Books: Brilliant Creatures — Chapter 20 |
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Brilliant Creatures: Chapter 20

~ twenty ~

he weather for Elena’s opera ball was everything that might have been expected, but luckily she had had some tents put up. From all over Europe and America her friends and relatives, nearly always not the same people, brought their engraved invitations and their more or less judiciously chosen costumes. Some people came only a few hundred yards and wore costumes put together from scraps in the old clothes box. Others had been days on the journey and weeks at the theatrical outfitters. People coming from far away were put up at the house or in the surrounding towns. Those coming up from London parked their cars in an adjoining field, from which a tented pathway led towards the house and the main marquee. Elena, who could do wonders on a shoestring, could work miracles on a proper budget, with which in this case she had been provided, her deranged father being very proud of his grandson. Nevertheless the tents and the trestles and the music and the food and the champagne had soon used up the money. What they could not exhaust, however, was her fantasy, which; stimulated by such a challenge, had soared beyond playfulness into the realm of the poetic. Everything bore her personal touch. Everyone in the district was in character. Even the security staff entered into the spirit of the thing. A locally based regiment of infantry, they had been persuaded by Elena into wearing powdered wigs, loose-sleeved shirts, breeches, stockings and buckled shoes. Some of them had gone the whole hog and put on makeup. They manned all entrance points and showed a lot of zeal checking invitations. The Shadow Foreign Secretary was one of the first detainees. He was dressed as Radames and felt pretty foolish waiting, but Elena rescued him eventually.

The Shadow Foreign Secretary was one of the twelve examples of Radames to be in attendance: on a warm night, short skirts were popular. But there were also eight copies of Eisenstein from Fledermaus, ten of Scarpia and twelve of Baron Ochs. Otello, Figaro and Manrico were particularly favoured by the Italians. Siegfried was popular among the middle-aged Austrians, who were in the habit of demonstrating their sense of humour by being snide about the Germans. Like everybody else they had been on the telephone to each other for weeks trying to find out what everybody else was wearing, and like everybody else they ended up wearing the same thing. Some of them just wore black tie and a winged helmet, but the less decorous were in full Niebelung kit, complete with hunting horn and short sword. There were a lot of jovial recognition scenes when they bumped into each other among the glistening rose bushes, and a good deal of sweat dripping from under their leather pants and borrowed fur boleros.

The women, on the whole, were less inclined to make a joke of it. The younger ones mainly favoured Carmen, Octavian, Aida and Tatiana from Eugene Onegin. Mimi was thought too dowdy and Butterfly was not much in vogue because the clogs would have made for awkward dancing. Among women of a certain age there was a sprinkling of Turandots, but Tosca, the Merry Widow and the Marschallin from Rosenkavalier were easily the most popular choices. Of the twenty-three Marschallins, Victor’s ex-wife had the most splendid costume, which she had borrowed from the New York Metropolitan Opera, of which her present husband sat on the board of trustees. She had it packed in a wicker skip and loaded amongst her luggage on the family helicopter, which lifted her carefully out of their Long Island estate and put her down at Kennedy, only a few minutes away. Without touching the ground, she was taken from the helicopter to the family Learjet 36. The Learjet put her down at the same USAF base in England from which the Stratotankers took off. A limousine took her to Castle That. After the appropriate amount of sleep she spent half a day getting into her costume and having her wig put on. Then she was taken to the ball by another limousine. It was something to do. She spent a lot of time, Victor had once complained, waiting for someone else to make things happen, so that she could go to them.

Having been in receipt, during the last month, of several hundred calls for advice, Elena knew that there was no point fixing on any well-known character for herself[1], except perhaps the Queen of the Night, which everyone was expecting her to be. But she had never been able to stand that hysterical woman, and besides, she would have sweltered. So she chose the obscure Magda de Cuivry, courtesan heroine of Puccini’s least famous opera, La Rondine. It had been the first opera she and Victor ever saw in each other’s company and they knew every note of it. To look like a vaguely operatic Second Empire courtesan made no great demands on her time and trouble, an essential consideration when she had so much else to organise: by the time the day arrived she felt as if she had been born in the Second Empire. Also it gave Victor the chance to avoid fancy dress. To impersonate her plutocratic lover he had merely to wear a top hat with his white tie and tails. Later on the hat could be quietly put aside. Half the secret of dressing successfully for a costume ball is to be able to discard your accoutrements once the joke has worn off. Strip naked and paint yourself gold by all means, but be content to look like that when you are queueing for sausages at dawn.

Sally didn’t like the idea of fancy dress any more than Nicholas did, but with advice from Elena she worked out a good compromise for them both. They went as Aubrey Beardsley and Salome[2]. Sally put her hair back with silver combs and wore her black Chloë sarong effort shot through with snail-trail silver thread. It looked suitably, if erotically, fin de siècle Middle Eastern, while leaving her free to dance. As a final touch she painted her lips black. Nicholas was the reverse of aquiline but with the addition of a cane and a carnation to his black tie he looked decadent enough. Dressed like that they came up from London in the Porsche, with Nicholas nursing Sally’s high-heeled sandals like twin fetishes.

Starting out on the same route much earlier because they would travel more slowly, Charlotte and David came up in the Maxi. The last time David had been in the car it had been going in the other direction and full of dogs, but this time he was reasonably relaxed. Horrified by the idea of fancy dress, he had finally settled for being Jimmy Mahoney from Mahagonny[3], the only work for the musical theatre with which he was as yet intimate. Charlotte had taken him to see it at the Coliseum and he had been humming the songs ever since. But as far as the independent eye could discern, to adopt his Brechtian character he had made no change in his normal appearance at all. Charlotte had avoided the obvious ideas, despaired of the unobvious ones, and pretty well given up, but rallying at the last moment she had decided to be Leonore from Fidelio. Then she persuaded herself she did not feel particularly faithful to her Florestan[4], so she took off Lancelot’s trousers, put a plaid sash on over her best Bill Gibb, and called herself Lucia di Lammermoor. That would have to do. Sally’s car, with a wave from Nicholas, overtook them as they were turning into the meadow. A few rows of cars away, Samantha and Lancelot were to be seen getting out of Samantha’s battered little 2CV Citroën. Charlotte immediately regretted not having parked at the mill house, but there was just enough rain to have held them prisoner there until it cleared. She felt wet enough already, what with her sash. No she didn’t. She felt fine. Just odd.

For Lancelot it had been a bit of a nightmare trip. He had decided to be André Chénier[5] and it had taken all day to get the too hastily hired satin breeches ironed properly so that they did not look as if they had been crushed into somebody’s back pocket since the storming of the Bastille. All these preparations had to he done unobtrusively while Charlotte was fussing around the house. There was one peaceful interlude when she completed the ironing of the satin breeches at the cost of his lending her a pair of cavalry twill trousers, but otherwise all was tension. The final result, however, was undeniably rather fetching, especially the linen shirt worn wide open at the shoulders so that the neck might be bared to the guillotine. With a sufficiently dashing mac thrown over this ensemble he had said an awkward au revoir and climbed into the booked taxi which was to take him to Samantha’s. The taxi driver, with a devotion to the labour movement rare in one of his calling, wanted to know what the country was coming to and would not take a closed glass partition for an answer. In front of Samantha’s flat, Lancelot gave the driver the standard small bale of money and alighted just in time to be almost knocked down by a squad of hurtling blacks wearing headphones, candy-striped vests, nylon running shorts, pop socks and roller skates with yellow wheels. They were all travelling at a terrific rate and more than half of them were going backwards. One of them swerved past him so close that he could hear the music which should have been confined to the interior of the skater’s head. Further along the street, the skaters broke formation to thread their way with undiminished speed through a loose pack of homicidally accoutred white youths whose heads looked as if birds of paradise had been placed on them and hit with a mallet. The main difference between the upper and lower orders in Britain, Lancelot told himself, is that the upper orders wear fancy dress once or twice a year and the lower orders wear it all the time.

Samantha didn’t know anything about opera but Lancelot persuaded her to go as Manon[6] in that character’s last, Louisiana phase. The costume was fairly easily improvised by reducing an old chemise to artistic-looking tatters. He had rarely seen her looking so lovely but she seemed nearer dementia praecox than ever. Her work was still going well — was almost finished, in fact — but their friendship had become a source of grief to him. There is not a woman in the world, Proust had said[7], the possession of whom is as precious as that of the truth which she reveals to us by causing us to suffer. Screw you, Marcel. Samantha still refused to admit that there was anything serious between her and the celebrated actor, but anything unserious was serious enough. Anyway the actor was gone again, to a party in France where absolutely everybody, Samantha had contended sullenly, was going to be. Lancelot tried to remind her that there was another kind of absolutely everybody whose credentials were rather more substantial than those of the Hollywood younger set and the rock music cocaine culture, but Samantha seemed beyond listening. She had not conducted her seriously injured Citroën very far along the dual carriageway before it became evident that she was beyond driving too. Judging from the way she talked she was not drunk. If she was consuming that other stuff then it was a great mystery how she could afford it. Perhaps the actor handed it to her in a suitcase. Was that what they were up to? As long as that was all. Lancelot couldn’t get a straight answer out of her so he took over the wheel and concentrated on getting a straight line out of the car, an aim not easily achieved. When at last they were parked in the meadow she complained about the wetness of the grass, into which her golden sandals indeed sank several inches. He told her to watch out for cow pats and strode off ahead, eager to disappear down the covered entryway before he should collide with Charlotte, whom he could see distressingly near and looking annoyingly pretty as she opened an umbrella over her companion, who seemed to have made no effort, a fact which rendered Lancelot acutely conscious of his wig, not to mention the scarlet velvet choker which Samantha had rather wittily given him[8] to go around his neck.

Delilah also came as Manon, with a similar emphasis on bad living conditions in Louisiana. This gave Dick Toole a thin excuse to be a slave master and carry a whip. Neither of them had been invited, but Delilah had heard about the ball from Thinwall, who had not been invited either, but who had overheard Nicholas talking to Lancelot. This capacity to eavesdrop on the talking drums of the social tribe was the quality in Delilah which Dick Toole prized even above her amplitudinous emotional acquiescence. He, needless to say, had heard nothing. Elena’s opera ball was most definitely not a press event. There are grand occasions to which the press, including a selection of gossip columnists and their attendant photographers, is invited. There are grander occasions at which the photography is done by private arrangement and the best photographs are immediately released to the social diaries of the fashion magazines. There are even grander occasions which are not heard about until they are long over. Elena’s opera ball fell most emphatically into that last category. Dick Toole’s chance of being there should have been General Dayan’s chance of being in Mecca. But he owed it to his principles. This privileged enclave must be penetrated and exposed. And with all his rivals off in Paris chasing cave-mouthed pop singers, he would have the story to himself. So he climbed into his too-tight breeches, his rented cavalry boots with the heels worn at an angle, his cutaway coat and tricorne hat. It wasn’t a bad whip, either. Delilah, looking a bit on the plump side in her slave-girl tatterdemalion, eyed the whip with interest and looked at her watch. There would be time enough and it would certainly do wonders for the authenticity of her attire.

Having retained his chauffeur for the night, Dick Toole could relax with Delilah in the back seat of the Jag and make notes while she briefed him on the expected guests.

‘There should be,’ said Delilah, sitting forward, ‘at least three Felsenstein princesses.’

‘And they’re Jews from America.’

‘No, the Felsensteins are Catholics from the Italian Tyrol. The Nelson Steins are Jews from America.’

‘And what are’ their names, these little princesses?’

‘Pupi, Lupi and Schnupi.’

‘Christ. What about the Krauts?’

‘They’re mainly not Germans. They’re Austrians.’

‘Isn’t Austria in Germany?’

‘It used to be. First come the archduchesses ...’’

It all went very smoothly on paper, but in practice they did not get in. The peruked security men listened patiently to Dick Toole’s story and then informed him that in three tours of duty in Belfast they had never heard anything like it. They turned the car back. But Dick Toole was not beaten yet. He got the chauffeur to make a dog-leg around the meadows and park on the far side of the cow pasture among the trees. By now it was dark but from where they were they could see Elena’s house and the tents all lit up white, with coloured lights in the gardens and the orchards. Dick Toole and Delilah set out across the deep grass, doing their best to avoid cow pats. Then they saw a patrol of peruked security men silhouetted against the festive light. At the same time the air was shattered by the sound of a jet aircraft[9]. ‘They’re using planes!’ cried Dick Toole. ‘Quick, let’s duck in here.’ There was some sort of concrete pill box just near them. They ducked into it and crouched. Dick Toole’s boots sank into something that yielded with an ominous silence. There was a sudden, overpowering smell.

Everybody had arrived by now. The nephew of the third or fourth prime minister before last and his singing wife Dido, dressed as indeterminate characters from HMS Pinafore, had arrived by pony trap in the thronged central courtyard, where there was a small orchestra on a platform nobly dispensing, with restricted elbow room, a succession of operatic themes. Aidas were avoiding each other. Figaros were being furtive. Kundrys collided. But some people had achieved singularity against all the odds. ‘Zoom’ Beispiel, whom Elena had invited at Victor’s behest, had thought it was an OPEC ball and come as Sheik Yamani. The renowned and very fat American film producer Gus Disting had brought a range of hats so that he could say he was Hans Sachs, Gianni Schicchi or Falstaff, and certainly his tights, whose crotch was between the knees, suited all three characters equally. Randall Hoyle, tantalised by the prospective roll-up from the haute juiverie, had come as an SS officer in full regalia. If taxed on his costume he would have been hard pressed to name an opera featuring any such character, and planned to content himself with vague references to Wagner or Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, but as things happened he stunned people into silence. The Nelson Steins, dressed as the Girl of the Golden West and Lieutenant Pinkerton, were taking a turn through the floodlit apple orchard when they encountered Randall Hoyle coming the other way along the garden path. Mrs Nelson Stein, who was of no slight girth, stumbled sideways into a frame of wire netting meant to protect the raspberries and redcurrants from marauding birds. The apparatus did not wholly collapse, but extricating her from it took time. Randall Hoyle, to do him credit, helped.

But the most unusual costume was in a way the most obvious. Ian Cuthbert had come as Rigoletto. Somehow he had got hold of the harness Lon Chaney had worn in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Wearing that under an outsize jester’s costume from The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T, he had been able to halve his height, at the cost of hopping along bent double. The pain must have been considerable but he didn’t seem to mind. He capered about snickering resentfully in the manner of a wronged dwarf. By that stage everybody had a bumper of preliminary champagne inside him but was still in character and keen to prove it. There was a lot of bad singing going on. They all had little jokes and clever quotations ready[10].

       Dove sono?
       Ah, Tosca!
       Rofrano! Rofrano!
       Bist du ein Tor?
       Ah, Pelléas!
       Krasavitsa moya!
       Un bacio. Un bacio ancora.

People were applauded on arrival. There was much polite pushing and shoving because of the sheer numbers, so the champagne was already well at work before they all sat down to dinner in the main marquee. Set out on the wooden floor which had been laid over the grass there were scores of small decorated tables. Everybody had a marked place. Elena never gave a dinner of any size, no matter how large, without a fully considered placement. This was her biggest challenge ever but she did not scamp it. Couples who might have clung together damply had been ruthlessly split up. The most unlikely people found themselves next to each other. Nearly all of them did well out of it, although at first the revived Mrs Nelson Stein was not best pleased to find an unrepentant Randall Hoyle on her right. But Charlotte, who had him on her left, was very flattered. David, whose disapproval of the proceedings had reached such a pitch of ecstasy that he was almost in a trance, was further outraged to find himself sitting between two of the most breathtakingly lovely girls he had ever seen in his life. The one on his right was dressed as some kind of ballerina and the one on his left was obviously meant to be Helen of Troy[11]. David had fixed political objections to the idea of anyone being allowed to have such skin, eyes and teeth, but his anger softened slightly when the ballerina on his right turned out to be an Italian communist. Speaking excellent English, she gave him a clear account of the political philosophy of Gramsci. At the University of Florence she was preparing a thesis on the difficulties presented by Gramsci’s idea of culturally defined objectivity[12]. She knew several people in the Red Brigades but disapproved of their attempts to kidnap her father, who owned one of the state industries. How could anyone own a state industry? She explained to him in detail.

David, who had been advised by an addendum to his place card that he was required to function as stage manager for his sector of the table, found himself serving up food for her from one of the large central silver dishes. When he had finished doing that he found himself doing more of the same for Helen of Troy, who told him that she owned every record Clutch Shudder had ever released and that they were favourites at the weekly disco her brothers held at the Schloss. She had particularly enjoyed the last Genesis concert in Vienna. What did he think of Gerry Rafferty? David began to see how the Trojan war might have taken place for the very reason specified by tradition. Where was all the champagne coming from? The bottles seemed never to empty.

Nicholas was between Serena Blake and an American female critic he much admired but had not yet met. Serena could not have looked more sensational, with camellias at her wrists and in her décolletage, identifying her character and saving her from pleurisy. The critic had six different kinds of nervous tremor all pulling in different directions but she was a pitiless bitch about her fellow scriveners. Nicholas liked her corrosive jokes. What was more important, she liked his. Sally did even better than Nicholas, after a shaky start. It was no thrill to find Anthony Easement sitting opposite dressed as Don Giovanni; the wilting Wotan on her right had been an old friend of Marie of Roumania and was clearly out of it; but the moulting Mephistopheles on her left, although no chicken either, was full of sparks from the jump, so if she was going to be bored at least it would not be in silence.

‘My name,’ he said, ‘is Thurn und Taxis.’

‘How do you ...’

‘I am one of Elena’s Austrian cousins. There are more than thirty of her cousins present this evening. About twenty are from Italy and the rest are from Austria. The families tend to overlap in the vicinity of Carinthia[13].’

‘That’s fasc ...’

‘Of the Austrian cousins, at least six are Thurns und Taxis. Elena has always called me the music hall Thurn und Taxis but I am never understanding this joke.’

Sally had begun to understand it and was just resigning herself to a hard time when it transpired that the old boy had been driving exotic cars since before the war and had not given up yet. He owned, among other rarities, a 57SC Bugatti. A beast to drive because the clutch was either in or out. Next time she was down that way she ought to come and take a spin. There was a monoposto Alfa she might like to try her hand at also, and a Delahaye with a Cotal electric gearbox. No, permissions were no problem: he had a circuit laid out in the grounds. Sally had rarely had a more enjoyable conversation, if you discounted the periodic necessity to stab the back of the randy old goat’s hand with a fork.