Books: Brilliant Creatures — Chapter 23 |
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Brilliant Creatures: Chapter 23

~ twenty-three ~

sually when Sally was in New York she stayed at one of those old brown hotels on West 43rd Street where all the habitués of the Algonquin Round Table used to live because it was too expensive to sleep at the Algonquin. But this time, with the Americans paying half the bill and her company paying the other, she was at the Plaza, with a window on the park and air conditioning that didn’t rattle even when it was full on — which it had to be, because Manhattan was already flooded with an invisible river of heat. Dinner on the first evening felt to her like breakfast of the next day, but the Americans could not have been nicer. They wanted her to be their front-person in Europe. In return for this they could offer her hard work and not much of a salary, in view of the kernt economic climate. The kernt economic climate was what came between the previous economic climate and the future economic climate. It was one of those deals where responsibility came with the freedom and well-nigh overwhelmed it. But the man who did most of the talking was so visionary that even his dandruff looked enthusiastic. His name was Saul Newman. Not Paul Newman, Saul Newman. The amazing thing about these American men was the way that if they weren’t all nylon hair transplants and silicone-filled wrinkles polished with a buffing wheel then they were falling apart in front of your eyes. Saul Newman was falling apart in front of your eyes, but he was telling her that she could make her own programmes. His wife and his business associate and his wife and their secretary were all there too, backing Saul up. The standard way of backing Saul up, it soon became clear, was to get a word of agreement in edgeways when he drew breath and to nod emphatically at all other times, except when you were dutifully expiring with laughter at his jokes. Everything that was said was frantically energetic but nobody had any sense of irony or nuance, so that to Sally it all seemed to be happening at high speed and in slow motion, leaving her simultaneously excited and bored stiff. But that was America, and at least she could yawn with a good excuse. Making sympathetic noises, they let her go early.

From the restaurant in Greenwich Village she took a cab back to Central Park South and found herself at midnight sitting wide awake in her hotel room. While her fatigued body reflexively stirred at a phantom dawn, she watched a sophisticated late night comedian cracking eggs on the bare head of some ex-President’s brother. Had the sophisticated late night comedian’s hair turned lime green since she had last seen it? Was the set out of whack? It was an insoluble epistemological problem, because there was nobody else on any other channel he could reliably be compared to. They all looked like exercises in cosmeticised prosthesis. So she rang Victor.

‘I’ll send a car,’ he said.

‘Don’t be silly.’ She realised as she said it that she had caught the expression from him. ‘I’ll take a cab.’

Victor’s apartment was the entire upper floor of a building on Fifth Avenue a few blocks above the Frick Collection. Indeed when Sally was shown in she thought it might be part of the Frick Collection. But she liked the original paintings less than the reproduction of Holbein’s drawing of Thomas More’s family[1]. Hugely blown up so that the figures were life size, it had been heat-sealed against one of the walls and made you feel that they were standing in the room with you.

‘That one was his favourite daughter,’ said Victor, pointing to Margaret Roper. ‘She would have been the television star if anyone had invented it. Even old Erasmus was astonished by her. My idea of family life.’

‘It’s all very English of you.’

‘Like a flash Wimpy bar. I get patriotic when I’m away from home. Did you have a good flight?’ It was a meaningless question. It’s a good flight if you don’t crash.

‘I did, as a matter of fact. The captain was a big fan so I was on the flight deck when we made landfall. New York is very beautiful from up there.’

‘It’s not bad from down here, just at the moment.’ He smiled with pure pleasure.

They had a fiasco but it didn‘t matter, at any rate not for her. For her it went without saying that just lying down together was all right, especially when she was so sleepy, or should have been. For him it needed saying, so he said it. ‘Fatal at my age to think you’ve only got one chance,’ said Victor. ‘Fatal at any age, but especially at my age.’ She told him that he could have as many chances as he liked. Then she made him lie still and do nothing while she took what she promised would only be a nap. After sleeping for hours while he lay awake doting on her, she woke up just as he was falling asleep. And so on. It got to be a joke. The best joke, she assured him, that she had ever been in on.

Back at the hotel she slept properly until noon, taped two interviews in the afternoon and then slept again until the middle of the evening. Victor was in Washington but he sent a car for her when he got back. It was part of the joke: a Lincoln Continental with an extra section welded into the middle and the windows tinted so that the whole world would know someone important was inside but would not be able to tell who it was. Turning left out of Madison Avenue was like driving a nuclear reactor through an English village.

But when she got there the joke was soon over. Now they were in the same place at the same time. So this is what I’ve been waiting for, she thought. Well, well. ‘I wish you wouldn’t look at me,’ said Victor. ‘My poor raddled corpse is such an insult to you that I feel ashamed.’ But by that stage he was fishing for compliments. Eventually she made him stop showing off and slept again. A click from the telephone console beside her bed woke her at four in the morning. She found him two rooms away talking Italian. To London, of course. Jealousy struck her with the force of bereavement. She made him get dressed and take her walking. Or rather she took him walking, because clearly he had not walked in New York or anywhere else for a thousand years. She didn’t particularly mind if he got shot at. She would quite like him to be strafed by a MiG. And besides, if he took her anywhere it would only be to somewhere he had been before with someone else. So she took him to that street, only a few blocks north, where the concrete sidewalk is full of little bits of metal that shine as if the earth were a reflection of the night sky.

‘Why do you like women?’ she asked as they walked.

‘Which women?’

‘I don’t mean specific women. Women generally. You don’t just want us, you like us. We pick it up, you know.’

‘Yes, I suppose I do. I’ve just always found solace in them. A cruel man is nothing strange. Whereas except in Turkey and places like that, a cruel woman is a real freak.’

‘There’d be plenty of cruel women if women had more power.’

‘You sound envious. And anyway I don’t think it’s true. Irma Gries or Myra Hindley would still he exceptional. Extreme brutality is a male preserve. Some women go along with it, but most don’t. Most of them couldn’t.’

‘When did you arrive at these strange conclusions?’

‘I didn’t arrive at them. I started with them.’

‘How was that?’

‘When I was quite small a lot of people spat at me. The woman who was taking us through to Norway said it was a local mark of respect. She seemed to me the incarnation of safety and peace even then. Now I remember her as the model of sanity. And ever since I’ve got from women what strength I have. Or tried to.’

‘Strength you’re not short of.’

‘That shows how young you are. It’s only by accident that I’m not helpless.’

‘I should have thought that there couldn’t be a man more in control of his own destiny.’

‘By accident. Dumb luck. I can still imagine my father in the dining hall. In my imagination it’s always called the dining hall but it was really a sort of huge hut, like a warehouse. Those places were even more hellish before the war than later on. They had to eat their bowl of slop while those who were up for punishment were being tortured in the same room. God knows what it was like to be spreadeagled and stamped on. I can’t even guess. But I can guess what it was like to sit there and be able to do nothing, while you ate your slop so that you could live another day.’

‘Stop it. Not tonight.’

‘Or ever again. But that’s what you’re getting when you hold my poor flabby body in your strong toils of grace[2]. Gratitude. You’ll have other men who’ll love you with more stamina and more skill but you’ll never meet a man who knows better than I do what he’s getting. Life. You are what it means. I am the man who knows. And now, for my next publishing event, I give you lower Manhattan at the dawn of a new day.’

As they walked south on Fifth Avenue, the ridge of buildings that included her hotel gradually stopped looking like boxes of pearl grey smoke. The sun came up and they went back to bed. Later on she took him to the fifth floor of Bloomingdale’s for a breakfast of frozen yoghurt. ‘I feel like an adult in a children’s playground,’ said Victor, balancing on his high stool.

‘It won’t kill you. Stop being patronising and admit this tastes terrific.’

‘It does.’

‘Why did she want Gianni to marry that well-connected zero of a girl?’

‘She’s not a zero. She knows all about the history of art, for example. Which you don’t. But the answer to the question is because there wasn’t any girl like you who wanted the job instead.’

‘Why marry him off anyway?’

‘Because that’s what ordinary people do.’

‘What’s ordinary about them?’

‘But that’s exactly what they are. They’re just rich ordinary people instead of poor ones. Very nice, very ordered lives, more bourgeois than the bourgeois. What would they do better? You can’t imagine how rare it is to want the sort of life you want. I mean really want it, not just play at it.’

‘You two are always telling me what I can’t imagine.’

‘It’s the only thing we’ve got that you haven’t. Experience.’

‘Don’t say “we”.’

‘If you said “you two” I thought it was all right to say “we”.’

‘So did I, but it wasn’t.’

‘Let’s talk about something else.’

When Sally got back to her hotel she found among her messages a note saying that Nicholas had rung that morning. She had a heavy afternoon ahead but she called him after having appropriately luxuriated in a bubble bath. It turned out, however, that his annoyance at having found her out at such an hour was offset by an apologetic note on his own behalf. It was easy enough for her to say that she had been out walking, because she had been, really. But he was having trouble clearing his side of the air. Finally he managed to choke out that Dick Toole’s column had carried an account of the ball which included their names.

‘That’s not so bad,’ said Sally, as she lay there on the made bed, extending one leg vertically and examining her pointed toes. ‘I suppose it had to happen. Why don’t you read it to me?’

‘It’s pretty bitchy about you.’

‘I’d be insulted if it were anything else.’

‘There’s a lot about the ball. “Publicity-shy Elena ran tight security to keep out interpolators. Was elegant Elly worried that the great unwashed would pinch her spoons? Or was she afraid that the locals might start harping back at so many Germans and Italians in comic opera uniforms, when not so long ago, in the hell of WWII, they were fighting them in their Afrika Korps tanks?” You can see that he’s well down to his usual standard.’

‘I like “interpolators”. Read the bit about us.’

‘It says, “Telly-girl Sally Draycott, playmate cohort of novelist Nicholas Crane and alias known as the Golden Girl of the Goggle-box, appears to have decided that she belongs with the nobless oblige.” I think he means with the élite.’

‘I know. It doesn’t sound too terrible. Is that the lot?’

‘Well, no, actually.’

‘Why don’t you just read it out and I’ll tell you when to stop?’

‘Here’s the next bit. “Our Sally may have moved up in the world, but she was reportedly furious when supremo novelist Nifty Nick flaunted the rules. He was off grappling in the gazebo, if I may borrow a terminology from one of his own novels, with his fellow scribe Samantha Copperglaze, the girl who lives like something out of one of his own oeuvres. Fading Sixties ‘poet’ Lancelot Windhover, Samantha’s regular literary adviser, made a rapid exeunt from the scene.” His Latin’s on a par with his English.’

‘Is there anything in what he says?’

‘There’s a picture.’

‘What picture?’

‘Me and Sam. I’m afraid we did have a bit of a snog and Delilah must have snapped it. I can remember thinking I saw a flash at the time but I must have thought it was just part of being drunk. Which I was, very. And wanting to punish you for having such a good time with the oldies.’

‘Some punishment. Like sticking your head in the garbage and yelling “Look what you made me do”. What’s in this picture, exactly?’

‘I’ve sort of got my hand up her dress.’

‘Find anything up there that you liked?’

‘Nothing surprising.’

‘Is she an old friend, then?’

‘Just after Lancelot discovered her, yes. Very briefly. When she was still at Oxford. I kept it dark because I didn’t want to hurt him.’

‘You didn’t want to hurt him.’


‘It seems you missed a few out when you read me your curriculum vitae.’

‘It was meaningless.’

‘The ones you told me about were supposed to be that.’

‘I suppose I was a bit scared of ever having known her that well. She isn’t quite all there, you know. We said goodbye after she tried to serve me the bottom of a broken milk bottle in a plate of breakfast food. I hardly laughed at all.’

‘It’s all right.’

‘Lancelot’s forgiven me. I think he was pleased to get a mention.’

‘So have I. I said it was all right. It doesn’t matter.’

‘Why doesn’t it matter? I thought it would matter like hell. That’s why I’m telling you. So that nobody else will tell you first. You might have had old Delilah ringing you up to ask for your comments.’

Suffering from a bad conscience, he was unable to take offence with a whole heart, so she got away with her indifference. Which would have left her with a bad conscience of her own if she had felt less elated, but she had made a pact with herself that time would not start again until she got back to London. Victor wanted to take her to Der Rosenkavalier because she had complained about the way everybody talked about it in front of her as if she was supposed to know the plot. But he had obviously seen it all too often in company with other people. She didn’t feel like treading on other people’s ground just now. So she made him take her to the movies at the art house opposite Lincoln Center. She had seen Otto e mezzo only once[3] and he, so he alleged, had seen it eight and a half times. God knows who with. But at least not in this city, or so he said. Making him sit through it again was supposed to be her test of his claim that the film was inexhaustible, but he obviously enjoyed it. Too obviously: she had to stop him mouthing the dialogue. It looked to her like the greatest work of art in the world but in her present mood she would have felt the same way about Firemaidens from Outer Space. Afterwards they walked to a restaurant she knew on Columbus Avenue where you can sit at a table on the sidewalk while the waiters whizz around on roller skates. It wasn’t Victor’s usual sort of thing at all. After receiving his assurance that there was small likelihood of his being assassinated, she settled back to enjoy the way he looked apprehensive when two servings of chopped steak went whirling past his head. It was so seldom that you ever saw him — what was the word? — discombobulated.

‘Do you think he’s right about men?’ she asked, genuinely wanting to know. Because if she didn’t get the answer now she never would.

‘In what respect?’

‘In the movie he gives himself a whole seraglio. Is that what you all want?’

‘Do you mean “you all” in the Deep Southern sense of just me, or do you mean all of us in general?’

‘Answer the question.’

‘No. He’s saying he can’t help his imagination being like that, but that you can’t live your life that way either. It’s just struck me that if you play the ASA NISI MASA game[4] on the name of the game itself. you get ANIMA. Soul. Mozart and his sister used to play a word game just like it.’

‘Don’t be irrelevant. Can you help your imagination being like that?’

‘Like what?’

‘Devious sod. I’m asking whether you imagine your various women getting on like a house on fire while you’re busy creating.’

‘I don’t create. And what I envy the creative genius is his creativity, not his privileges. Did you know that Casanova in his old age fell in love with a young female mathematician[5]?’

’Answer the bloody question.’

‘This is about us, isn’t it?’

‘Of course. I’m trying to get some idea of what I can expect.’

‘All right. The answer’s yes. I don’t want to lose what I’ve got simply because I’ve found something else that I want just as much. I can imagine how the two things could be reconciled. But that’s only what I imagine.’

‘So I’m on borrowed time.’

‘You underestimate your power. It would make someone else extremely unhappy, and no doubt me along with her, but all you would have to do is insist. Did you ever come to this place with anyone else?’

‘Yes, but it didn’t matter. Nothing I ever did before I met you could possibly matter. There’s only one of us who’s got a past.’

‘What about Mr Crane?’

‘That’s all your fault.’


‘For not meeting me earlier.’

‘If I’d met you any earlier you would have still been at school. And then there would have been no doubt about it. I would have been a dirty old man for all to see.’ He sat back contentedly as he said that, just as a waiter raced past behind him on urgently sizzling wheels. A portion of banana cream pie came within an inch of shattering his reserve.

‘What are you laughing at?’ asked Victor.

‘You, looking annoyed.’

‘I must admit that in my usual haunts there’s less chance of ending up with the dessert sitting on top of my head. But perhaps I’ve been missing something.’

‘Take me home and I’ll show you what you’ve been missing.’

There is a stage all lovers go through in which they tell each other everything that has ever happened to them, or pretend to. It happened with these two in several long instalments over the next few nights. Sally felt that her side of the exchange was a pamphlet compared with an encyclopedia, but that was what she had always wanted. As she lay beside him and listened, she could actually feel what he was saying coming into her and making her wealthy, as if she were some science fiction heroine strapped down under a tin cap and being supplied with a superior brain by electrical impulses. But her few days were taken up with interviews, talkative business lunches and more opportunities to hear Saul Newman wax eloquent, so when the time came for her to leave the laboratory and fly back to London the transference was by no means complete. She wondered if it ever would be, and what he had taken from her in return, apart from all that stuff about solace. ‘We didn’t see much of you,’ said the nice young man as she checked out. Though patently a fairy he looked quite wistful. All the world loves a lover.