Books: Brilliant Creatures — Chapter 22 |
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Brilliant Creatures: Chapter 22

~ twenty-two ~

augh!’ Lancelot shouted at a patch of delphiniums. ‘Whoah! Warp! Whip! Whack! Wahoo!’ It was amazing how much the stomach could contain, even when you couldn’t remember having eaten more than a few scraps. He rested, hoping it was over, but stayed where he was, knowing that it wasn’t. ‘Hip, hip, hurrah! Hoohah! Hooray! Hey!’

It had been dawn now for some time[1]. The cow-trimmed willows had stopped being silhouettes and the lights had been turned off. Sparsely populating the thin mist from the river and the sopping meadows, people in the bedraggled remains of their personae queued at trestle tables for sausages, eggs and bacon cooked in the military manner by soldiers with perukes askew. The soldier who had got lucky with Deirdre Childworth was reputed to be now hiding in the back of a three-ton truck. Elena had been saying goodbye for several hours, but only to those people she encountered by chance as, still looking as unruffled as when the pageant began, she toured her little principality. There was no formal ending to the evening. It just melted away.

Una serata magica!’ croaked the burned-out husk of an Eboli. ‘Veramente un sogno.’ And it really had been a dream.

Was ein Traum!’ said the stub of a Mandryka. ‘Mythologische Szenen!’ And indeed it was a myth already.

Victor’s ex-wife headed back to Long Island ten pounds lighter than when she had left it. Several of the mad cousins from the Salzkammergut flew home to Salzburg without changing out of their costumes, and were told to stow their horned helmets under the seat in front. But although people went on and on departing, somehow there were always some who remained, and Lancelot was one of them. After he had finished being ill, or at any rate finished the visible part of being ill, Lancelot straightened up, saw the film star and her husband heading towards him on the gravel walk, ducked adroitly through a gateway in the hedge bordering the river path, and ran on tip-toe in the crouching position until he felt at a safe distance to stop and stand upright. When he did so, it was to see, not to mention hear, the hunched, skipping figure of Ian Cuthbert going mad among the tilted willow trees at the water’s edge, while from Cleopatra’s Dinghy Randall Hoyle, Monty Forbes and several epicene young Italian nobles drawled and lisped encouragement.

‘The Millers couldn’t make it![2]’ shouted the capering Ian. ‘Glenn, Arthur, Henry and Ann!’

‘The Manns couldn’t make it,’ said Randall Hoyle, and added his own responses: ‘Thomas, Heinrich, Klaus, Erika, Anthony and Shelley.’

‘The Berlins couldn’t make it![3]’ shouted Ian desperately. ‘Irving and Isaiah!’

‘We’ve had that,’ Randall Hoyle objected. ‘Everyone knows that one. And anyway, Isaiah’s here. The Russells couldn’t make it[4]. Bertrand and Rosalind.’

‘The Lawrences couldn’t make it[5],’ said Monty. ’D. H., T. E., Gertrude and Sarah.’

‘The Coopers couldn’t make it. Gary, Gladys, Fenimore and Diana ...’

‘She’s here too, being Suor Angelica ...’

‘No, that’s Mother Teresa being Julie Andrews ...’

Che dice?

Ha detto che Madre Teresa è come Julie Andrews.’


‘The Frys couldn’t make it. Roger, Christopher, Northrop ...’

The voices sounded simultaneously loud and isolated, as if the time for them to be raised was over. They were keeping the cows awake. Not fair, now that it was another day. The sun had burned off the mist and for once the air was dry. Stopping sometimes to sit down, Lancelot went to the mill house, but the doors were locked. It goes hard, to be locked out of your own house when you are dressed for execution. He sat down for an hour or so. Then he went back along the path through the trees and came upon a vision of the night before, except that now it all lay bare under the bright morning. The people who hired out the tents and marquees had come and taken them away, so that all the tables full of coloured streamers and stacked crockery and scraps of rotting salmon were standing out under the sun, with chairs tipped over amongst the broken glass and the occasional sagging Siegfried or collapsed Cavaradossi sitting where he had finally seized up, fused at last by the extravagant stimulus of champagne from which the ultimate bubbles had long escaped. White doves from the dove-cotes in the barns found easy pickings.

Threading her way between small silent clouds of midges, an ancient woman who could only be an Austro-Hungarian archduchess if not an escapee from a Victorian asylum saw Lancelot from a long way away and came weaving slowly towards him through the wreckage.

Mein guter Mann,’ she said, having mistaken him for a flunkey, ‘haben Sie mein’ Ohrring geseh’n?’ He pretended for a little while to help her look for her earring and then bequeathed her to one of the local people who had evidently been given the job of cleaning up.

In normal circumstances Lancelot would have summoned up a pang of conscience about how the peasantry was being exploited but as a representative of the ancien régime who was about to be decapitated he felt that he had paid his debt to equality. Either that, or he felt awful. Yes, he felt awful. So he went into Elena’s house to find a nice quiet lavatory and be sick, but when he found one he had nothing to bring up except bad air. He tried to find a room with a bed but all the upstairs bedroom doors were locked except one. Farfalla lay there asleep under a pale blue canopy, with her silk suit thrown carelessly over the foot of the enamelled iron bedstead. The sight was too pure for his red-raw eyes to take in, so he went downstairs and lay down on the floor in the library, using a cushion from one of the leather armchairs as a pillow.

He was not the first prostrate figure Elena saw that morning as she made the final round of her devastated lands. On the river bank she found Ian Cuthbert sobbing bitterly and demanding to he left alone, a request she fulfilled gladly enough. ‘The Sutherlands couldn’t make it,’ she heard him crying. ‘Joan and Graham ...’ One of the Farinata degli Uberti Montefeltro Cavalcanti boys[6], she was told, had been discovered in a heap of streamers and given artificial respiration, whereupon he had coughed a sudden flurry of confetti. Cousin Rudolph’s Parsifal outfit had been found abandoned in the boat-house. But by that stage they were saying anything. The celebrated actor was floating smile upwards in the swimming pool, having judged the party in Paris to be too dull and found his way here by the radar that seeks out fame. Lancelot’s awful girl Samantha was sitting on the edge of the pool and listlessly pelting him with rose petals, which was all very well if you hadn’t grown the rose bushes from which they had been stripped. Just because Elena was triumphant did not mean that she was in a good temper. Before dawn Victor had left for London, and with him gone the night had lost its point. Black and White had nicely come to say goodbye but that young man of hers had lurked sulkily in the background. Apparently there had been some terrible quarrel. Not good. What Elena wanted from those two was sweetness and light in large quantities. So she was inclined to be a bit abrupt when she met Wini Coburg in front of the house. Being asked to look for an earring in the midst of all this went too far. But she summoned her graciousness, promised that the earring would be searched for later on by troops if necessary, and made arrangements for the old horror to be taken back to her hotel. On the low light-grey and pitted lilac wall separating the forecourt of the house from the coachyard, the noseless stone bust of a Greek goddess looked long-suffering under its recently acquired plumed hat. Elena gathered up her skirts and climbed the steps. When she saw Lancelot on the floor of the library she thought he was dead, his mouth was so white. It was a crime, how much could happen to that face of his and still leave it looking young. She could have sent him home but decided he had been punished enough. And for nothing, really. She went up to bed for a quiet hour before starting the long job of putting everything to rights. As always, she undressed in front of the mirror.

* * *

With the children and the dogs all far away in London, there was nobody in the locked mill house except Charlotte and David. Although he profoundly disapproved of almost everything that had happened during the evening, nevertheless David could not deny that it had provided rich potential material, and the last part of it had left him more pleased than anything which had ever occurred to him in his life, with the possible exception of the publication of his book. As for Charlotte, she would have said she was speechless, if only she had been able to shut up. Even though dazed by fatigue she felt as if she had been breathing laughing gas. She had already felt like that while talking to Randall Hoyle, who had been so flatteringly ready to hear her tell him about Peacock. He was just starting to read Peacock for the first time and said he would relish some advice. Charlotte had recommended Priestley’s essay. ‘What? Old Priestley? You’re kidding.’ No, it was an excellent essay. And she had gone on to prove it, quoting chapter and verse. She had felt elated as she always did when teaching an ideal pupil, although it was necessary to remember how this ideal pupil could be mortally wounding when he chose. And in fact he had gone on to insult everyone at the table except her. So he was not an ideal pupil. But she had only ever had one ideal pupil, and that was David. She had realised, while sitting there pronging a piece of the inspiringly flimsy meringue perimeter of a cream pie, that David was an unmixed delight for her. She adored everything about him. He was probably right about the necessity to nationalise the means of production, distribution and exchange: who was she to say? All she had on her side was reason. And the champagne powerfully suggested that reason was not enough. There was also feeling, and about that she had reasoned for too long. Reasoning about feeling had been her big trouble. Keeping silent had been her even bigger trouble. She should have talked. She told David about all that while they were dancing, and then told him again after she had taken him home to bed. How very handy, that home was just along the path. Across the river and into the sheets. Practically no other woman at the party who took a lover that night would be able to offer him a bed with fresh linen. A fresh hedge would be about the best they could do.

‘Are you sure about this?’ asked David. ‘You’re blotto, you know.’

‘I’ve had about a glass and a half,’ Charlotte protested. ‘It’s just high spirits, I promise. Help me with these buttons.’

She had absolved herself in advance from all blame, as if what was about to happen would be a transitory act of self-indulgence, like staying home sick from school when you weren’t really. But instead it was a transformation. A quiet transformation, admittedly. Unlike Lancelot, David did not leave you flabbergasted. It was not a monologue, meant to astonish. It was a conversation. She felt that her body was being listened to for the first time. Everything was muted, even sedate. You couldn’t imagine that a video cassette of what they did would be much of a hit on the domestic blue movie market. But on the inside she felt that she was being thoroughly gone into for the first time, like a literary subject which had previously been touched only by the kind of cerebral stunt-man who wears shoes like Cornish pasties and writes books with such titles as Yeats and Embezzlement, but which was now being dealt with, on a lifetime basis, by a serious scholar. Quite a nicely shaped serious scholar too, in his unspectacular way. She giggled at the wrong time but soon talked him out of his annoyance. She practically talked him out of the room.

‘I thought you were supposed to be the reticent type,’ he said during a lull. They lay there listening as the last cars departed from the meadow. They invented fantasies about the possible occupants.

‘That’ll be Sally doing a Le Mans start,’ said David.

‘There goes Monty and Randall Hoyle kidnapping Nicholas,’ said Charlotte, ’with Ian Cuthbert giving them a push.’

‘There goes Lancelot,’ said David, ’and Samantha’s in the back seat with the New Taste Thrills.’

‘Don’t be cruel about Lancelot,’ said Charlotte, without looking in the least worried. David was asleep when she heard the front door rattle downstairs, but she decided not to move. If she was too happy to sleep then she was certainly too happy to get out of bed. Suddenly she realised she was dead sober, which meant that for the first time in her life she knew exactly what it felt like to be drunk. When you actually were drunk, of course, you couldn’t know. She had underrated herself as a logician. It had been cowardly of her to back out of those lectures about Hume. Next year she would be bolder. In every respect, from now on, she would be that. Finally, able to do anything, she would stop time.

‘Why are you crying?’ asked David, feeling flattered because he thought he knew the answer.

* * *

On the way home, Nicholas saw no reason to tell Sally that he had made a fool of himself with Samantha, especially when the provocation that had driven him to it was not yet avenged. So instead of apologising he attacked.

‘A bit more of that,’ she said with a dab of the right foot, ‘and you can get out and walk.’ They were doing considerably more than a hundred, so the threat was hollow, he presumed.

‘You always look as if you want to climb into the cot with both of them.’

‘I never look anything of the kind. I’m sober and dignified at all times. More than I can say for some.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘You drink too much.’

‘You’re supposed to drink too much. It’s a ball, for fuck’s sake.’

‘You drink too much anyway. It can’t give you confidence. Nothing can give people confidence except self-control. I can’t give you confidence.’

‘You’re right about that. I feel I’m on the verge of losing you all the time.’

‘You got me, didn’t you?’

‘But that’s just it. Before I did, and just after I did, I felt great. And then I felt too much. Now I spend most of the day in pain that only you can stop.’

‘It sounds like hell.’

‘There you go again.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Saying you don’t feel the same.’

‘I don’t, no.’

‘You don’t feel anything.’

‘I do. And you’re not going to lose me, except if you keep this up.’ And that was the lie that made her feel guilty, instead of the lack of love which merely left her helpless. Because now she felt that he really was going to lose her, whatever happened next. And it wasn’t his fault, so she would have to be decent, and not take away from him what he wanted, even though she herself no longer wanted it that much. But might again? What a shambles. The empty royal jelly car-park on a Sunday morning was a strange place to be Salome. She took Aubrey Beardsley upstairs to bed with her because it would have been heartless not to. And so lonely, too.

* * *

‘It was fantastic,’ said Victor on the phone early that evening.

‘Talk English,’ said Elena. ‘I’ve had enough of my native language to last me.’

‘Has it all been spirited away?’

‘On trucks. In great black plastic sacks of garbage. Poor Ian Cuthbert is in the hospital because he had some sort of truss on and it gave him all kinds of cramps and spasms. A soldier with a metal-finding whosis has been out looking for Wini Coburg’s earring that Napoleon III gave her in a weak moment. I’ve got Lancelot Windhover living in my library, the broken glass is all trodden into the mud for a square mile, the rotting fish smells like a whaling station, it’s like that.’

‘It’s history.’

‘That’s putting it a bit high.’

‘Aussie expression. When you say it’s history you mean it’s over. Actually in this case it is history. Nobody who was there will ever forget it.’

‘And all they’ll do is bore the ones who weren’t. It’s not much of an art form, mine. Nothing but hearsay.’

‘At least you’ve got an art form.’

‘Why so gloomy?’

‘I’m not.’

‘Something you’ve done, or something you might do?’

‘Just tired. I’m getting old.’

‘Feeling you can’t afford to let a good opportunity slip?’

‘You’re my good opportunity.’

‘Don’t you forget it.’

‘I won’t.’

Elena put down the telephone and was preparing for an early night when the front doorbell rang. It was Frank Strain, dressed as Radames. He was holding his invitation as if it were a ticket that she might want to tear in half.