Books: Brilliant Creatures — Chapter 28 | clivejames.com
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Brilliant Creatures: Chapter 28

~ twenty-eight ~
‘F

och! Grock!’ squawked Lancelot. They had finished with the stomach pump some time before but he was still turning himself inside out, a process which for some reason kept reminding him of the Cotswolds. ‘Klee! Clouet! Klimt! Braque! Cranach!’[1]

Chance had saved him. It’s all that saves most of us. Between midnight and dawn, long after Lancelot had taken the pills and was well embarked on the journey to the Elysian Fields, a pack of polychromatic skinheads, far from their home territory, happened to recognise his car as one of the same type as another car they had paid attention to in the early spring. Here was the chance of a ride home. Failing which, the interests of aesthetic symmetry required that the same vengeance should be taken as before. Once again a hot-wire start was ruled out by an unbudgeable Krooklok. So they smashed in most of the windows, paid their urinary tribute from all angles, and moved on. Towards dawn, almost too late, a policewoman and a policeman came strolling along, furtively hand in hand. Entering Lancelot’s gravelled forecourt in order to embrace, they saw his wrecked car. They smelled it, too, but not as clearly as they smelled gas. They rang the front doorbell repeatedly but there was no answer except the howl of dogs from the back garden. Windows which had not lit up at the noise of a car being violated were now lighting up all around. While the police-woman radioed headquarters, the policeman broke in and opened all the windows he could find. While doing this, he found Lancelot. The policewoman radioed for an ambulance. In commendably brief time it arrived and took Lancelot away. Only then did the policeman enter the kitchen to turn off the gas. Unfortunately the first control he touched was the ignition button. There was not much gas left by then but it was enough to make a considerable thump. The explosion did the constable no great harm beyond the embarrassment caused by the loss of several articles of clothing. But it gave a shock to the front wall of the kitchen which was enough to impart a decisive shear load to the portico above the front steps. The portico shifted forward until the columns on which it rested began to pivot. With dream-like precision the whole neo-classical assemblage, weighing about a ton and a quarter, swung outwards and fell on Lancelot’s car.

Everyone came to see Lancelot in hospital. Lancelot had had no idea he was so popular. All thanked him for his touching letter and told him that if he had sent it earlier he would have soon been talked out of doing anything so drastic. Serena was full of mute reproaches and despairing shakings of the head, which was a bit much coming from her. Elena paid him one brief visit during which every consultant and senior surgeon in the hospital found some reason to be present. She gave him a book to read. To ask him how he could have done such a thing, Janice came all the way in from the street, instead of just saying it from the bus stop, or from home. Thinwall arrived joking. ‘I know what you need,’ he cried. ‘A nice steaming glass of hot pork fat.’ The idea had been supplied by one of the Australian poets but nobody thought that even Thinwall would actually go through with it. Thinwall reported the alleged results at the next Friday lunch. He didn’t have to exaggerate by much.

‘Extraordinary thing for Lancelot to do,’ said one of the literary editors. ‘I should have thought that he of all people had life pretty well worked out.’

‘Cushy job, perfect wife, lovely young raver of a girlfriend,’ said another literary editor. ‘Where do you get despair out of all that?’

Dick Toole had arrived independently at the same opinion. ‘Flouting his artistic temperament, the ponce.’ Delilah would have agreed if she had been able to speak, but the clamps were too tight.

‘I can’t talk for long,’ said Sally. ‘I’m clearing out my desk. Where are you?’

‘The can at the Caram,’ said Nicholas. ‘Is it your last day?’

‘Yesterday. Officially I’ve already left.’

‘Lancelot said you came to see him.’

‘He gave me a book[2].’

‘So he told me. Some posh frog.’

Les Liaisons dangereuses.’

‘What’s it like?’

‘Depressing. Elena swears by it. She says we’re all in it.’

‘And are we?’

‘In a way. It’s full of people coldly assessing the caprices of desire and speaking frankly to each other at all costs. Clinical honesty.’

‘Is that us?’

‘No,’ said Sally. ‘We’re better than that. Or at any rate a bit younger.’

‘Can I see you for a drink?’

‘I have to meet Saul.’

‘What about tomorrow?’

‘What about Samantha?’

‘She’s gone back to L.A.’

‘Is she why Lancelot did it?’

‘She’s reason enough, God knows. But I expect it was a bit of everything. Did you hear about Thinwall’s joke?’ He told her.

‘You make it sound funny,’ she said. ‘I wonder if it really was.’

‘I make everything sound funny. Which you miss. Admit it.’

‘Yes. I do indeed.’

‘I excited you to a frenzy with my masculine crudity. Admit it.’

‘A sedate frenzy. A poised frenzy.’

‘You loved my lewd tongue. You creamed your Calvin Kleins.’

‘Don’t be disgusting.’

‘But you liked being disgusted. You liked it when I danced around the room wearing your knickers for a balaclava. Go on. Own up.’

‘It’s a fact.’

‘Then see me again. I can’t bear my life.’

‘Don’t be silly.’

Victor couldn’t see why Lancelot had done it. It had taken him completely by surprise.

‘Of course it shocks you,’ said Elena, languid among pillows. ‘You’re such an egomaniac that you can’t believe anyone else is really there.’

‘But he’d been doing so well. That business with the Gillian Jackson book was a bit unfortunate but I might have put him in a false position there. Do you know what he told me? He told me that he thought he’d been irritating me.’

‘What did you say to that?’

‘I told him I thought he was the most charming man I know. Which is pretty well true, isn’t it?’

‘And what did he say then?’

‘He said I should have told him that before.’

‘Well, people need flattery.’

‘I don’t.’

‘Only because you’re a genius.’

Victor might have been straining the facts when he said that Lancelot had been doing well, but there was no denying that things picked up after the crisis, and that Lancelot was the catalyst. The world’s most famous female film star — who, it turned out, had relished her evening at Flaherty’s — not only signed a contract in the course of time but in the course of further time got on with writing the book. Brian Hutchings, perhaps remorseful, actually supplied the last of his copy for the book on the iconography of literary London. Though no great commercial success, the book was much discussed in literary circles: at least half a dozen poets never spoke to Brian again, and would have combined to assault him if they had been speaking to each other. And the book on writers who could draw was a success on every level. Ian Cuthbert never did get started on A World History of the Short, and the lists of writers who could draw which he had supplied to Serena were destroyed when she accidentally set fire to her flat. But copies resided safely in one of Lancelot’s box-files. The copies, having been copied again by Janice, were given to David Bentley, who, after much study but in short order, produced a set of captions which helped make the book a pleasure to possess. Even Paula Thorax had to admit that as picture books went it was something of a minor classic. Thus David was launched on a useful second line of work to help finance him while he composed his novels, the first of which was one of Victor Ludorum’s big hits of the following season. The story of how a young radical couple grow apart politically during a trip to India but achieve unity on a spiritual level, it held irresistible appeal for David’s contemporaries, although Charlotte, usually sympathetic to his work, did not much care for it.

But she would have been the first to put that down to jealousy. In all other respects the arrangement worked out well, after Lancelot’s initial over-reaction. Obviously, to confine him to his room had been too harsh. Mrs Hepatitis was keen to go home after the destruction of her kitchen. In fact she had gone without discussing the matter, leaving a note saying I GOINC HOM TU GRIS. Following Elena’s advice, Charlotte had not replaced her. David was awkward on the subject of servants anyway, and more than willing to share the cooking. That left the basement flat free for Lancelot to move into.

Once installed, he flourished. Loss had left him without distractions. Samantha, after the smiling actor had drowned at one of Randall Hoyle’s parties, came back from Los Angeles and was offered a post by the Think Tank as a long-term planning officer working on the disposal of nuclear waste. Lancelot rarely saw her, and only as a friend. Besides, he was too busy. The book about literary liars sounded so juicy a project that Brian Hutchings was almost tempted to volunteer for it, but Ian Cuthbert, transformed by his possession of Monty — restored, in fact, to the full productive genius of his early years — demanded to take it on, and, after the usual hiccups, made detectable progress. The book on careers Lancelot gave to the Australian poets, who were so naïve that they considered the large advance as an obligation to work diligently. The result was a first-rate piece of cultural sociology, so entertaining that it became a best-seller.

Most remarkable of all, Lancelot himself became a writer again. Not of poems: that impulse was gone, if it had ever really been there. But he had an idea for a book that would avoid the usual trap of being about writers and publishers. Some writers, apologetic about knowing nobody except writers and publishers, disguised them as painters and gallery owners, or actors and impresarios. Other writers went further and set their books about writers and publishers down coal-mines or in supermarkets, so that you had sensitive, neurotic young face-workers and check-out clerks, or cultivated, worldly-wise pit-head supervisors and area managers. Lancelot would appear to grasp the nettle by simply and unashamedly writing a book about writers and publishers. But really all his principal characters, women included, would be different versions, variously idealised, of himself, with the hero nothing but a deus ex machina, or chapter of accidents. Which is really how life feels, he had decided: when you look at others you see yourself reflected, and when you look at yourself you are nowhere to be found. So he changed his name to several names, dressed each of them differently in bits and pieces of made-up bodies and imagined histories, withdrew from the centre so that his creatures could all meet in the same glass room, and then wrote down what they did. A mirror hall for voices, it might not have been a proper novel, but it certainly wasn’t anything else. This, of course, is it.

Read on: Notes