

‘Or else it’s a counsel of despair.’

‘Despair comes with disillusionment. The great thing is not to have illusions in the first place. Being a Viennese Jew of Freud’s generation was a great education in the realities of human nature. Like being an Athenian during the Peloponnesian war. Have you read Thucydides?’

‘He’s on my list. Along with Schnitzler and Karl Kraus.’

‘My Greek isn’t up to him so I’ve always read him in German. There’s an excellent eighteenth-century translation[4]. Do you read German?’

‘That’s on my list too.’

‘Otherwise I’d lend you mine.’

‘I’ll get the Penguin. But I don’t think it’s going to change my mind. I’m well aware of how minds get changed, by the way. The studious life has a great appeal for me. I’m not saying that civilisation isn’t civilised. Only that it isn’t fair.’

But what, Victor argued, if the alternatives were less so, and necessarily less so? The altercation went on for the whole of the allotted time. As full of dates as an Arab pudding — 1968, 1917, 1905, 1870, 1848 — to David it felt like a supremely taxing viva voce, except that no English examiner, whatever his class origins, would have been so unselfconscious about discussing ideas. David couldn’t decide whether this was because Victor was a South African Australian or because he was Jewish. Perhaps it was both. Anyway, it was catching. For example, Victor thought that a provincial university background was a positive advantage for an English writer at the present time. He could, and did, back up this proposition with a wealth of historical examples about the strength of the outside viewpoint in various aspects of European culture. David found himself being compared with Berlioz in Rome, with Modigliani in Paris[5], with Lorca in New York. Even when you knew you were being buttered up, it was quite nice to be compared with Berlioz, Modigliani and Lorca. He was angry with himself, however, for being caught out about Picasso[6]. Praising him as an uncorrupted radical had turned out to be a mistake, if Victor was right about how Picasso disguised his chauffeur as a taxi driver by making him wear a beret and not letting him shave. Perhaps he could borrow a good book about Picasso’s life from Charlotte. It was going to be a bit awkward facing Lancelot, even though nothing had happened. Being issued with a reading list scarcely amounted to intimacy. Except that it was. Gaga had been very annoyed. Still was, in fact.