Books: Brilliant Creatures — Chapter 21 |
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Brilliant Creatures: Chapter 21

~ twenty-one ~

nly Lancelot suffered. He would have blamed Elena for his predicament if he had thought that she had cause for malice. He knew she was well capable of it, but could not see any reason why he should be persecuted. On his right he had a Bismarck baroness who was notorious for having attended every party in the world since the Congress of Vienna while contributing nothing to any of them except a long face. If your German was good, which Lancelot’s was not, she could tell you some reasonably interesting things about her love affair with Metternich, but in French all she could do was ask you who people were and then fail to understand you when you told her. The real nightmare, however, was on his left. It was Deirdre Childworth, an ageing Deb of the Year whose time of glory had been spent with the Chelsea Set, and who now functioned as a living reminder of the amount of triviality generated in the days when the words ‘brittle’ and ‘vivacious’ had been invariably used in tandem. ‘Why are you so nervous?’ was the first thing that she said to Lancelot. Her diamond-studded head-band sparkled angrily, like a migraine worn externally. ‘You seem very impatient. Do you want to get away from me? Would you like to go and sit somewhere else?’

‘How did you get in?’ was what he should have said, but instead he said that he was not nervous, that he did not want to get away from her, and that he did not want to go and sit with someone else. Three lies in a row. What he really wanted was simple. He wanted to go and put his head in Samantha’s fragrant, warm lap and murmur, so she would hear it through her thighs, that he didn’t care what she did as long as she never came to look and sound like this awful, mad, wildly staring woman. Deirdre Childworth. Hell in a sanitary belt. A career open to the talons. After thanking his lucky stars that he had never had an affair with her, he suddenly remembered that he had. But there was every chance that she had forgotten too. ‘Do you have any idea of how evasive you are?’ asked Deirdre Childworth. To say this to his face she had to lean forward round him and look back over her shoulder, because he was making increasingly more obvious efforts to be pointing the other way. ‘Why don’t you look at me when I’m speaking?’ This last question was asked in a shout that silenced the table. Luckily it would have taken Placido Domingo in full voice to silence the whole marquee, and he wouldn’t be arriving until after midnight. Far in the distance, Samantha was to be glimpsed spooning cold salmon to Gus Disting. Lancelot wanted to be there, but he wasn’t. He was here.

‘Bloody look at me when I’m talking to you!’ shouted Deirdre Childworth, grabbing his chin and pulling his face towards her. In the resulting scuffle his wig was dislodged, but fortunately Deirdre was reduced to introspective tears and did nothing more effusive from then on except sob uncontrollably, so he was able to have a reasonable conversation with a Japanese teenage model in a strapless black taffeta gown sitting three places away. The Japanese model had come as herself, she explained, because Madame Butterfry would have been too rike a criché. It transpired that she was Gus Disting’s friend, but she roathed Horrywood. The prace she riked best was New York, because there she could stay in bed at the Praza and watch moobies until dawn. ‘Do you rike the moobies?’ she asked. It turned out that she rubbed them. Her favourite moobie stars were Carorah Rombard and Rosarind Russerroo.

None of this was very rewarding but it beat talking to Deirdre, who kept picking at her food and then missing her mouth with it because her eyes were gummed up. The man between Deirdre and the Japanese moobie rubber sat looking straight ahead like an Easter Island statue, an impression reinforced by the fact that he was dressed as an Aztec. Lancelot could not think of any operas about Aztecs[1] and the man himself was unforthcoming. He just gazed, mouthing mechanically. Lancelot guessed that he might be one of Elena’s mad cousins from the Salzkammergut. Up there above the clouds there was an old Habsburg hunting lodge bung full of them, slaughtering chamois by the thousands and riding their horses up the spiral staircase to lunch. The women strode around in Jagdkostüm and the men, on formal occasions, wore Balenciaga ball gowns, tiaras and high heels.

Elena might not have been feeling at her best but she was certainly looking it. A spray of diamonds came scintillating out of her purple bodice like stars being born in Orion’s sword[2]. Because nobility is thus obliged, she had given herself a table full of crocks and bores, with the prospective bride’s venerable grandfather droning away about the menace of the Sozis on her right and the senior economics adviser to the British government before last waffling on about the menace of monetarism on her left. As far as she could tell, the philosophical differences of the two old crashers were as extreme as could be possible between two normal human beings, but as neither could understand a word the other was saying, there was no conflict. While her admirers, temporarily unencumbered with wives, triangulated her from all over the marquee, Elena switched her most understanding smile from one of her basket cases to the other, playing her usual game of throwing in remarks at random and seeing how random she could make them. Sometimes you could quote nursery rhymes and still find these tottering relics nodding in agreement. At the next table on one side her nephew Gianni was in charge and at the next table on the other side the girl he would soon marry sat in the place of honour. A family with a name like theirs should have hesitated to christen a daughter Farfalla but in this case the confidence had not been misplaced. Her famously dumb mother, who at that very moment, while improbably impersonating Adriana Lecouvreur[3], was directing across the table at Elena a smile evidently meant to be worldly wise, had typically wanted the girl to come as Madame Butterfly, but had been talked out of it. So of all the Cherubinos[4], Farfalla Schmetterling-Papillon Mariposa was the most resplendent, her silk coat sewn with real pearls and her little sword made of real silver. To Elena, whose own jewels were mainly paste because she had sold the originals two countries ago, such blatant expenditure signalled the death of the imagination, but originality was obviously not the girl’s forte and there was no point wishing for it. Wanting Gianni to marry someone penniless but remarkable was the same as wanting him to be someone else. He had turned out harmless, itself some kind of achievement in this age of danger, and would now be rewarded by the opportunity of joining himself to a girl whose wealth and position were accompanied by a sweet personality, flawless looks and the mandatory four languages. In the life they would share, no combination of qualities could be more ordinary than that. Separately or together, neither of them would say a startling thing for the rest of the twentieth century and well into the twenty-first. Very few of their older relatives here tonight seriously believed that life should be any other way. They expected the unexpected from Elena because she had run away to England. Anyone who could do that was capable of anything. But you couldn’t live like that.

Looking towards the river side of the tent, Elena could see Victor coping nobly between two hochgeborene Austrian ladies, a dégringolade Dorabella and a fadée Fiordiligi, who had plainly been startled to find themselves sitting down with a Jew. Victor’s odd willingness to volunteer for this assignment could only be explained by a need to do penance. Elena traced the line of his gaze to see where it led. Yes, of course. How sad it all was. Why did even the best of men have so little imagination that it took novelty to excite it? They had always to be at the beginning. To keep things going was too much for them.

‘And how soon,’ she asked the grandfather, ‘did you betray your one great love and true mistress?’ But the old boy rattled on regardless. ‘And what about you?’ she asked the economist. ‘What furnished room is she rotting in now, the Luxusdame you couldn’t live without?’ But he was drivelling something about Keynes. Elena stabbed a strawberry the size of a sheep’s heart with her fork and fed it to him in mid-sentence but not even that stopped him. As long as time does that to me, she thought. As long as it makes me unheeding. But what if it left you heeding and nothing else? Still, it would be a good while yet.

Better to be like Lancelot, forever looking into your own navel and finding nothing except fluff. She could see that the punishment she had arranged for him had perhaps worked a bit too well. To hit him with Deirdre Childworth had admittedly been extreme. She should have put Deirdre with some Americans, who cope with vocal stridency by talking more loudly themselves and regard mental disturbance as a claim to seriousness. Once, when Elena first arrived in London, Deirdre Childworth had taken her up, or, to put it more accurately, latched on to her. Elena had soon left her behind but that was all the more reason for not leaving her out entirely, especially after having avoided her for so many years. Going mad was another solution, of course. How did people manage it? In a concentration camp there would probably be nothing to it, but to do so in ordinary life you would have to see your troubles as unique, and Elena, although she had a good conceit of herself, was too intuitive to do that. Charm and cunning might buy you a reprieve, might go on winning you the adoration of everyone you didn’t want, but suddenly there you were, fighting tooth and nail for what you did want, exactly like everybody else. The best you could do was never let it show. It isn’t the what, it’s the how[5]. Anyway, tonight she was determined to enjoy herself. Being determined to enjoy yourself was not the same as enjoying yourself, but at least she was giving people something to remember.

From her nephew, and several of his friends for purposes of cross reference, Elena had taken advice about the best electric band. It was called the New Taste Thrills and began to play thunderously at one end of the marquee just as the younger people were tucking into their third helping of dessert. Farfalla and Gianni rose to lead the dancing, which seemed to consist of staring each other in the eye, crouching slightly, and then miming the removal of one’s clothes. Very soon most of the other young people had joined them. ‘Ah,’ said the grandfather, ‘die jungen Leut’.’ That’s the only coherent thing you’ve said all night, thought Elena, and then almost panicked when she realised she couldn’t remember which character has that line, the Marschallin or Sophie’s father. Degrading to forget. But now Farfalla’s grandfather was beginning the long process of getting to his feet. Was he asking her to dance or did he want her to carry him to hospital? The music pulsed like blood. Elena would have liked to swerve about a bit in the manner she had once pioneered at the Peppermint Lounge in New York, but that would have to wait, although not, she hoped, for very long. The old roué would surely give up at the end of the first dance. Alternatively he would disintegrate. Besides, there were already so many people dancing that it didn’t matter what you did. The next President of the United States gestured from a distance, indicating that he would like to dance with her as soon as possible, or that the Sixth Fleet was currently making a circling manoeuvre at flank speed. Ian Cuthbert hopped by, snickering, having no doubt spotted Monty in the distance. The Barberini boys had a kick-line going. Elena’s opera ball was a fable in the making.

It was about this time that Dick Toole and Delilah, after dodging several patrols and crossing half the river in a rowing boat, arrived at the central marquee and peered in. The second half of the river they had been obliged to cross without the boat, which had disclosed the reason for its availability by quickly sinking. As Dick Toole strove to keep his Instamatic raised high, his boots had filled with water, thereby adding interior discomfort to their exterior offensiveness. So he had abandoned them. But the night was warm and one look at the tumultuous, leaping multitude was enough to tell them that they would blend in unnoticed, as long as they avoided the hostess’s eye.

Elena had to survive many obligatory wrestling matches with variously ancient and incapacitated male relatives before it became seemly to dance with Victor, who told her that she was managing superbly and that the evening was a success, two facts of which she was well aware. She was angry with him but it was still a great relief. He was a feather on his feet. He would have his work cut out, though, to perform his usual trick of making her heart light, now that it was he himself who was making it heavy.

‘She looks more than usually sprightly this evening, our young friend,’ said Elena.

‘Which young friend is that ?’

‘Your eyes gave you away. It’s never easy to mix the generations like this but we seem to have managed it in your case.’

‘Bitch. You’re the loveliest woman here by a long way.’

‘Don’t play those games with me. I was getting meaningless compliments from better men than you while you were still a wharfo or whatever it is you say you were.’

‘A wharfie. First I was a reffo and then I was a wharfie. While you were still in scuola media. You’re serious.’

‘No I’m not. Dance closer. Let them talk.’

Lords This, That and The Other took her over in succession. By the time she had had enough of dancing, at least for a while, the ball had passed the status of legend and had reached that of institution, as though it would go on forever. The rain had stopped. The sides of the marquees and tents were rolled up where that was possible, so that the party and its music could spread out into the gardens and the orchards and along the river bank. Cleopatra’s Dinghy, carrying flares fore and aft, threw a pool of yellow light on the river. Charlotte and David were content either to dance or sit, as long as it was together. At one point there was a mild sensation when the boys in the band recognised David and asked him to join them for a set. David, uncharacteristically willing to show off, obliged. Charlotte couldn’t tell the sound his guitar made from all the other guitars but she loved the way he wagged his head. A good-looking girl dressed as Helen of Troy hopped about enthusiastically just in front of him, which Charlotte found very annoying, but when he put down the guitar he came straight back to monopolise her. Charlotte liked being monopolised. She even caught herself hoping that Lancelot could see her having that done to her. Careful to be elsewhere, Lancelot compulsively monopolised Samantha and suffered when she looked around for a line of escape. He, too, was looking around, but only to steer clear of Charlotte and keep tabs on the world’s most famous young female film star, whose eye he was eager to avoid catching. Elena and Sally met near the house.

‘Queues for the loos,’ said Sally, momentarily at a loss. Her hostess, with all the interior lights turned on, made her feel as if she were wearing school uniform.

‘How refreshing to have you to myself,’ said Elena. ‘Walk with me in the apple orchard. Has Nicholas fainted? Most of the young men in his age group appear to have done that at least twice by now.’

‘Monty keeps asking him to dance so now he’s doing it. Which causes all sorts of pain to a huge man dressed as a dwarf.’

‘Ian Cuthbert. A great love since many years. My poor old apple trees are getting the life sucked out of them by those upstart climbing roses, but the blossoms are so beautiful it’s almost worth it.’ On the gravel path of the orchard the world’s most famous young female film star and her academic husband, dressed with becoming demureness as Susanna and Figaro, went past holding hands. And over there were the Striplings, dressed as Hansel and Gretel. A clever idea, made doubly clever when you saw that she was Hansel and he was Gretel. ‘So many faithful couples,’ said Elena.

‘Who was Magda de Cuivry?’ asked Sally, when they had finished laughing about everybody’s costumes. The artificial light turned the drops of rain water still in the foliage to shiver-pearls.

‘She was a luxury lady of a certain age with a banker for a lover. Then someone younger comes into the picture. But they’re together in the end because time has trapped them. A sort of grown-ups’ Traviata, without the tuberculosis.’

‘It sounds grim.’

‘It ought to be but the music’s lovely. Vaguely Viennese but not sickly. A Capriccio you can sing, or can think you can. He wrote it when his energy was gone, as if he was already dead and knew what it was like to lose everything. No longer in the first blush I see the point of those twilight operas more and more.’

‘You think of yourself as someone older? It’s hard to believe.’

‘You’d be surprised how hard it is to think of anything else. Anyway, Magda and Ranaldo have enough sense to cling on to each other.’

‘Which one strays? Him or her?’

‘She does. Not like real life. I couldn’t have borne to be the Marschallin. She gives up too easily. Covering up all those mirrors. And she’s here tonight at least fifty times, including Victor’s wife, expiring in all that ermine and brocade.’

‘She’s very well preserved. Did someone take him away from her?’

‘No, she just talked herself out of a job by weighing down on him. A man like that can stand anything but gravity.’

‘Speak of the devil.’ By the long route they had arrived back at the marquee and found Victor sitting at a table empty except for bottles and debris. They sat down each side of him and helped him to analyse the costumes.

‘I can see another Manon,’ said Victor, ‘but even on the slave plantation she seems to have been eating very well.’

‘She wasn’t invited,’ said Elena. ‘Neither was that man she’s with. Him I don’t know at all. Clearly some species of criminal. Her I know all too well from long ago. Delilah Ball-Hunt. Her equally poisonous mother tried to launch her by ringing me up and cadging an invitation, which I extended, reaping an immediate libel as a reward.’

‘If that’s Delilah Ball-Hunt,’ said Sally, ‘then the chap must be Dick Toole.’

‘The name means nothing.’ Sally told her what it meant. At this point Elena’s aptly named Uncle Lothario attempted to sit down but she moved too fast. ‘Lothario will take me in pursuit. We might catch them pocketing the bibelots. Meanwhile I permit you to dance together.’

They danced very formally. ‘She has a way of reminding us,’ said Sally, ‘that we inhabit a world of her invention.’

‘To a large extent she’s right.’

‘Don’t say things like that.’

‘Then don’t you say them either. Wait for New York.’ So they talked of other things. But as far as Nicholas was concerned they might as well have been locked in an embrace. When he saw Sally with Victor or Elena he felt left out. Either of them was such a presence. He had just got through seeing her sitting with both of them. He was pained, vengeful and extremely drunk, so he took Samantha away from Lancelot and danced with her, meaning that he stood there and nodded, as if interviewing some garrulous polymath, while she flung herself about violently. A lot of men in silly hats roared encouragement in foreign languages. She certainly had a beautiful body. Not a woman’s beautiful body, like Elena’s. A girl’s beautiful body, like Sally’s. But unlike with Sally, you knew exactly where you were with Samantha — in dead trouble. So while Lancelot was elsewhere helping Serena to prop herself up, Nicholas took Samantha out into the garden, along a path through a multicoloured miniature forest of the kind of flowers that went up instead of out, and into another garden, if it wasn’t the same garden coming back the other way.

‘Have you come to steal my forks and spoons?’ Elena asked Delilah.

‘Lancelot Windhover said the idea was to just crash in,’ said Delilah. The strange-looking man in bare stockings explained that he was only doing his job.

‘That has been every sneak’s excuse in history,’ said Elena, with a smile which clearly indicated that she was not in a forgiving vein. But she had to admit that the interlopers’ costumes were not bad: both of them looked as if they had been splashing about in the Everglades for a century, and you would have sworn that the weals on the woman’s back were authentic. So she let them stay, on their promise that they would write nothing. It was already halfway between midnight and dawn. With the night almost over there was no point throwing them out. If she did that they would be sure to take their revenge, whereas if allowed to stay they only might. The lewd contempt on the man’s face, however, was not easy to bear. Elena could not shake off the feeling of having been plunged into a grease trap — a state of mind familiar to victims of Dick Toole’s column, which she had never read, but of which she thought she had an inkling.

So Dick Toole and Delilah went out into the garden and were in nice time to catch Samantha and Nicholas petting heavily in the pergola. Dick Took got several good angles with his Instamatic, and was down on one knee securing a particularly revealing aspect when Lancelot arrived.