Books: Brilliant Creatures — Chapter 25 | clivejames.com
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Brilliant Creatures: Chapter 25

~ twenty-five ~
S

ally got back to her flat in the morning and rang Salzburg before she had even bathed. It was a risk, but she got Victor.

‘Stay where you are,’ said Victor. ’I’ll come straight away.’

‘What about her?’

‘She’s in Italy. Tell me the address of that place.’

‘You’ll never get up the stairs.’

‘I want to see how you live. I’ll be there by nightfall.’

He was, too. She went down to meet him.

‘You were right about the stairs,’ he said as she showed him in. ’Good Lord. You mean this is all there is?’

‘This is it.’

‘Why should I waste my imagination on myself?’ said Victor, in quotation marks.

‘Who said that?’

‘Diaghilev. In Petersburg. He showed Karsavina the room where he slept and there was nothing in it except a little bed. She asked him why he, of all people, should want to live so simply.’

‘She must have been lovely.’

‘She was, but he was the wrong sort of man. Why are you back so soon?’

‘I ran away. Why have you still got your clothes on?’

‘Come home with me,’ said Victor.

‘Later.’

‘Now would be better.’

‘Why? Not grand enough for you? Not enough towels? Need more room to show off?’

‘Suppose my heart gave out?’

‘Don’t be silly.’

‘I’m not being silly. It happens all the time. I’m exactly the right age and I’ve just climbed exactly the right staircase. You wouldn’t relish having my death on your hands. People would never forget it.’

‘You’re serious.’

‘You wouldn’t be the only one hurt, either.’

‘You win, damn it.’

Sally tried to compromise by persuading him into her car, but after having retraced his steps down the infernal staircase he asserted his right not to try shoe-horning himself into what he claimed to regard as an illegal weapon. So they rode in the back of his car, which meant that she was in his power instead of he in hers. But at the house she refused to contemplate sharing his bed, denouncing it as the centrepiece of a bordello. He took her upstairs to a small bedroom with a simple bed in it. It would have been for the daughter.

‘She was already gone when I built this house. I stopped well short of making it a shrine, as you can see. No teddy bears. I already had enough to be ashamed of without that. It’s just a useful room. It can always be yours, if you want it.’

‘A niche.’

‘What?’

‘Nothing. All right. This is the spot.’

They lay down together then and there. Victor wanted to darken the room but she wouldn’t let him. They were there again the next night and for a good part of the day between, but finally she caught on.

‘It’s over, isn’t it? You just had me like the last glass of water in the world.’

‘I think it has to be. Unless you can see us keeping it going in secret. And I don’t think I’ve got what it takes.’

‘You said all I had to do was insist.’

‘Yes. But you won’t.’

‘She made bloody sure of that, didn’t she? That’s why she pulled me at the start. So that on the day when you gave me the elbow I wouldn’t fight it. She saw it all in advance.’

‘I wouldn’t put it past her.’

‘The bitch.’

He went off to make a pot of coffee and had a speech ready when he came back.

‘It’s for the best, you know. You would have hated it later on and so would I. It’s all very well for me to revel in my autumn show of strength, but it can’t last long. And when I wasn’t up to it any more I’d have to watch you pretending to be pleased, and then pretending not to be pleased elsewhere.’

‘It wouldn’t be like that.’

‘It would. I’m just the start for you. Whereas for her I’m the last big adventure, if I behave myself. Those other blokes in the wings will never get on stage unless I let them. So it’s to my advantage.’

‘And you had all this sorted out but you thought you’d just use these few days when nobody was checking up on us to get a good long lucky last snuffle at the trough.’

‘Francis of Assisi would have done the same.’

‘You’ve ruined me, you know. I can’t go back to Nicholas. I’ll just have to go and find someone else. And when I find him I’ll parade him in front of you, you old rat.’

‘I’ve already seen him. He’ll be alive when I’m dead. Lying in your arms when I’m breathing oxygen in a plastic bag. I saw him the night I met you. Some young twerp wearing my skull for a mask. But I got in first.’

‘Well, you’re not getting in again.’

Nicholas arrived on her doorstep next morning. She wouldn’t let him come upstairs. He drove her in his wreck to the Carambar for an early lunch. It was practically deserted. There, over a bacon and lettuce salad that neither of them much more than touched, she told him that they had to stop sleeping together if they were to stay friends. The message is easier to deliver when you leave out the real reason, although it is questionable if that makes it any easier to receive. Nicholas got very angry, so there was nothing else to do but get very angry as well.

‘You’re just not old enough,’ she said. ‘It’s no crime.’

‘I’m exactly the right age.’

‘And that’s not old enough. I did my best,’ said Sally. ’I got it pretty thoroughly established that I was never going to talk to those people.’

‘What people? My friends? Who are we talking about?’

‘Journalist people. Gossip people. I hated them right from the start. Even the best of them were as thick as two short planks and the worst of them were so ghastly it was farcical. Illiterate, grubby, mean and sly. One of them sent me a note telling me that if I didn’t talk to him it would be worse because he’d just make it all up. One of them rang up my sick mother at four in the morning and when I protested to the editor they ran a photo of me coming out of my front door and they put my address under it so that every sex maniac and dope addict could write to me or hang about outside. I tried to get the editor Press Councilled for that and lost because I was a public figure. I had some smooth old Press Council wanker asking me why I ever went on the television if I wanted to avoid publicity. The television. All this went on and on until finally they all got the message that it wasn’t a ploy: I simply didn’t want to cooperate. And I had a lot of pressure from upstairs, I might add. String along and they’ll make it easier on all of us. Just jolly them along. But I didn’t and eventually everything died down and I was able to just get on with my work and not be involved in any fatuous talk except for the TV Times occasionally. And then what happens?’

‘I just made one little harmless drunken pass at an old girlfriend.’

‘But they knew you were with me.’

‘I never said a word to anyone.’

‘You didn’t have to say a word, did you? Just not deny it when one of your pals was making the suggestion. Lancelot, I shouldn’t be surprised. Poor knickers-in-a-twist Lancelot. And I don’t suppose he said a word. But then somebody else who knows you both — I bet it was Thinwall — somebody put two and two together and he said the word.’

‘She, probably.’

‘Who?’

‘Delilah.’

‘That lethal tart. How can 1 run around with a man who knows someone like her? I’ll bet you’ve even gone to bed with her.’

‘Don’t be silly.’ He hadn’t, really. You couldn’t call that going to bed. Going to the wall, perhaps.

So they split the bill and she got a taxi home. On her way up the stairs she heard the telephone ringing. She had made it a rule never to run for the telephone but she broke it this time in case it was Victor. It was only Nicholas.

‘What you’re saying is that you were never in love with me, right?’

‘I suppose so, yes.’

‘That’s why you could never say the words.’

‘Yes.’

‘But you still went to bed with me.’

‘Yes.’

‘Well, if you weren’t in love with me but you could, how come that now you can’t?’

‘I can’t say. If you love me you won’t ask.’

‘What kind of answer is that? I’m coming over.’

This time she told the porter to let him come upstairs, or there would probably have been the most dreadful scenes right there on the street, and if there was anything she hated about the middle class it was the way they fought in public. (‘I’m not your slave, John!’) Besides, she felt guilty about having fobbed him off with an excuse. She would have had to see him again anyway. But bed was definitely out. By the time he reached her she had piled all the books on it.

‘What kind of answer is that?’ he continued. ‘You aren’t in love with me but if I’m in love with you I’ll do what you want? That’s the kind of reasoning that got women their richly deserved bad name.’

This was clearly a prepared speech so she didn’t answer it.

‘So why could you before?’ he pressed.

‘Because then I wasn’t in love with anyone.’

‘Who is it, then?’

‘I can’t say. Not possibly.’

‘It’s Elena, isn’t it? You’re a closet dyke. You have been all along.’

‘She’s very lovable, yes. But it’s got nothing to do with sex, really.’

‘I’ll bet.’

‘Not everything has, you know. It’s not that you lack anything. You’ve got everything. You’re sexy and bright and you make me laugh. But not enough has happened to you. You keep telling me that I’m the biggest thing that has. And I’ve enjoyed being part of your education but if I’m to learn anything myself I have to be with someone who’s educated already. I already spend every day in a job where real experience doesn’t count. Nobody remembers the past except in manila folders. I want to be in love with the twentieth century, with somebody it all happened to, or some of it anyway. Someone who’s been through it and wants to tell me just by the way he touches me.’

‘Sounds like you want to fuck Winston Churchill’s corpse.’

‘Why do you like women?’

‘I don’t like women. I like you.’

‘Yes, but why do you like women instead of men?’

‘Because I’m that way, thank Christ.’

There was nothing she could say. Nicholas wanted to make love one last time but she said no, gratefully aware that he would not turn nasty. It was a thought often in her head, on the way back from the car-park: if she was mugged she planned to cross her arms over her face and let them kick the rest. What an absurd thought to have now. Saying ‘I’ll ring you’ as if they had a future, Nicholas went.

Which left her facing the late afternoon and the endless night, plus a few more days before work started again. But she didn’t want work to start again: not that work, anyway. She could stand no more of Horace’s distinguished blarney, of Speed Blair’s finely tuned mediocrity and of Anthony Easement striding dynamically down the corridor towards her with the announcement that he had an idea — the idea always being that she should have an idea, which he could package. It was time to move on. As Saul Newman’s European roving reporter she would be calling her own shots and cutting her own tapes. She would probably also be drawing her own water and baking her own bread. But she would get a green card out of it. The 928 would have to go. You wouldn’t catch her dead in a 924: might as well have a Cortina. But if the programmes were sold to British television she might even make up some of the financial loss. Who was it who had called ‘residuals’ the most beautiful word in the English language? Probably Saul. There was nothing seductive about Saul except his passion for the task. The dandruff on his shoulders was without charm. There were specks of it in his eyebrows, looking like the husks of dead nits. Either an abortive hair transplant had contracted phylloxera at the roots or else his scalp was really like that. The paunch was not very appealing either. As though clairvoyant, she could see the pass he would eventually make. It would be all the more embarrassing for their having done so much work together. He would say he had never done anything like this before. He would cry. He would leave his wife and children anyway, even if she did not requite him. Which she would never do, because he did not attract her. He did her the great favour of honestly admiring her work, and she repaid him by finding him unattractive. Thanks a bundle.

That side of things was a mess in advance, unless she was being conceited. But she was not responsible for other people’s dreams. At the moment she was at the mercy of her own. She trusted her current explosion of decisiveness no more than the wife of a long-term manic depressive places abiding faith in his feeling suddenly elated. She mixed a packet of nuts and raisins into some plain yoghurt and called that dinner. One of the jokey little stories at the end of News at Ten showed a couple of senior policemen examining the broken front window of the Lord Mayor’s Rolls Royce Phantom VI. It should have made her laugh or at least shake her head, but it didn’t. Why was that? Because it was how the world was. Good luck was getting home safely from the underground car-park to your front door. No, good luck was to be robbed without being raped. Ordinary luck was to be robbed and raped. Bad luck was to be robbed, raped and have an eye kicked out. Oh, good luck, darling! Hold on, though. That couldn’t he right. There was still a lot more of that in New York than here, but in New York she hadn’t noticed.

It was late. Wearing nothing but her sandals she looked at herself in her long mirror. She knew how lucky she was and that she would never look better. But she felt as if she were assembled out of non-vegetable fats, monosodium glutamate and artificial colouring matter. She got rid of the sandals, sat on the bed and rubbed cream on her face. Usually it soothed her, but tonight it felt as if her forehead were getting tighter still. She rubbed cream into her breasts, a process which in normal circumstances she vaguely enjoyed at the very least. They felt like something that had just been slapped on to a wheel in a pottery class for beginners. For some reason she didn’t want to sleep naked tonight, even though the summer was as yet only marginally threatened by encroaching autumn. They must still be burning the straw out in the fields. But she needed protection. From a lower drawer she got out her schooldays nightdress that she usually wore only on the worst nights when the heating gave out. She lay down on top of the bed but didn’t turn out the light. She turned to the wall, afraid of what was coming. She dreaded it like being sick from the stomach. It was something she absolutely never did. Never since daddy had left home. Never never never. She lay still, fighting it off. Then, very suddenly, it went from nothing happening to everything happening. The tears were everywhere, all over the place like spilled oil. She couldn’t stop the noise. She did everything except call for mother. Knowing that you will survive, that a broken heart counts for nothing in a world of broken bodies, doesn’t mean that you can bear it.

* * *

‘No pangs?’ asked Elena on the telephone late at night.

‘No,’ said Victor.

‘Charlotte keeps asking if she should bring home her young man and lock Lancelot in the broom cupboard. I tell her if that’s what she wants, go ahead. She says thanks for the advice.’

‘He’s got it coming, I suppose.’

‘For whoring after youth.’

‘It’s odd, isn’t it?’ asked Victor rhetorically. ‘People whose lives are comedies behaving as if their lives were tragedies.’

‘Whereas with some of us it’s the other way about.’

‘That’s putting it a bit high.’

‘Speak for yourself.’ She was very definite about that. Just because she had won didn’t mean that she felt triumphant. Even if she looked it.