Books: Brilliant Creatures — Chapter 17 |
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Brilliant Creatures: Chapter 17

~ seventeen ~

ancelot and David both arrived at lunch on time, which left them face to face until the others started straggling in. Possible embarrassment of one kind was immediately turned by Lancelot into definite embarrassment of another kind. ‘I think your friendship with my wife is a positively splendid notion and I approve of it utterly.’


‘Men in my position quite often harbour the guilty hope that their wives will get interested in someone else and so ease the burden on the conscience, but I actually do admire her so much and want the best for her, and of course she’s just overcome with admiration for someone as talented as yourself.’

‘Thanks again.’

‘She has the right to an emotional life too and by this time it could be said that she has more than a right. Why should I have all the adventures? What I’m saying is, if it comes to a real affair, I’d fully understand.’

‘I think I’ll start with the avocado and prawns.’

Nicholas arrived carrying a bottle of champagne, which he gave to the waitress so that she might put it on ice for later. He was celebrating the publication of his new novel, all about a barrister who murders, by unspeakably hideous means, his novelist wife and their large brood of children. He buries them all in the garden and then writes a novel, all about a barrister who, etc. The novel’s reception had been tumultuous, with even the irascible Paula Thorax proclaiming herself satisfied. In one of the literary fortnightlies there was a long article by Peter C. Bartelski (of Sydney, Sussex, and Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge) proving that Nicholas’s sense of structure was governed by the geographical layout of London. Nicholas’s novels, argued Bartelski, were multicentred[1], with areas of dense lexical congestion alternating unpredictably with open parkland. The most brilliant caricaturist had drawn Nicholas for one of the glossies. The drawing included a long-legged beauty languishing with adoration in the background. Obviously it was not meant to look like Sally, but you could make the connection if you were in the know. Nicholas was pretending to be angry with the most brilliant caricaturist over this, and made a point of sitting at the other end of the table from him. But the literary editors, when they arrived, busily fell to discussing the catastrophic effect on Fleet Street of Australian press ownership. The Australian poets, in their turn, wanted to know what was so marvellous about Fleet Street that it needed preserving from their admittedly rapacious countrymen. The noise level was already high when Thinwall arrived, looking forward to his first really serious drink of the afternoon. He was in a white suit, to denote the official beginning of summer. Grouped around its crotch were some spectacular pink stains, caused at breakfast by his having clutched a bottle of wine between his knees and drawn its cork with undue verve. ‘Lancelot, dear man,’ he cried joyfully. ‘Just saw Sam in the Caram. What have you been doing to her? She looks good enough to eat me.’ But Lancelot didn’t want to answer, because standing just behind Thinwall was Delilah.

‘Don’t worry, I’m not staying,’ she said to Lancelot, although the remark might equally have been addressed to the table in general, since almost every man sitting at it had suddenly taken to looking thoughtful, before engaging as stridently as possible in conversation about any topic that might happen to be going. ‘I just wanted to give you this advance copy of the magazine with Charlotte’s Ideal Table thing in it. You could give it to her in the country. Are you going up this weekend?’

‘I’ll make sure that she gets it,’ said Lancelot non-committally.

‘I hear Samantha’s research is coming on very well.’

‘Really? Is that what you hear?’

‘I just told her in the Carambar, she ought to interview Charlotte.’

‘It’s an idea,’ said Lancelot, not specifying what kind of idea it was. Luckily everybody else was talking over this. Everybody except Nicholas, who was looking relieved, probably because it was happening to someone else.

‘Why on earth did you bring her?’ asked Lancelot, when Delilah had gone away after a long spell of standing there being not asked to sit down.

‘She attaches herself to one’s soft white underbelly like a remora,’ said Thinwall, for whom the expression ‘no whit abashed’ had been invented. ‘Never mind.’

‘It’s a miracle you haven’t read all about yourself by now,’ said Nicholas.

‘My one consolation,’ said Lancelot, not wholly without regret. ‘The longer nothing happens, the more it proves I’m not news. Obscurity makes me invulnerable.’

With so many mouths waiting for it the champagne was only a gesture, but wine foundations had been well laid, and besides, even if you envied Nicholas you couldn’t help enjoying his exuberance. It was clear that he would go on turning out a novel a year for ever, that his novels would be enjoyed by impressionable youth as well as being found important by Paula Thorax and Peter C. Bartelski, that pretty young females would make a meal of him and that he would breathe success like air. Good luck to you, thought Lancelot, meaning it. Anyway, Lancelot rather liked this new conception of himself as an old hand who would be wise among shadows. And he had the house to himself for the weekend. He could call Samantha over. All the children were going to the country with his wife — mainly, it appeared, because David would be there. At an opportune moment, as the Dregs were all dispersing, Lancelot took a quick look at the relevant pages of the magazine. Not only were the photographs quite good but the article, headed A DREME OF ACADEME, was free from innuendo, offensive only for being composed in that slovenly manner by which the interviewer puts quotation marks around scribbled notes and attributes the results to the interviewee. ‘Here,’ he said to David, ‘perhaps you’d better take this.’

‘Thanks.’ Nobody saw them except Nicholas. And Thinwall, of course.

* * *

If David had been sitting on the other side of the train on Saturday morning he might have seen Sally and Nicholas heading in the same direction. Even though ideologically committed to second class travel, David would scarcely have avoided a pang of regret that he was not travelling with them. But they did not know he was going to stay with Charlotte; he did not know they were going to stay with Elena; and anyway the Porsche, though it made provision for two passengers in the back seat, required that those two passengers should be either without legs or else content to travel long distances in the lotus position. At least the train was physically more comfortable than that. Psychologically, however, it imposed a certain amount of wear and tear even if you had a political obligation to your fellow commoners. The woman in the seat opposite David, besides being ugly almost beyond belief, had a strange twitch, rather like — although occurring silently and at a slower tempo — that rare syndrome in which the helpless victim quacks like a duck while looking around in all directions. She continually twisted around to stare at various strangers in the carriage one at a time, as if tacitly accusing them of some misdemeanour. Meanwhile her two children, obviously well used to this behaviour, got on with consuming several examples each of those terrible multicoloured ice-creams from which the metallised wrapping paper can be separated only with difficulty, whereupon the cone explodes all too easily into the vicinity, leaving the ice-cream free to run all over the fingers, the clothes, the seat and the appalled spectators. Burying his head as best he could in the Penguin Thucydides, David survived, only to find the same family sitting near him on the bus at the other end. The bus ride took at least as long as the train ride. Meanwhile Sally’s car had long ago arrived in front of Elena’s house and was cooling down to the temperature of the ambient air. An occasional click emanated from its precisely machined engine block, that monument to Teutonic intolerance.

Nicholas did quite of lot of showing off on the diving board that afternoon. He could do somersaults. At a cane table bearing iced tea, Elena and Sally sat watching, Sally with a sarong over her one-piece costume and Elena also looking rather East Asian, with a cotton halter, baggy trousers and a low-pitched conical straw hat.

‘So clever,’ said Elena. ‘Such complicated ways they have of getting into the water.’

‘He’s competitive,’ said Sally. ‘At the moment he’s competing against gannets and otters.’

‘Perhaps he’s competing against your brilliance at the wheel.’

‘Wasn’t your husband a racing driver?’

‘He thought he was. It was the only sport you could play that was so expensive it took all your money no matter how much you had, and he had quite a lot.’

‘Did he do well?’

‘He was the best of the amateurs. Not in the grand whatsit. In the sports whosis.’

‘Racing sports cars. What kind?’

‘I can never remember. Red ones.’


‘Those. After we separated he did a season full time. Finally he was killed in the big race that used to go all the way around Sicily.’

‘The Targa Florio.’

‘Exactly. Backwards off the road he went and took a whole family of peasants with him. Not a wise place to have a picnic.’

Nicholas was going backwards off the board at that very moment. Sally shaded her eyes to watch him reach up and touch his toes, then open out with an arched back and glide in, moving slightly slower than seemed credible. If only bodies were everything.

Bodies are everything, thought Elena, as Sally unwrapped herself and walked towards the pool, from which the surfacing Nicholas transmitted a startling imitation of a rutting walrus. Having looked after yourself was something to be pleased about, but not having to induced a fine carelessness. Elena left them to it and headed for the house, in which the phone was ringing. It was Charlotte, asking if she could bring David to dinner the next evening. Of course she could. In fact she should bring him over in the afternoon and help him relax before the boredom started. The conversation lasted some time and Victor arrived before it was over. From the window of the guest room on the first floor they could see the young people in the water.

‘She’s too pretty for words,’ said Elena.

‘Pretty but not lovely,’ said Victor with his arm around her. The air split as a Stratotanker, invisible from where they were standing, went over somewhere nearby. In the pool, the two young people stood looking towards the source of the noise.

‘I’ve put them in adjoining rooms upstairs so they can make their own arrangements,’ said Elena when they could hear each other again. ‘Also I don’t want you bumping into them on the landing.’

‘Is it just us four for dinner?’

‘Tonight, yes. And then tomorrow all those others. With Charlotte bringing her young man David.’

‘He’s against civilisation.’

‘Well, he won’t get much of it here. There’s practically nothing to eat except a few dead birds.’

Dinner that night was hilarious[2]. Nicholas improvised freely on the theme of Lancelot’s slavish adoration for Samantha and the spiritual indignities it had cost him, along with a growing subjection to bodily pains, strains and ailments. Elena would have been grateful to hear this theme pursued even had the results been dull, but Nicholas made it almost too funny to be borne. He had to get out of his chair to imitate Lancelot dancing. The wine glasses chimed softly as he hopped about. Most of Victor’s stories featured Elena as part of the scenery, which was a good thing too. By the end of the evening they were all sufficiently at home with one another to share that most intimate of all possible conclusions to a dinner party — they turned on the television, catching the last item in the late night news before the horror film started.

... breaking the front windows,’ said the face of the second most popular female newsreader, ‘and relieving themselves into the car’s interior. Police spokesmen have described it as more of a craze than a crime. Some drivers have re-equipped the front seats of their cars with the same polythene covers they arrived wrapped in from the showroom. But apart from that, it looks like going on being a dry weekend.’

The film was one of those not very horrifying British horror films in which two young people in a sports car arrive at a haunted house. Nicholas supplied an excellent running commentary for the first reel and then yawned. He preferred American horror films in which people cut each other up with power saws. So the young people went to bed.

‘No pangs?’ asked Elena later on.

‘Don’t be silly,’ said Victor, but when he got back to his room he lay awake for a long time, reading. Whereas Elena just lay awake.

* * *

‘Are you going to be all right down here?’ asked Charlotte, who had made sure her dressing gown was well done up. ‘You can read quite comfortably in your room, you know.’

‘I’ll be fine,’ said David. The books in the mill house were not as impressively massed and classified as in the house in London but some of them were fascinating, a type of light reading he had never before encountered. He had selected a small stack to browse amongst into the small hours. Charlotte had pushed a sort of squat, wheeled, chintz-covered square cushion effect under his extended stockinged feet. He looked up from the open pages of a small book of Disraeli’s letters[3] to smile goodnight.

‘Are you sure they won’t disturb you?’ Charlotte added, but it was just an excuse to linger for a further moment. The children, each transfixed by a separate set of stereo headphones, were variously distributed amongst heaps of cushions on the floor, taking his presence carefully for granted.

* * *

Breakfast started so late that everybody agreed to call it lunch. ‘There’s just the bacon and the eggs and the mushrooms and the toast,’ said Elena apologetically, ‘and then I might throw some of these croissants at you, unless you want some muffins to go with this rather disgusting quince jelly.’

‘Mpf,’ said Nicholas, waving a finger. ‘Thif morf narf.’

‘He means this is more than enough,’ Sally translated. Victor worked his way through the Sunday papers, in which almost every feature writer had at some time been contracted to write a book for him. He agreed to play tennis with Nicholas as long as it was understood that Nicholas must hit the ball straight to him. Actually Victor, when he did hit the ball, was not all that bad.

‘You must have been a devil in your day,’ said Nicholas patronisingly.

‘Drobny thought so,’ said Victor.

‘So did Borotnik,’ called Elena from the sidelines.

‘Borotra,’ said Victor. ‘If you’re going to make cheap jokes at least get the name right.’

‘Nicholas wants me to marry him,’ said Sally.

‘What do you want to do?’ asked Elena.

‘Everyone asks your advice, don’t they?’

‘It’s because they think I know what I’m doing. Actually I don’t. It’s just that I don’t talk about myself. Which looks like self-possession.’

‘So people try to tap your secret.’

‘They want confirmation. Advice is the last thing they want. It might go against their interests. I let them go on and on talking until they make their minds up and then I agree with them.’

‘I don’t want to get married.’

‘Then don’t.’

You did.’

‘It was a hundred years ago and you can’t possibly imagine how different my life was from yours. There was nothing resembling freedom for women in Italy then, There were no trials, only errors. My father was a rich old fool so I rebelled by getting married to a rich young fool. Disaster.’

‘What happened?’

‘Everything. At least I didn’t do as badly as my poor demented sister. She rebelled with a rich young communist who eventually got himself killed trying to bomb a post office. As if an Italian post office needed any more confusion.’

‘And you were separated.’

‘Eventually. Luckily. Amid scenes you wouldn’t credit. Then I came here, away from the hysteria. And I brought up my poor sister’s son, who thank God is normal and unremarkable and soon getting married to a girl just like himself. So all the adventures in our family are now over.’

‘I don’t suppose there’s much point asking you of all people.’

‘Asking what?’

‘If there was ever anyone you wanted that you couldn’t have.’

‘Lots of point. I know all about it. If the gentleman wants the lady as much as the lady wants the gentleman, it happens. The only question is how, when and for how long.’

Charlotte and David arrived walking about three feet apart. David proved to be a surprisingly good tennis opponent for Nicholas, thereby mightily relieving Victor, who had done his dash. Then Elena and Charlotte picked early strawberries while Victor went up to read and the others swam. When the German ambassador arrived everybody was still flopping around half dressed. Elena had told him to be as informal as possible so he had brought only one car-load of security men with him. They disappeared into the woods in order to stake out the possible approach routes for terrorists along the pathways lined with Queen Anne’s lace and flowering hawthorn. The ambassador’s wife was clad in peasant garb, which indicated a somewhat oppressive determination to join in the fun, but in the event she turned out to be quite sociable. Taking place by candlelight amongst crystal and silver, the dinner table conversation was mainly in English out of deference to Nicholas and David, although Sally, without really meaning to, hugely impressed the ambassador by knowing as much as he did about Büchner[4]. At university she had played the third whore from the right in the worst ever student production of Danton’s Death. David tried making a few sharp remarks about the Economic Miracle but it soon became evident that the ambassador’s trade union background was beyond reproach. As well as the deep things that were said, there were quite a few funny ones, but the mood had changed. It wasn’t the sort of evening you could watch television at the end of. Elena, though looking particularly sumptuous in a scoop-necked dark dress that would have left her head and shoulders floating disembodied had not the emphasis on her décolletage been such a reminder, especially to the smitten Botschafter, of the famed figure extending into the darkness below, was slightly subdued, and everybody else caught it. Most of them did not spot the source of the sobriety, but Charlotte, who was watching her hostess closely to see if she approved of David, did. Charlotte had never seen Elena look so passive. Instead of leading the conversation, she was following it. But David had enjoyed the day, that was the main thing.

‘The girl adores you,’ said Elena later. She told me.’

‘Come on,’ said Victor. ’She told you nothing of the kind.’

‘She didn’t have to tell me.’

‘So that’s what she told you.’

In a room above them, Nicholas was near tears. They seemed to be fighting more and more often. He hadn’t expected to care so much. Or rather, he hadn’t expected caring to hurt so much. More accurately, he’d rather looked forward to the hurt of caring but hadn’t expected to dislike it so much.

‘I’m not asking you not to be interested in what they say,’ he said. ‘Just not to forget I exist when they say it.’

‘Who’s ever forgotten that you exist? How would it be possible? You’d do a double somersault or something.’

‘And I was the one who thought I was going to enjoy jealousy.’

‘There’s nothing to feel that way about. You’re in bed with me. I regard that as a sure sign of my undivided attention.’

‘It is, isn’t it?’

Such a baby.’

Back at the mill house, Charlotte and David, holding a stoneware cup of chocolate each, were talking across the pine-topped kitchen table, on which the magazine carrying the ‘Dreme of Academe’ lay open so that they might wonder at its prose style all over again.

‘I don’t want to be a bore about this,’ said David, ‘but would you consider letting me sleep with you fairly soon?’

‘I haven’t been considering much else,’ said Charlotte, ‘but first I have to consider whether I should stop sleeping with my husband. Otherwise I’ll get terribly confused.’

‘I understand.’

‘You don’t have to understand, you know. I really wish I could do it. Life would be a lot simpler. Can you wait for a little while?’ She pulled back a stray strand of hair from her forehead in a way that David had come to like very much.

‘Oh yes. I enjoy being with you. It’s been very interesting. Elena doesn’t exactly shake my beliefs but she certainly poses a challenge to radical feminism. What does she do exactly?’

‘A lot of talented men are too busy to live. She makes an art of living. They depend on her.’

‘It’s a waste.’

‘I’d do it if I could. Don’t be such a scold.’

‘Who cooked the food?’

‘There’s an invisible woman in the kitchen but Elena still manages to do most of it. Nobody quite knows how. You can’t fault her on that. I’m sure the security men got their share of the pie. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen her looking unsettled.’

‘Unsettled? That’s unsettled?’

‘For her. I wonder if she’s happy.’

‘Would the world end if she wasn’t?’

‘Almost. If it can happen to her then nobody’s safe.’

In London, Lancelot had the same dream as he had had the night before. It didn’t happen in the same Koran-walled tunnel as where the taxis full of squealing dentists roamed, their faces lit green when they drew up beside you and peed through the window of your car. It happened in another tunnel, roughly parallel but lower down, where the Japanese hook made no noise but you could still feel it. You felt it at various points on your body, as if you were a diagram illustrating acupuncture. There was a pin-prick in the groin, then another at the elbow. Just the suggestion of one on each eyelid. Then a steady, slight but potentially skewering pressure in the neck, under the Adam’s apple and above the infraclavicular fossa. He woke up to find Samantha squatting naked over him in the half light. It would have been an arousing spectacle if she had not been holding one of the long pins that Charlotte used for smocking. ‘It’s amazing,’ said Samantha, ‘how much I can do that doesn’t wake you up.’