Books: Brilliant Creatures — Chapter 26 |
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Brilliant Creatures: Chapter 26

~ twenty-six ~

ister Strain wondered,’ bellowed Janice, ‘if you could see him as soon as possible.’ There was no question by now that the bottom-strengthening exercises had also done great things for her voice.

‘Has my tax position been clarified?’ Lancelot asked Frank straight away, hoping to cut things comparatively short. Gradually it emerged that the tax position had indeed been clarified. But before it emerged that the tax position had been clarified, Frank had first to explain in detail how complicated it had all become. During the course of the next half hour it several times occurred to Lancelot that things were getting finally and irrevocably out of hand. The day after getting back from Biarritz he had called in at the garage where his car was being repaired and found that the whole area had been bulldozed. Enquiries at the police station revealed that the business had moved to new premises in Cricklewood. Upon telephoning the new premises, he was told that his car was top priority. Samantha, now that her work was not just complete but on the verge of publication, was almost impossible to find. Yet everybody else in the world seemed to be part of some ecstatic unit of two. Nicholas, having explained that his affair with Sally required all his attention, had disappeared from the face of the earth. He had even disappeared from the Friday lunch at Foscari’s, although Thinwall claimed to be still seeing a lot of him. Elena and Victor spent so much time smiling at one another that people had begun to wonder. Serena and Anthony had once again become lovers, which meant that Anthony could cry on her shoulder about the continuing impossibility of pensioning off Virginia, while Serena could cry on his about her inability to dig up unknown drawings by known writers. Randall Hoyle and Elena’s cousin Rudolph were such an item that they had been photographed naked in each other’s arms for Courage in Profiles. It was even rumoured that Monty Forbes had at last succumbed to Ian Cuthbert’s tearful importunities. That would do much to explain Ian’s total unavailability. People were huddling together against the portentous chill of the gathering autumn. But Lancelot was out in the cold, or at any rate confined to his room.

On returning from Biarritz, Charlotte and the children had rejoined the dogs to hold a family conference from which Lancelot had been excluded until the end, when he was admitted in order that he might hear the verdict. He was allowed to stay on in the house if he wanted to, but strictly as a guest. David would henceforth be regarded as the man of the family. For part of the week David would be with the diaphanous Gaga, aiding her in her community activities until such time as she had thrown off the effects of a variety of oriental diseases. At all other times David would be master in Lancelot’s house. Everyone at the conference except the dogs, who liked David almost as little as he liked them, evidently regarded this as a desirable arrangement. Even Lancelot could see nothing against it from the viewpoint of simple justice. What unsettled him was the certainty that if he had seen anything against it his opinion would have made no difference. He was an unarmed prophet.

But his tax position had been clarified. He had lost. He was now on PAYE. He should never have been on Schedule D. Which would mean, of course, that at least a proportion of his deducted expenses would have to be refunded. Lancelot didn’t know why Frank Strain was saying ‘of course’. The tax people no doubt said ‘of course’ as a matter of course, but why was Frank Strain saying ‘of course’?

‘Is that the lot?’ asked Lancelot.

‘Well, no. In fact that wasn’t why, except of course it’s better if, and now that we have, well at least we don’t. But that wasn’t why I asked you up here specifically. Of course, since you were here, it would have made very little sense not to have discussed the ...’

Even more gradually than during the world record for gradualness which had already been established, the real reason for the meeting emerged. Loosely bound rush copies of the uncorrected proofs of the Gillian Jackson lifestyle book had gone out to one or two magazines and in a roundabout way one of them had got into the hands of one of the interviewees, who had loudly claimed that the views attributed to her in quotation marks were ones she had never uttered. Some discreet checking had revealed that several more of the interviewees were in a similar case. In short, the young lady appointed by Lancelot to do the ghosting had faked the whole thing. The proof copies had been rounded up, brought back and placed under lock and key, but even after such limited exposure there was still a strong chance of a successful libel action, because the chief complainant, Choochoo Strapontin, was not only very rich and very touchy, she was also vengefully litigious. She had taken particular exception, apparently, to finding herself quoted in extenso on the subject of the desirability of having one’s backside lifted. Not only had she never said anything about this, her derrière was still in its original position. Independent authorities insisted that no other part of her was, but if that meant anything it meant that her bottom had, in effect, been lowered. No matter how many assurances were given and mollifications murmured personally by Victor, the great names in the book would be disinclined to laugh the matter off. Putting the business to sleep would take time, effort and expenditure.

All this took Frank Strain most of the morning to say, so Lancelot had plenty of time to take it in. But he could not take it in. He phoned Samantha all afternoon but she was never there. On his way home he parked his bicycle outside her basement flat and rang the doorbell, but she still wasn’t there. When he got home he phoned her again from his study. She was there, receiving a visit from her father. She told him to come over at eight o’clock, when her father would have gone away. Until it was time to head in her direction, Lancelot rode around in the vicinity of the Little Boltons, rehearsing what he was going to say. It was lucky he had brought his front lamp: the nights were drawing in. Then he rode straight over to her place, chained his bicycle to her railings, undid the wing nuts on the front wheel, and with the wheel under his arm trod decisively down her little iron staircase and rang the doorbell.

When she opened the door to him she was wearing nothing but knickerbocker glory pop socks, which he thought was a good sign. He leaned his wheel against her small dining table and reached to embrace her, but there was something wrong with the way she was giggling, like a child whose elaborately planned joke on a parent was about to be sprung. There was an almighty crash from the bathroom. Samantha swept her hand towards it like a magician’s assistant signalling for applause. Lancelot opened the bathroom door and found Nicholas just getting to his feet with one foot still caught in a pair of trousers more than half drawn up the other leg.

‘Shelves,’ said Nicholas.

At least two glass shelves with their full complement of bottles, jars, atomisers and aerosols had hit the floor. Nicholas was ankle deep in the aromatic junk that struck Lancelot with its quintessentially feminine spectrum of odours even in this lowest of all moments. Lancelot cried a good deal while Nicholas, having fully achieved his trousers, shouted reproaches at the helplessly laughing Samantha.

‘I’m sorry,’ Nicholas told Lancelot during a pause in the uproar ‘She told me you two were finished and I’d just been scrapped myself.’

‘It’s all right,’ said Lancelot, as if that was what it was, instead of being as all wrong as it could get. Nicholas resumed giving Samantha what for until she unilaterally got into bed, pulled the covers up to her chin, and lay there looking demurely abstracted, as if facing the prospect next day of being enrolled into the Girl Guides. It all went on for quite a while with nothing gained, and Lancelot subsequently had even better reason to regret that he had not left immediately, because after he had retrieved his wheel and climbed with hanging head up the little iron staircase it was to find that his bicycle was missing. The padlock and chain, strangely enough, were still there, properly done up. So they must have had a key. Well, at least somebody knew what he was doing. As Lancelot stood there with his wheel under his arm like a less grateful St Catherine, it was raining lightly, but after a while it stopped doing that, and started raining heavily.