Books: Brilliant Creatures — Chapter 27 |
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Brilliant Creatures: Chapter 27

~ twenty-seven ~

y decision of the family council, Lancelot was obliged to knock on Charlotte’s bedroom door if he wanted to enter for some reason. He knocked, and David gave him permission to enter. David was sitting up in bed reading The English Comic Writers[1]. ‘Sorry,’ said Lancelot.

‘She’s down in the kitchen, I think,’ said David absently. He wasn’t being rude; he was merely under the spell of Hazlitt’s prose; but Lancelot took it hard, packed his holdall and moved out to Serena’s. Her affair with Anthony now once again over, as far as either of them could tell, Serena was ready to welcome a Platonic relationship, which for the moment was all that Lancelot was capable of. So Lancelot moved into her living room.

* * *

‘I hear Lancelot has gone to Serena,’ said Elena after dinner at the British Embassy in Paris. Stunning en grande tenue, she swept the room once slowly with the lighthouse effulgence of her upper works, just to keep them all on their toes.

‘These lovers fled away into the storm[2],’ said Victor.

‘He was the one that did the fleeing. She never moved. Do you envy him his decisiveness?’

‘As long as he gets some work done.’

* * *

‘You look worried,’ said David, breaking an egg into the batter for the wood-pigeons.

‘Not worried: just preoccupied,’ said Charlotte. ‘If he’s here I don’t have to care about him.’

* * *

Thinwall, after a long lunch in the magazine’s boardroom, joined Nicholas at the Carambar for drinks before dinner.

‘Lancelot’s done a bunk,’ said Nicholas.

‘With Sam?’

‘No. Serena.’

‘Bridesmaid Revisited.’ It wasn’t one of Thinwall’s best, but it went around town like influenza.

* * *

Padlocked by her wrists and ankles to the iron bedposts, Delilah was wearing the top half of a wet-suit plus hood, mask and snorkel.

‘Is that ponce Windhover still living in the broom cupboard?’ asked Dick Toole.

‘Mpf,’ said Delilah. ‘Eem gom doom Zhorinum.’ Behind the small panel of glass, her eyes were wide at what Dick Toole obviously planned to do with the tweezers.

* * *

Before the week was up, Lancelot had returned home with his holdall between his legs. With the best will in the world, Serena had been unable to cope with the logistics of giving him a spare set of keys. He had been locked out three times in as many days, and on two of those occasions it had rained. Also she cried all night, every night, over her off-again liaison with Anthony, which was based, Lancelot now learned, on her eternal gratitude for Anthony’s having helped her with the fashion articles which had made her name. The help, it transpired, had consisted merely of taking her book of notes, adding a lot more notes, Joining the notes together with words, and typing up the results. But slight as the assistance had been, it had come at the right time. Lancelot could have absorbed all this with ease as supererogatory evidence of the world’s tendency to entropy. Also it spoke well for Anthony, who had never mentioned any of these facts to Lancelot, obviously out of chivalrous regard for Serena. It should have been a heartening discovery. But the noise kept him awake, and thus prey to his thoughts.

So he moved back into his room to regroup. The inglorious homecoming was made more bearable by a family council plan to spend the weekend at the mill house. Charlotte, David and the children, whose main aim in life seemed to be to go everywhere David went so that without interruption they might gaze at him in worship, all went off in the Maxi, leaving Lancelot with the dogs. David, it was by now well established, wasn’t too keen on the dogs. Lancelot had never been too keen on them either, but had made the mistake of not saying so when it mattered. Instead he had given them their witty names and generally played the part of squire in his populated household. Mrs Hypotaxis went off to Athens for a few days, no doubt to perform her tour of duty as a caryatid holding up the Porch of the Maidens. She left Lancelot a set of instructions about the garbage disposal unit:


How could she get a word like ‘tomorrow’ right when she got a word like ‘use’ wrong? It was the kind of riddle often presented to the reader by the prose of Dick Toole, as Lancelot was amply reminded the next morning. He opened the popular newspaper to Dick Toole’s page and found two photographs of himself, one for each startled eye. In one photograph he was twenty years younger and receiving a British Press Award for Best Feature Writer from a notable who had since been sent to jail for fraud. In the other photograph he was dressed as André Chénier and was bent awkwardly over a patch of delphiniums. There were plenty of other recognisable faces too. Sally Draycott looking simultaneously very attractive and very angry; a standard million-dollar Norman Parkinson portrait of Elena dating from a Vogue spread in the mid-Seventies; Victor smiling after being knighted; Serena smiling as if she had just knighted him; the often reproduced Snowdon study of Nicholas looking like a fallen cherub; a photo-booth mug-shot of David; a wanker’s fantasy full-length pin-up of Samantha which Lancelot remembered as having decorated a Nectar feature on the bright young things of her Oxford generation; a photograph of the actor with all 54 teeth on glittering display; and a picture of Charlotte looking tragic in her kitchen. The entire cast was there. The whole two-page spread dealt with the one item. It was headlined DAISY-CHAIN THAT EXPLODED and an equivalent standard of metaphorical exactitude was kept up throughout, coupled with Dick Toole’s usual fastidious handling of grammar and syntax.

‘In the high-stepping world where the Beautiful People meet the literatis,’ it began, ‘the daisy-chain has exploded. Remember who brought you the exclusive story of golden girl intellectual Samantha Copperglaze letting her traces down at Elena (countless different types of countess) Fiabesco’s so-called Operas Ball, much to the umbrage taken from Golden Girl of the Gogglebox, Sally Draycott? See our tell-tale snaps if you need reminding. But I am now able to reveal — and I reiterate again, it’s exclusive — that there were latent, hidden ramifications unaware even at the time even to this column.’

But latent means hidden, thought Lancelot, the verbal centres of whose brain were still functioning, even though the rest of his cerebral cortex, like the whole of his body, was frozen as if by the instantaneous arrival of a new ice age.

‘For Not Only,’ the article went on, ‘was Samantha’s escort and literary adviser Lancelot Windhover visually put out (see our picture, premiered here for the first time), But Also Lancelot’s long-suffering wife, top academe Charlotte (nay, Darley-Huckswin), was in the process of becoming very-close-friends-indeed with that rising young “writer” of the horror school, ex-punk rocker David Bentley. A long-term, live-in boom companion of loony leftie Gaga Ladbroke, Charlotte felt protective towards poly-boy David, who graduated from a New Wave guitarist to become an intelligentsia, but nobody thought he would ever leave his humble cohorts in the lurch. Alas, but the high life proved too allusive, for now he is a regular visitor to the Windhover £250,000 home, a phenomena to which the Windhover children are only too proud to say, as they told me exclusively: “We think Dave’s brill.”’

The family council missed that little point, thought Lancelot. A clear directive to say nothing on the telephone should have been high on the agenda, just after the allocating of very small rooms to husbands.

‘But the daisy chain,’ Dick Toole continued, ‘was only just gathering speed. It was still a long way from, in the Latin phrase, a fait accompli. For only the most intimate of nifty Nick’s flash friends knew that his all-too-public gesture of affection at Samantha was the occasion of his jealousy for Sally’s ill-concealed determination to get herself adopted by those most ill-assorted of all well-heeled couples, Lancelot’s boss the ostentatious “Sir” Victor Ludlow (they call him Vulgar Vic) and the psychopathically publicity-shy Elegant Elly, or so she would have us think.

‘Almost as secretive herself, not even this column knows to exactly what lengths Sally went, but this much is certain: things between the two jet-setters were never the same again. Some friends say that Elly pined because Vulgar Vic and Suck-up Sally were suddenly inseparable after a fiasco television interview. And there can be no doubt that they were a visual age-gap in New York. Hitting the fashionable restaurants like Big Daddy Warbucks and Little Annie Oakley, mutual friends saw them in close conference over the fettucino.

‘Other friends say that it was Elly and Sally who were comparing recipes while Victor fretted for his usual attentions from the plush hostess. But whatever happened, Nicholas blew his famous cool. His revenge was to coax Samantha off Lancelot. Meanwhile, still as gorgeous as when her name was all over the glossies like a rash, Lancelot consoled himself with old flame Serena Blake, a direct descendant of playwright William and now one of his ghost writers, a lucrative cynosure by any criterions.

‘By any standards, suicidal Serena is not as much chop as her notorious forbear would have been when he was writing those plays. Sources close to this column say that her glossy articles of the Seventies needed help, and that Lancelot’s business partner, alias known as yet another old friend of my-life-is-my-own Sally, ageing Etonian Anthony Easement, may have had more than a hand in her success. But as ghosts at Victor Ludorum go she rates comparatively high prestige. For Samantha, given a top job by Lancelot, is currently in low odour.’

Oh no, thought Lancelot. Not so soon. How did they get it? Every loophole was supposed to have been plugged. He had told everybody one at a time that the whole thing was a matter of mental health and that lives hung in the balance. Not that you can ever keep things bottled up for long. He scanned the rest rapidly.

‘... fashionable women eager to flout their expertise found Samantha a ready listener. But she was even readier to make things up out of thin ... threats of libel suits came flooding in like artillery ... she may have Hollywood in her sights ... effects for Lancelot could charitably be described as not a million miles from discomfiting.’

Hooray, thought Lancelot: he’s got a word right at last. ‘Discomfiting’ is actually the appropriate word. Total defeat. Utter destruction. Cannae. Actium. Call to me all my sad captains.

The telephone rang. If it wasn’t a quadrophonic tape-recording of a Force 12 gale then it was Janice. ‘Sorry to be ringing on a Saturday morning,’ the voice howled, ‘but have you seen the papers?’

‘Hold the telephone a bit further away, darling. Yes, I have.’

‘Afraid that last bit was my fault,’ said Janice happily. ‘So I thought I should ring to say sorry. Some woman rang me up and told me they already had the story but they wanted to check the details.’

‘Yes. It’s a standard technique. The thing to do is say nothing.’

‘I realise that now,’ said Janice impatiently, ‘but she said she was an old friend of yours.’

‘She is, in a way. Don’t worry about it. Sweet of you to ring.’

‘See you on Monday.’

‘I’m not sure I’ll be in, so don’t bother about getting the cottage cheese.’

He put down the receiver and headed upstairs to shave, bathe and dress. His head was bowed, so it was not until he got to the top of the stairs that he noticed what looked like an iridescent saffron brioche festering on the carpet. Undoubtedly it was the work of Feydeau. Right, thought Lancelot. That does it.

The doorbell rang. He stood where he was without turning, magnetised by a dumb animal’s cloaca! achievement. But the doorbell rang again, so down he went.

‘You’ve a geezer what owns a pew, Joe?’

‘Good heavens.’ Lancelot had never seen the man before, but what had startled him was a sight almost as unfamiliar and by now completely unexpected. There before his front steps stood his car. Physical mobility had been restored to him at the very moment of final and irreversible mental paralysis.

It was too late. The car was there, looking splendid in its beads of rain, but there was nowhere he wanted to go in it. He wrote a cheque which he knew would bounce all over the bank like a squash ball, but by then he would be beyond caring. He rang Nicholas to say goodbye, but there was no answer. So he wrote a letter instead. He spent the whole afternoon writing a letter each to everyone. For dinner he heated a tin of chili con carne, not wanting to cook anything in the oven, which for his purposes needed to be free of the smell of fat. The bulk of the evening he spent working on his will. In an early version he made a list of edifying books which should be extracted from his library and given to Samantha. In later versions this idea did not crop up. The final version left Charlotte everything, such as it was. It seemed easier, and besides, he had a sneaking suspicion that it was the law of the land. The love letters from Samantha he burned. There were only two of them and their paucity of expression made him ashamed. It took an age[3] to get the dogs out into the garden, so it was well past midnight before he was ready.

He turned on the gas tap of the oven without touching the ignition button. After the gas had run for a while he turned his head sideways and inserted it. The fit was uncomfortable so he took out the internal shelf and moved it down a notch. But he had not thought the thing through. Standing up was no good because when unconsciousness supervened he would fall out. What he needed to do was sit down. He drew up a chair and sat down but when he leaned forward the shelf was too high. He took it out altogether but when his sensitive cheek made direct contact with the bottom of the oven it detected the presence of a film of fat. Mrs Hydroponics must have finished off her cleaning with a rag dipped in cold water instead of hot. Physical disgust was not the last emotion he wanted to feel. Also it belatedly occurred to him that this new gas from the North Sea was supposed to kill you much more slowly than the old sort, or perhaps didn’t even kill you at all.

He left the gas on, went upstairs, and assembled all of Charlotte’s sleeping pills into the one spot. It was a formidable array: eloquent testimony to the dance he had led her. He owed it to her to swallow them all, washing each one down with a mouthful of water, so that there would be no premature rejection by an overloaded stomach. Then he lay down and waited. By the time the smell of gas reached him he was already slipping away. He had always admired Chénier’s bravery[4]. It must have been hard, letting go of so much. In the Conciergerie the condemned would talk together all night before the tumbril came. Letting go of so little was proving to be considerably easier, except that there was nobody to talk to. It was like talking to yourself. Déjà ce corps pesant se détache de moi[5]. But if this heavy body is detached from me, thought Lancelot, then I should be floating up, not going down into this tunnel. This very recognisable tunnel with posters made from pages of the Koran. Going down into it in this car. This car with the taxi meter of green lights. Youths on roller skates with hair like dead tropical birds broke the window, hauled him out, and held him down for the dentist with the Japanese hook. But the back of his legs and his bottom must have been cut by the jagged glass. It hurt. Then it hurt the same way around his chest and throat, which could not be right. Hurt so much that he had to contemplate abandoning the whole idea, especially when the needles came in through his eyelids.

But he could still see, except for a dead spot in the centre of each eye, like Degas[6]. Into whose arms fell the ailing Ingres. Look hack in, Ingres. Lancelot hated puns and took it personally that one of them should dare show its face at such a solemn moment. Puns made his blood run cold. It was very cold, inside the glacier. Which was full of people, like a circle in Hell[7]. Lancelot had expected Hell to be full of moustached men in paisley shirts, flared trousers and Cuban-heeled shoes made out of overlapping pieces of leather, but actually it was quite sweet. What a pity to be alone there. Imagine the sweetness of going down there to live together[8]. That was Baudelaire. Ian Cuthbert, thought Lancelot, must have a memory like mine, only worse. Better and therefore worse. Like the library of Alexandria, full of the smoke of burning books. Reading stops you writing, if you can’t forget. A sense of proportion, that’s what you must lack. You need a drunken boat[9]. Steady doesn’t do it. He had been too honest with himself. Malraux had had the right approach: tell lies that will become truths later. Malraux told his wife that[10]. Was it she who wrote it down? A book about lying writers would be a good idea. Tell a lie: a very good idea. He was having his best ideas too late. It was all in the timing. That was another idea for a book: careers. That was a really good idea for a book. Must get back and start a box-file on that one.

He tried to turn around and a ball of light went off against his palate. Then he tasted praline with his eyes and smelt silk with his ear. The lights went off again. Went off like a bomb, not off like a light. Out like a light, that was the expression for when lights went off. He was on a hillside, dug in, and a lot of smiling Chinese holding silly guns with perforated barrels were coming up through the wire. They had knapsacks on like Scandinavians. They weren’t supposed to have those on, so they took them off. It was Korea, not Copenhagen. But Lancelot had never been in Korea. He had done his National Service with an intelligence unit at Bletchley, compiling a NATO chain of command chart in three languages and six colours. The last time people in uniform had come running at him had been in Paris in 1968, but then you could duck around a corner or flash your passport. Here you couldn’t. Imagination to power! But it had no power. That was the whole point. Real imagination wasn’t interested in power. The Chinese were pointing towards him. They were telling each other where he was. How could they know that when he didn’t? He must be having somebody else’s memory. Anthony had been in Korea. Must ask him if Korea was so loud. The noise was tremendous. Janice was with them. They were all singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. More flares kept going up and hanging there. Then they all went out at once. Out, not off. Out! Off! Out! Off! The whole light was going out and off at the same time as the noise. Tracer chased itself like sparks through a black ceiling. The Chinese looked as if they were dancing in a disco. Samantha was there too. How beautiful she was when she slid her hip sideways. It matched the curve of Botticelli’s Venus[11]. When she lay down on her side it reminded him of Velázquez’s Venus[12]. When she lay on her breasts with her legs open the back of her thighs followed the same line as Boucher’s Venus. Venus O’Murphy[13]. When her hand stroked him it looked as long and tapering as the hand of Leonardo’s lady caressing the ermine in Cracow[14].

But none of these images lent life to her outline. She lent life to them. She brought everything alive. She was doing it now. He was going to come from looking at her. It was lovely. It kept on coming out. It felt as if it would last for a long time, like a really good day’s reading in the Bodleian. Like a page of pregnant alexandrines. Charlotte had enjoyed that. He could see Charlotte at a table on the other side of the library, but there was someone else in the chair beside her. Some young man. They were both reading from one book[15]. Then they each put a finger on the page to mark the place as they turned to each other and kissed. It made Lancelot feel lonely. It plunged him into solitude. One can acquire anything in solitude, except character. Who said that?[16] Who said that? Come outside and say that. That. They had that in common, he and his wife. The meaning of words. They didn’t mean everything, of course. That was the whole point. Except now they did. So there was no point. Tremendously significant and tremendously vague. I’m sorry, darling. I didn’t mean it. What I mean. Mm? Mm.