Books: Brilliant Creatures — Chapter 24 |
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Brilliant Creatures: Chapter 24

~ twenty-four ~

ife for Lancelot was coming apart with such thoroughness that he wondered why his bicycle was still working. Every day, with never a puncture of a broken spoke, it took him to the office so that he could hear more bad news. Ian Cuthbert was recuperating in a clinic, where, after they had straightened out his spine, it had been found advisable to detoxify him. Lancelot had sent Serena along to extract from the convalescent some amplification to the list of writers who could draw and artists who could write. Whether out of misogynist rancour or a deranged mind, Ian had sent her off in search of a document called Mrs Ruisdael’s Diary. She had wasted days on the search and was to waste many days more in useless tears after Lancelot told her that she had been led up the garden path. Brian Hutchings continued to be tardy about supplying his manuscript. Lancelot had put Janice on the job of badgering him but Brian simply refused to talk to her, a standpoint he was able to back up with force, because he had acquired a Janice of his own, called Katja. The thought of those two communicating by telephone aroused visions of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding around your living room. Meanwhile Lancelot’s tax case continued to acquire complications, like a cloud shading from violet to steel blue. And Elena, for some reason, seemed to be holding him responsible for her opera ball being mentioned in the newspapers. But at least Samantha had come through with the goods, in the literary sense at any rate. Things might have been tolerable if she had been equally forthcoming in other departments.

But she was being hard to find, and, when found, hard to please. Several times he had parked his bicycle outside her basement flat at the appointed time in the early evening, only to discover that she was not at home, and with no note left on the door. More often, she was physically present but mentally absent, muttering vague generalisations about his lack of commitment to her. Employing a stratagem against theft which he had learned in New York, he would chain his bicycle to her area railings, loosen the wing nuts on the front wheel, carry the wheel down the steps and lean it against her wall before lying down with her to enjoy the only reliable privilege the English summer affords—the possibility of fornicating on the bed instead of in it. Even with her mind elsewhere she still had the body to make all the pedalling worth while, but things were not what they had been and he wondered how he might restore them to their former glory. He had planned to get out of going on the family holiday to Biarritz. Now that Charlotte was refusing to sleep with him he had every excuse for staying in London. Let David build the driftwood shelters. But Samantha announced that she would be going again, to the big house just down the coast where he had first met her. Once again she would be with her father, who disapproved of Lancelot, and her step-mother, who absolutely hated him, for trifling reasons arising from a too abruptly terminated affair twenty years before. But he would be able to meet Samantha in secret, or at any rate idolise her from a distance. He felt his need for her increasing as she slipped away. It was a pretty staggering thing for his need to do, when you considered the pitch of intensity it had long ago attained and never looked like losing.

Lancelot was still allowed into his house, but was required to lie down alone at all times. Charlotte had explained to him about David. Lancelot judged the embargo to be very reasonable but almost immediately began to feel hard done by. After all, it was not as if he were having an easy time with Samantha. He could have used some placid solidity to fall back on. Hints in this direction, however, were met with a certain impatience. He could come on the holiday if he wished, but he would have to sleep downstairs on the same floor as the children, even though David would not be there. Well, at least he would be able to keep up appearances.

The Windhovers’ prospective house guests in Biarritz had not as yet come to any such crisis, but the easy days were gone. Sally had surprised herself by being able to go on sleeping with Nicholas: anyone who had dared tell her she would ever be capable of such a thing she would once have treated with contempt for the imputation as well as outrage at the intimacy. But the ructions which she was assured were going on between Victor and Elena left Victor little time to spare, so her time with him in New York still seemed like an interlude, and anyway even if she had wished to give Nicholas his cards she was not sure she knew how. He was so entertaining when he wasn’t being the opposite, and he was only ever the opposite because of the intensity of his feelings. The worrying intensity of his feelings. Worrying because she didn’t share them. This is how whores must feel. Although if they did, they wouldn’t do it, would they? Let it all wait until after Biarritz. Victor would be in Salzburg or somewhere. The whole of London was breaking up for the hols, pip pip. Every living soul except ninety per cent of the population was getting ready to move out. Until then she went on enjoying Nicholas, while pretending to herself that she was not a hypocrite. It got harder to do that when she caught herself living for the telephone.

‘You’ve got good nerves,’ Victor said to her during one of his breakfast phone calls.

‘I don’t want to have good nerves,’ she pointed out with some acerbity. He had the grace not to laugh.

He had nothing to laugh about, really. Elena had not taxed him directly on the subject but she didn’t need to. Her intuition would have told her, even if his attentiveness had not given him away. Remembering her birthday had been a particularly glaring mistake. So against her standing orders, which forbade mentioning such a thing should it ever eventuate, he mentioned it.

‘It’s all your fault,’ he said, in a foredoomed attempt to make light of it. ’You made me like the world.’

‘If you see her in secret I might just about put up with this,’ said Elena, with a serenity that boded ill. ‘But if you acknowledge her even once, I’m gone for good. My pride wouldn’t stand it. I’ll just go back to Italy and preside over the final disintegration.’

All of which having been said and a lot more on the same lines, grief played its usual trick of repristinating passion. But the way the tears taste tells you what that’s worth. She blamed life, not him, but he would rather have taken the blame himself. When they weren’t together they were on the telephone far into the night. Elena withdrew from social life and the word went out that she was indisposed. But she and Victor had made arrangements to be in Salzburg together and felt that they might as well go.

So the exodus began. David and Gaga went furthest, to an Indian lake where they took up residence on a raft which had a little colour-washed plaster and lath replica of the Brighton Pavilion balanced on it to keep off the sun. At Gaga’s request they had gone there in search of their first simplicity, but they could not find it, because when you have to look it’s too late. In a by now desperate flight from capitalist values, the beautiful Gaga submitted herself gladly to her surroundings. She willed the primordial listlessness of the place to enter into her. Unfortunately some form of amoebic dysentery entered into her as well, and their holiday became a nightmare best left undocumented. The newspaper which had sponsored the trip received from David an article which could have gone equally well in a medical section as in a travel supplement. The editors could not make their minds up, so they spiked it.

Dick Toole and Delilah went to a Caribbean Island where one of the British princesses was taking a holiday during pregnancy. They had to come ashore at night in a rubber boat and found themselves outdone in terms of aggression by the French, German and Italian photographers, who had built hides in the undergrowth, disguised themselves as palm trees and were regularly delivered, wrapped up as parcels, on the verandah of the royal villa. But Dick Toole and Delilah picked up a lot of useful information by using Delilah’s contacts and getting a few hangers-on to talk off the record in confidence. And the climate was so benign that even Dick Toole stripped down all the way to his grey vest, while together he and Delilah found several interesting new uses for her hired Scuba gear.

Charlotte, Lancelot and the children left for Biarritz in the weekly Caravelle. When the children had been much younger the annual trip had had some point, with even Lancelot glad to be away from some importunate innamorata. Now that the children were grown up there was less reason for going, in his opinion. The children still liked it because the town had all the same discos and Space Invaders machines as London but there was an even greater opportunity to spend their father’s money. Apart from that the only real advantage was not to waste the house which by some old arrangement they took every year. It was poised on one of the few stretches of cliff above the Côte des Basques which showed as yet no signs of collapsing into the sea. Further south there was another beach on which Samantha annually appeared like a Homeric nymph, and then further south than that was Spain, represented, on a clear day, by mountains as delicately blue as the veins in a girl’s breast. When the weather changed it gave you bad dreams, but when the sun shone it was a dream pure and simple.

Sally and Nicholas came down in the Porsche, stopping off when they felt like it and so taking two days for the trip. It should have been bliss and some of it even was. Nicholas loved it when Sally put her foot right down and the poplars lining the road turned into a picket fence. He loved hearing her talk French even if the waiters loved it too, not to mention the proprietors and half the other men in town, who would suddenly drop in to stage a spontaneous gesticulation competition. But something was going wrong in the nights. Until he had met her, he would have sworn that the body was the incarnation of the self. Looking at her as she lay stretched out, it was hard to believe that if she could give you all that then there was anything left to hold back. But she would not say the words.

In Biarritz she still wouldn’t say them. Walking beside her on the beach gave him a hint of what it must have felt like to be Alexander the Great Sod or one of those characters. Frogs sucked in their stomachs and walked into each other. There were a lot of terrible Australian media types reputedly in search of a perfect wave that would remind them of the beach back home at Bang-Bang or Kogra-Wogra: the kind of Australians who carried a lot of food around with them just so they could talk with their mouths full. They moaned low as they stared up with crinkled slit eyes from under the brims of rat-eaten straw hats, saying things like ‘Stone the crows’. It should have been ideal. He was friends again with Lancelot, whose children were less terrifying to look at without their bells and spangles, and whose wife looked happier than he had ever known her. Nicholas had the queen of the beach on his arm. In the cliff-top restaurant at sunset, with the sky the colour of faded pink geranium petals, her peach-skin tan was framed against the pale green tamarisks and the silver water like a meal for the eyes. But in the ground floor separate flat which they had been assigned, she would never say the proper things during the night. It was torture. At least Lancelot could be certain that Charlotte was all his, even to the extent of his being able to fix her up with a handbag holder like David. What was Lancelot’s secret?

Only Charlotte knew exactly where she was. Usually she was under the driftwood shelter, reading up for a series of lectures on Burns. What a joyful spirit he had. What a man he must have been. She could see the idea of him now. That rhythm of his was something she now recognised as the pulse of her own bloodstream. It caused a stir under the cutty sark. Sometimes she almost felt like asking Lancelot into her bed again, but it would have spoiled things. All she had to do was wait. What a change, to know a man whose promises were worth something.

Lancelot suffered. He did not mind so much being barred from Charlotte’s bed, as long as nobody knew. But the obvious happiness of Sally and Nicholas was more than he could stand. On the day after Samantha was supposed to arrive he rang her house and got her father, so he said ‘Sorry, wrong number’ in falsetto French and hung up, rather abashed that in his haste he had translated these words literally instead of using an idiomatic phrase. The next morning he rang again and got her, but all she could say was that it was difficult. So that afternoon, and all the afternoons that followed, he took the long walk south, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Eventually he did, and she was with the actor. Everyone in the vicinity was staring towards that smile. Some of them were taking photographs. It was a topless beach and the sight of her digging her hard bare breasts into that man[1] was transmitted to Lancelot as the stab of a spear under his own heart. He looked wistfully across the rippling shallow water[2] which at mid-tide divided the two beaches and decided not to cross. He felt himself to be an ashen-faced Aschenbach watching Tadzio outlined against the sunset, or the hero of La Dolce Vita straining, against the sun’s glare and his accumulated hangover, to keep the young girl — his picture of innocence — in focus[3]. Except that this one was not innocent. But what did he care about that? She saw him, waved him towards her, and when he did not move she came swayingly stepping, dragging her toes, towards him through the ankle-deep water, as once Nausikaa must have walked towards Odysseus where he lay face down in the foam, so that when he looked up through salted lashes he saw her as a curved shadow in the sunburst.

‘Don’t be a wet fart. Come and talk to us.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Ring me in London then.’

Each day after that he would make the same journey, but lay in the shelter of the rocks like a frogman spying out an invasion beach. He watched them in secret. There didn’t seem to be much going on. The actor spent a lot of his time floating on his back. Lancelot prayed that they would not walk north and they never did, or at least not until Sally and Nicholas were gone.

Sally went first. While Nicholas and Lancelot were down showing off to each other in the morning surf she said her goodbyes to Charlotte.

‘I thought there was something wrong,’ said Charlotte. ’Is it anything you can talk about?’

‘Not really,’ said Sally. ’I can’t thank you enough, you know. It’s been perfect from every aspect, except what’s going on in my own thick head.’

‘Someone you miss?’

‘Something like that.’

‘I know.’

‘I hope I don’t saddle you with a glum Nicholas.’

‘We’ll look after him.’

Sally loaded her bag into the back seat of the car. When the men came up to lunch she took Nicholas for a walk in the market and explained, or rather failed to explain. He wanted to come too but she wouldn’t let him. When she was gone he explained how pressure of work had been haunting her. Two days later, after a record number of fruitless telephone calls, he got the weekly plane to London. But if he had gone straight away by train, or hired a car, he wouldn’t have been back much sooner.

Lancelot should have left too but if he was going to be haunted he might as well stay near the ghost. She never came walking towards him along the Côte des Basques as she had done the year before and the blessed year before that, but on the second last night of their stay he saw her in the town centre. Having drunk everything in the house during and after dinner, he had staggered along the cliff path into town, there to find further sustenance. The lights and music in the old fishing port reminded him that it was the night of the Grand Bal. In the town centre there were thousands of people all crowded together and cheering the procession. Floats covered with crêpe flowers, coloured lights and pretty girls came swaying through. One of these was a particularly clever pastiche biplane made of paper flowers, with girl wing-walkers in white one-piece swimming costumes and goggled flying helmets. The central wing-walker, the one with the most beautiful figure, was Samantha. There was a big cheer for her and an even bigger one when the crowd saw that the smiling actor was the pilot. With his leather helmet and silk scarf he looked the part. He was always going to look the part. Lancelot wanted to go home.

So did Elena, oddly enough. After only a few days in Salzburg she announced that the ball had provided enough operatic experience for a lifetime and she could stand no more. So in the cliff-side house he took each year Victor was left to play solitary host while guests arrived and departed, sat down for grand meals, sallied out in blasé parties to attend the Festspielhaus, or toned their often ancient muscles by swimming against the artificial current of the indoor swimming pool. It would have been a good season, too. The Wittgenstein princesses never looked lovelier than they did that year, all sitting in a row for the first night of La Clemenza di Tito[4] in the Felsenreitschule. Wini Coburg died during the performance and nobody realised until after the final curtain, when it was noticed by the house manager that she was still sitting there after everybody else had gone off to a late dinner at the Hirsch. So she had lost her earring for the last time.

There was a lot going on but the festival felt empty without Elena, even though she had plainly been less than herself. Even Gus Disting could see that. He arrived in the company of the Japanese model, who was very keen to see Araberra and The Magic Fruit. Victor installed them in the summer house at the top of the garden.

‘Vot’s wrong with Elena, looking so sad?’ Gus Disting asked Victor privately. ‘A vooman in the prime of loveliness, it’s not right.’ Victor couldn’t say, and not just because he was flabbergasted as usual by Gus Disting’s caricature of an accent.

He couldn’t say because what was happening was a secret even from themselves. They did not discuss it. Elena, who valued self-control above everything, would rather have died than utter a reproach. But when they were alone together she fell silent[5]. For the first time in many years she was taking things to make her sleep. They didn’t make her sleep but robbed her of the quality she prized most — the capacity to mask her feelings. Victor sat on the edge of her bed looking useless, a position which did not become him. So she packed her bags and went home. All the way home.

From Milan the Settebello took her to Florence and at Florence she was met by a nondescript car driven by Sandro, almost the last of the old staff. Nobody owned a grand car any more, because of the kidnappings. Stopping several times for the provisions on his list, Sandro, whom she was saddened to find so very vague, took her out beyond Poggio a Caiano to a brown hill patched with olive groves and cypresses. The villas in that area are set within stuccoed walls[6], like the outworks of little fortresses. A single villa was all that was left of their once large estates. There had been a time when you could have looked out from the loggia and seen, with your gaze directed by avenues of cypresses, nothing but land belonging to the family. Now the avenues of cypresses led your gaze to the dye works, the light-bulb factory and the warehouse for blue plastic crates. But around the last house there were still some orchards and terraced vineyards, and there was no denying that her father still looked the part, with due allowance for all the doddering and shuffling. He received her in the library. They embraced, although from her side it might as well have been a formal hand-shake.

‘Everyone says it was a great success.’

‘It was, I have to admit. Your money was well spent, don’t worry.’

‘They say you and the cicisbeo dance cheek to cheek now.’

It was not a very profitable conversation. Why had she come? The heat was stunning.

Her sister was out in the fields and it was too hot to go looking, so she went upstairs to lie down in her old room. Probably that was why she had come. On the way there she looked into her father’s study, where he kept what he called his real books. Complete leather-bound and gold-embossed editions of Gentile’s philosophy and Mussolini’s speeches: dross got up as treasure. The little marble bust of Mussolini was still there, with its silver eyes that lit up in oblique light. What a miracle that the Communists had never got in here and ransacked the place. Instead they were proving themselves model citizens by the way they administered all the surrounding towns. But no revolution had been necessary to kill all of this off. It had just died gradually of exhaustion. She was relieved to find herself so unashamed. There was nothing left to be ashamed of. Her father had remained loyal to his cause until the end. In Italian there is an expression for it: until the last day. People they knew had died on the quarry staircase at Mauthausen while her father continued with his scholastic researches into pure Latinity. He was still at it; loyal until the last day and beyond; proud, upright, kind, gentle and as mad as a hatter.

She slept fitfully but at least she slept. When her sister came in from the terrace they sat together over cold drinks in the tile-floored cool of the lobby where they had once raced tortoises in lanes made of books.

‘You should have been there,’ said Elena. ’The boy carried it off well.’

‘I know,’ said her sister. ‘But there was so much to do here. The photographs were splendid.’

‘Do you never get away at all?’

‘I can’t leave him for long or he’ll be stumbling around shouting in his old uniform. And I can’t be with people any more.’

‘Will you come to the wedding?’

‘I don’t see how I can.’

‘Perhaps that’s what I should do,’ said Elena reflectively.


‘Retreat from the world.’

‘You? You must be very unhappy to say that.’

‘Do I look it?’

‘To someone who knows you.’

‘It will pass.’ But until it did it was killing her, so she poured it all out. So that was why she was there.

When the next President of the United States rang from Chicago the following morning she already felt, if not precisely better, at least alive enough to make a date with him for lunch in Paris early the week after next, and when Victor rang from Salzburg soon afterwards she made a point of letting him know. Then she went out into the vineyards with her sister and didn’t talk to anyone else for days. It was a bit like talking to your reflection but at least your reflection didn’t want anything. At first it seemed as if there were scorpions everywhere but later she noticed them less and with a length of strong wire bent into a hook she got the water flowing again from the lead pipe that lay hidden in the laughing mouth of the little green bronze Triton in the grotto — the Triton that might or might not have been by Giambologna. Water flowed from the peaches too, and the nectarines and the black grapes.