Books: Brilliant Creatures — Chapter 19 |
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Brilliant Creatures: Chapter 19

~ nineteen ~

hen Lancelot booked the table for the important dinner with the world’s most famous young female film star and her academic husband, he was careful to make the call himself. Janice, whose voice by now was in such a state of training that it carried halfway across the city, could have made the arrangements without even lifting the telephone, but nothing must be allowed to go wrong. The restaurant he had chosen was a certain Mayfair brasserie which was the recognised place for celebrities to foregather and pretend to ignore each other among pale green wall panels like the faded cardboard covers of old Hachette pocket classics. The decor and general atmosphere were beyond reproach. They carried with them, however, the penalty that the man who had brought them so lovingly into being might be physically present on any given night. He was the restaurant’s proprietor and spiritus loci, a perennially drunken, scruffy and inconceivably foul-mouthed Celt named Flaherty, who had a bad habit of joining your table unasked, telling progressively more putrescent stories, making indecent suggestions to the women, laying his head in your mother’s lap and singing sad songs of the Irish uprising. Lancelot quite liked him but did not think the world’s most famous young female film star would relish his act. Therefore Flaherty must be persuaded to keep discreetly in the background or vanish altogether.

‘No problem,’ brogued Flaherty. ‘Soap, is she really going to be here? Sand, would I like to get my. And. While she. A few dozen times.’ Even Flaherty’s close friends found it necessary, when repeating some of his statements, to substitute less offensive words for certain expletives and delete phrases entirely. It wasn’t so much the filth of his imagination as the remorselessness of it. It wasn’t like having ordure poured over you. It was like having ordure poured over you all day.

‘That’s exactly what you must get out of your mind,’ said Lancelot. ‘If she gets the wrong idea she won’t be back.’

‘Soaping sand. What a load of sand. Those spiritual-looking ones can’t get enough of. She’ll take one look at my. And she’ll. Times in succession.’

‘Seriously, you have to promise or it’s all off.’

‘Soap. Sand. All right. I won’t touch a drop, soap it.’

Lancelot booked a round table for six, because in addition to the film star, her husband, Charlotte and himself, there would be the playwright Tim Stripling and his miraculous wife Naomi. Tim Stripling wrote plays at such an intellectual altitude that only a symbolic logician could follow the plots. In her first days off Broadway the film star had been in one of his plays and was now very keen to pay her respects. Lancelot’s friendship with Stripling was not particularly close but the mere mention of the film star’s name worked sudden wonders. The potential connection was made even neater by the consideration that her husband had apparently written a small book on Stripling’s work. As for Naomi — an interdisciplinary dynamo engaged in a perpetual attempt, successful every second day, to be even more impressive than her husband — her presence would ensure that there were no awkward pauses. As the night drew near, all the signs were propitious. Even Samantha seemed acquiescent. Not that she would have had any particular objection to Lancelot’s going out with his wife. Annoyingly enough, Samantha did not suffer from jealousy. Her objections to his marriage, though strident, were directed solely towards the inconvenience it occasionally cost her. The evening in question should have been one such inconvenience, because normally she would have been eager to meet someone so celebrated as the world’s most famous young female film star. But for once she seemed indifferent, even listless. Lancelot wondered if this were a sign of spiritual disturbance. The business with the long pin he had put down to childish curiosity, as an alternative to putting it down to raving psychosis.

When Lancelot and Charlotte finally reached the restaurant, after driving in the Maxi backwards and forwards through Mayfair in a complicated pattern of one-way streets otherwise full of limousines loaded with the masked harems of Arabs, the Striplings, who had arrived from opposite directions each driving a white BMW, were already present and being fawned over by Flaherty. But at least he was fawning quietly.

‘No soaping problem,’ he whispered to Lancelot. ‘I’ll just soaping fade into the soaping scenery like a blob of sand for the duration. I haven’t touched a soaping drop since yesterday, so soap you.’ His breath was like paint-stripper but it would have been like that even if he had not had a drink for a week, and when he waddled off he bumped only a few of the tables. Lancelot’s party had been given the star table, the one where you could see everyone else but everyone else had to swivel awkwardly if they wanted to see you. Only a few tables away, one of the three most famous cockney photographers was sitting with two of his wives, one of them the most exquisitely beautiful French film actress and the other the most exquisitely beautiful Hawaiian model. The photographer himself was not beautiful at all, and had chosen his most decrepit shirt to underline the fact. The whole display was meant to demonstrate what sheer unwashed virility can get you. It was a triumphant success, but Lancelot topped it when his guest of honour walked in. That particular restaurant was no more likely to go silent than Victor’s house, but it did, and for the same reason. Lancelot rose to greet her and be introduced to her husband. The conversation, beginning then and there, went well from the start. Everybody at the table seemed to have a waiter each. From the corner of his eye, Lancelot could see Flaherty at the other end of the restaurant, sitting at someone else’s table.

Lancelot could not conceive of how things might have gone better. Charlotte and Naomi had seen all the film star’s films. The film star and her husband had seen all of the playwright’s plays. The husband was a great admirer of Charlotte’s book and even knew all about Lancelot’s poetry.

‘I’m sure he’s very flattered to be hearing this,’ said Charlotte, perhaps not entirely necessarily.

‘Oh, it’s not flattery,’ said the husband. ‘I think we’d have a very misleading view of that period unless we took the emphasis represented by such work into account. It was one of those reactions against a prevailing mood that help define the mood.’ On reflection, Lancelot decided that this wasn’t flattering, but he felt absurdly pleased to be one of the objects of admiration. What an exhilarating evening it was turning out to be. The quails’ eggs were perfect. But then Lancelot took another glance in Flaherty’s direction and found that he had moved a couple of tables nearer. He was still a long way off, but he was nearer.

By the time the entrée plates held nothing but chop hones and the spines of lemon soles, the conversation could be described only as brilliant. Stripling, showing off for the ladies, was in coruscating form. Lancelot was spurred on by the competition to flights of fancy that Nicholas himself might have envied. He told the story of the first night of the Covent Garden production of Idomeneo. Even Charlotte, who had heard this routine many times, privately admitted to herself that he had never performed it better. The husband, crying with laughter, was taking notes.

‘... the spears were so big that the spear carriers could only just carry one each,’ shouted Lancelot through the laughter, ‘and there were twelve spears. Unfortunately there were only eleven spear carriers, one of them having gone home during the interval. So they had the choice of leaving one of the spears still sticking out of the stage or sending one man on to carry two. And they sent one man on to carry two[1]. And he ... and they ...’

‘Stop!’ cried Stripling. ‘For God’s sake stop ...’

‘No!’ cried the actress, dabbing at her tears. ‘I can’t stand it ...’

‘Please,’ cried Naomi. ‘Please don’t tell us any ...’

‘... crucified like St Andrew,’ yelled Lancelot, ‘at the very moment when the Queen or whoever she was came on to complain about the ... ’ By that time he could not have spoiled the story whatever he did, which was lucky, because he had just noticed that Flaherty was much closer than before. Only half a dozen tables now separated the convivial restaurateur from what was certainly his goal.

The crème brûlée cracked like rime ice at the tap of a spoon to reveal a custard of such succulent texture that nobody could eat enough. The profiteroles were angelic puffballs full of cream you would have risked a gaol term to eat more of. Flaherty’s chef had excelled himself. But Flaherty himself was now only two tables away, addressing one of the photographer’s wives in terms which were inaudible from where Lancelot was sitting but which had obviously posed her the choice of either laughing tolerantly or calling the police.

When the coffee arrived, Flaherty arrived with it, bringing his own chair and loudly calling for champagne. Lancelot, not very adequately masking his reluctance, began the introductions.

‘I know who she soaping is, you mad sand. And let me tell you she’s soaping marvellous. Soap a duck. She’s soaping great. Am I right?’

‘You’re right,’ said Lancelot. ‘It’s his way,’ he added to the husband, trying to make a joke of it.

‘What are you soaping making excuses to him for, you sand? Go and soap yourself. Listen.’ At this point Flaherty advanced his large, trembling, small-featured face to within an inch of the husband’s and bellowed. ‘Listen! I don’t soaping know who you soaping are, sand-face. You look like a weedy little sand to me but let me tell you. This soaping girl is not only soaping beautiful. And I mean she makes me want to take my. And. All the. Repeatedly. But not only is she soaping beautiful, she is a soaping great soaping actress. Soaping sand. Why don’t you soaping believe me?’

‘I do believe you,’ said the husband, who during this tirade had at first surreptitiously dabbed at his face with a fingertip and then later on taken to mopping it openly with a napkin. ‘I’m married to her.’

‘You’re soaping married to her? Soaping sand. Salt. Sugar. Saline solution. Why didn’t you soaping tell me? Because let me tell you in case you didn’t soaping know. This girl has got the most soaping beautiful pair of little tits I have ever seen.’ So saying, or rather so screaming, Flaherty lunged out of his chair with his pudgy hands extended as if to palpate the nominated articles of anatomy. Since the actress was sitting as if paralysed he might well have attained his object had his aim been better, but in the event, whether from inebriation or because he had hooked his foot around the leg of his chair, he fell past her and rolled under the next table, where he briefly lay face down. Then he half rolled back again so that he lay face up, and copiously vomited.

‘I had a grandfather like that,’ said the actress as Lancelot helped her into her coat. ‘He closed every bar in New York.’

Lancelot was grateful for the moral support, but could not help feeling that the evening had deserved a more gracious finish. The actress and her husband stepped outside into their waiting hired Mercedes limousine. As Lancelot dealt with Charlotte’s coat and glumly accepted commiserations from the Striplings, he was in a position for the first time to glance into the other wing of the restaurant and see, at a small table sheltered in an alcove, Samantha, in full, carefully tousled blonde glory, talking animatedly to the celebrated actor, who was smiling at what she said. Then Samantha looked up, saw Lancelot, and waved as if pleased.

‘Soaping forgot to warn you,’ shouted Flaherty as he was carried past by two waiters. ‘That bird of yours is here.’

‘Come on,’ said Charlotte. ‘You’ve had a busy night.’