Books: The Remake — Part 1 |
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The Remake

PART ONE : My Name in Lights

Galileo uses language not as a neutral instrument, but with a literary conscience, with a continual participation which is expressive, imaginative, and in the strict sense lyrical ... Even Galileo the scientist, in his ideal of observing the world, is nourished by literary culture.

Italo Calvino, from Due intervisti su scienza e letteratura, collected in Una pietra sopra: discorsi di letteratura e società

Lauren was within her rights, but letting me do it to her on the night she threw me out was one below the belt. Have I put that too abruptly? I vowed when I sat down to write this that I would pull no stunts. No games of spot the author, no alternative endings, no putting the middle first. Not even any attention-getting sexy first sentence. But getting thrown out on the street with my squib damp is where the story really and truly starts. Like most people with serious work to do I pick my literature off railway station kiosks and those supermarket racks at the airports where the paperbacks come out early. I think my taste is good. Ask me a question about Saul Bellow. He’s got Sartre’s eyes, hasn’t he? Not just the bulge, the squint too. Ask me a question about Thomas Mann. About Heinrich Mann. Klaus. Manfred. You can pick up a lot, just shopping under the bright lights. But hardly any novel for which I lay down good money has a straight narrative any more. Watch out for anything translated out of Italian. The prize-winning novels of Luigi Database have plots like a Klein bottle and are called If and When a Winter’s Night Some Gravel Truck. I bought one once at the bigger of the two bookstores in Changi airport and gave it up while I was still waiting in the lounge at Gate E 37. Didn’t even get as far as the plane with it.

Novels by English dons who teach English literature have five plots plaited together, each plot about an English don lecturing about novels with five. plots plaited together to an audience of clandestine philosophy students in Prague. The don gets laid by the Minister of Culture’s bomb-breasted, nuke-nippled mistress and goes home to Norwich so full of guilt that the only way to expiate his crime is to write a novel with five plots plaited together. Technique. God save me from technique. Even the Australians are getting into the act now. Australian novels used to be fat and simple. Reading one was like watching Breaker Morant or Gallipoli, a good straight story about bronzed Aussies fighting the treacherous Brits. The Thorn Birds got me all the way from London to Sydney and back twice. Now the Australian novels are fat and complicated. I am too.

I’m an Australian, by the way. Already the narrative progresses. An Australian. Not a literary man. No, I’m not Napoleon. Am I a scientist? Yes, I’m a radio astronomer who performs on television. I’m the first television radio astronomer. That’s my line. The first radio television astronomer has yet to appear. My name is Joel Court, and my wife Lauren threw me out because she caught me red-handed having a love affair with a star. Not so much with a star. I didn’t make it with the actual star. But it was the failure to get there with the star that made me desperate for the girl. I know I’m not being clear. I’ll unscramble all this later. Back to my wife Lauren. She let me make love to her that one last time because she wanted to use me as I had used her. Her words. There was a lot to them, but I couldn’t see that at the time.

The star was, we all assumed, centrally situated in a mass of gas, rather in the way of that pulsar you’ve heard about, drumming away in the middle of the Crab Nebula like Buddy Rich. I won’t say Ringo Starr because puns are a low form of wit and anyway Ringo holds the sticks at the end, pop-style, and goes thwack thwack, whereas Buddy Rich holds them in the middle like the good jazz man he is, so he can fire those precise rim-shots which are much more like what the little snare-drum-sized neutron star in the Crab must sound like when it flexes: tick tick tick. Or would sound like if it had an atmosphere, and you were there to hear it. Nobody, however, ever thought that the star in the middle of my nebula was clicking away exactly like that. Instead, it stuttered with a patterned randomness somewhere between chaos and predictability. Not much of a nebula even had it been close, the hostess gas-mass was a hell of a long way away.

From our viewpoint it went nova before recorded history. When the Crab appeared, the flare of the supernova was visible by day and much commented on by Chinese scribes, who called it the Guest. They drew it in the margins of their scrolls, perhaps playing for safety in case they were being tested by the government. When mine showed up, it was either recorded on the wall of a cave or never spotted at all. It always has been a bit of a blur. The one thing I and Veronica Lilywhite were ever in total harmony about was in calling it the Smudge. Astronomical stock control gives it a number which I won’t try to impress you with. It sounds like a car number plate. Nebulae prominent enough to get on Messier’s original list all sound like motorways. The Crab is more correctly known as M1, but does that make you any the wiser? So how much wiser would you be if I gave you the registration number of a car purchased in Belgium and said that’s it, that’s the star I did myself in over? And how much would a mass of technical talk make me sound more real?

A lot depends on what you think of well-researched novels. I don’t mean Flaubert. Nobody begrudges him his long cab rides through Paris to map out the precise topography of L’Education sentimentale. But he was creating the past of his country, not a persona for himself. On my way to South America once, where I was going in order to be filmed talking in the middle of a radio dish built into a volcano, I started John Updike’s Couples. It was clear that all of Updike’s literary friends had been changed into carpenters and dentists so that they could penetrate each other’s wives without fear of libel. Was this strategem, which no doubt has its justification and might even be inevitable, made any the less glaring by the thoroughness with which the technical vocabularies of dentistry and carpentry had been mugged up? Did all the talk about window sashes and quartz-filled bicuspids go an inch towards persuading you that the author had ever picked up a bradawl or a hypodermic syringe? Only the pretender strives to make himself believable. For the genuine article, it is enough not to be unbelievable. Unless I put the Smudge somewhere in your back yard or say that I took a ride through its inner suburbs while sitting on a comet’s tail, you’d be better off just accepting that it’s been out there for a long time, sending us its annoying little signal, the discreet roar caused by its central power-house, that enigmatic noise-maker we called the Glimmer.

We called it the Glimmer because we couldn’t get an inkling. The Smudge is no show-stopper optically and of course the Glimmer couldn’t be detected at all until the first big radio telescopes started collecting everything. Even then it stayed unremarked, because it didn’t pulse. It took a long while for someone to spot that what wasn’t a pulse wasn’t just noise either. The anomaly would have stayed entombed in years of print-out if a squad of nerds in America hadn’t uncovered it during one of those apologies for a research project that the Bible-Belt universities put their losers on twenty at a time, like prayer meetings. What they dug up was no thrill. If the Smudge was unexciting, the Glimmer was an outright bore. A pattern would start, then stop. Unfortunately it would hardly ever stop at the same place. Not never stop at the same place — that would have been a pattern in itself. just hardly ever. While everyone normal at Cambridge got frantic about the sexy neutron star inside the Crab, only the mad people sat still for being nattered at incoherently by the infinitely repetitive Glimmer with its meaningless variations on an undetectable theme. As a high-flyer, with my very own television programme, I was doing my junior colleague Veronica Lilywhite a big favour by devoting to this unglamorous phenomenon a considerable, if necessarily limited, proportion of my valuable time.

Veronica had come down out of the North to spend the rest of her life at Girton, first as an undergraduate, then as a graduate, then as a don, and, one day in the future, as a dead body. She was the kind of frump who made you wonder why they ever bothered to locate the place so far out of town, because no man except her dim bulb of a husband would have travelled more than a hundred yards to get near her. Dressed for evening, she wore printed silk caftans and wooden clogs. Her normal daywear was three pullovers, except in summer, when it was two pullovers. Although she made a lot of statements and was perfectly capable of making another one by means of her apparel, her sartorial display was not necessarily a political gesture. She was like that before feminism. It was a special sort of Cambridge female stereotype going back to when women had to pass an unattractiveness test before they were allowed in. And if they stayed on as dons, or were invited in at that level, it wasn’t enough to be off-putting. They had to be crazy too. There were a few exceptions to disguise the plot. My first summer in Cambridge I saw Bobby-Anne Righter at a Girton garden party and slavered appropriately at her length of leg. At one stage there was a medieval Romance philologist at New Hall who looked like Sigourney Weaver, and an assistant lecturer in Spanish at Newnham whom Goya might not have thrown out of bed. But these were Potemkin villages. More typical was the senior lecturer in jurisprudence who let her children run wild from an early age on the principle that to be hit by a car or abducted by one of the area’s plentiful supply of sexual perverts could only increase their awareness. The police would bring her brood home to her in the evenings after they had been rescued from playing in Trumpington Street or found tearfully wandering on Jesus Green with their short trousers around their ankles. She would count them twice, not because she couldn’t count but because she didn’t know how many she had.

Veronica had almost as many. I think there were four of them. She looked after them well enough, in a pebble-dash nightmare of a house on Alpha Road. Her husband was no doubt of some assistance, in the rare moments he could snatch away from his political activities or the hard job of publishing his poems on a hand press. He had a small private income, a large, badly organised beard, and sandals on over his socks. The political activities consisted mainly of circulating petitions which demanded the removal of American atomic bombs from East Anglia and the immediate conversion of multi-storey car-parks into low-cost housing. His presence in the living room gave Veronica plenty of incentive to be sitting in the kitchen with her exercise books, filling them with calculations. Once when we were still friends she showed me the exercise books. They were of the school-smelling, pathetically neat sort still made in the Chinese People’s Republic by some forgotten capitalist factory whose workers must all be a hundred years old and have bound feet. She had scores of these exercise books full of figures, and scores more ready for more figures to come. She was trying to sort the whole thing out by sucking a Biro. Occasionally she cycled into town to run a main-frame computer programme, but only when she needed some big-time number-crunching that she couldn’t do on her home micro, which for some strange reason, probably ineptitude, she had never managed to get connected to the main-frame. Then it was back to the exercise books, the crossings out and the startings again. One book I picked up and flipped through had pages of games of noughts and crosses in it. She laughed like someone caught playing hopscotch in a cathedral. I didn’t precisely think she was nuts, but I did feel justified in spreading the word that she was producing the mathematical equivalent of her husband’s poetry, which lacked flair in a way that only the truly diligent can achieve.

Jim Lilywhite was a pain in the neck, but perhaps I spent too much time saying so. Composed as if nobody else had written poetry before, the junk he cranked out was innocent, but not beautifully innocent. There was a terrible arrogance to it: the conceit of claimed humility. I started thinking the same about Veronica’s home-baked maths. Worse, I started saying it. But she had offended me too often by her lack of love for the subject. The cold truth, in my opinion, was that she didn’t have the soul for astronomy. She knew next to nothing about its history and I doubt she knows much more now. You could tell by that house of hers, with not even a map of the heavens to eke out the plywood veneer furniture and the wallpaper that looked like paper you stick on the wall merely so that you can see paper instead of wall. Apart from the handprints of innumerable children there was nothing to look at except one of those crucifixes that Brancusi might have made if he had attended an evening course in woodwork and had had no talent. A Catholic astronomer. Had anyone else since Galileo been that?

My wife would be the first to admit, or even insist, that our own house, a blond brick and tinted glass high-tech extravaganza in a close off Madingley Road, was a bit over the top in that respect. A bronze bust of Newton, a stone head of Einstein, a silver-plated worm-drive from the first Hale Observatory optical telescope, a working model of the CSIRO 64-metre radio telescope at Parkes — I had everything in there except the mirror of the Mount Palomar 200-inch reflector, which would have made a perfect floor for the dining area if lit from underneath. I gave excellent dinner parties, right to the end. The whole Cambridge scientific brains trust would be packed tight around the polished mahogany with the highlights of silver cutlery bouncing off their spectacles and bald heads. Lauren’s black sequinned Kansai Yamamoto evening top would light up with a million pin-points. Ex oriente lux. Clive Sinclair was practically the dumbest man present.

On Saturday nights our driveway was packed with Porsches and BMWs. German cars with air-dams and digital glove-boxes were crawling all over Cambridge by that time. The booming microchip economy of Silicon Fen had flooded the flat land with money. Cambridge science had always been exciting and now there was glamour as well. The business sections of the posh Sunday newspapers called it the Cambridge Phenomenon. I suppose the glamour was meretricious, but I liked it. Maybe I liked it because it was meretricious. Alan Turing had won the war in secret. One man at King’s had ensured that the Germans would in future invade the world with nothing more lethal than sports cars. But he had remained unsung. Later on, you could make a big discovery and be famous too. Crick and Watson turned Cambridge into Lourdes: aspiring scientists made pilgrimages to the Eagle, where the two breakthrough brothers had sat quaffing pints while ogling nurses; and to Old Addenbrooke’s, where they had picked the nurses up; and to the language schools in Station Road where they had picked up foreign girls sent by doting parents to study English. Giving the alien lovelies a crash course in pillow talk, our clever pair were inspired to crack the double helix. It was a buddy movie before its time. Butch and Sundance.

Later still, you could not only be famous, you could get rich. The windowless green-field factories came to the Science Park so that the whizz-kid entrepreneurs could get access to current research. It wasn’t long before the researchers joined the industrialists on the board. For a heady moment it was as if the brain drain had gone into reverse. There had been a local outbreak of order in Britain’s otherwise inexorable entropic slide towards heat death. The Science Park was the Klondike with central heating. Gold fever. I suppose it was the wrong way for an astronomer to think. It wasn’t as if we had anything to sell. A physical chemist playing with the glassy metals would have NASA waiting outside in the corridor with cheque book poised. Being an astronomer was a vow of poverty. Even if you could prove that an astronomical H2O maser was a sure sign of gas condensing into a protostar, there was no way of cashing in on the discovery unless Steven Spielberg wanted to take an option on the material. But I had a well-off, well-groomed American wife, and amid the general excitement of go-go Cambridge it was hard to turn down the television companies when they gave me the chance to build my income up a bit nearer to matching hers. To be fair to myself, I would probably have done that first little series of shows even if I had had to pay the producers instead of them paying me. Loving the subject, I loathed the way it had been treated on the box. Some of the daytime Open University programmes were all right: I had done one or two of them myself and soon mastered studio technique, which mainly consists of not trying to put out the viewer’s eye with a stabbing forefinger. The science shows for mass evening viewing, however, were almost invariably dire, and for some reason the ones about astronomy were the worst.

If you were lucky, an American popular science writer stared significantly at Raquel Welch’s chest while helping her to grapple with the concept of a binary star system. If you were unlucky, a British popular science writer with a speech impediment explained general relativity to Dudley Moore, who made small noises of understanding from inside the helmet of a silver space suit. Late at night there was a weekly programme that took a less patronising approach, but it was still based on the hallowed British principle that the presenter of a specialist series should reassure viewers by looking as if he might breathe up a horse’s nose at any moment, or pull a white mouse out of his ear. There was room for someone who sounded reasonably normal. Two weeks into my first series the TV critics were calling me the David Attenborough of the Asteroids. I can’t say I hated them for it. Three weeks into the series, I was having an affair with the programme’s research assistant, a blonde called Gael who wore pink overalls, career-girl glasses and a worshipping smile. At twenty-five she was fifteen years younger than I was, so with a wife and two children on my conscience you can imagine how I felt. I felt terrific.

Late every night before each studio day I would call in at Gael’s basement flat off Bayswater Road to be briefed and debriefed simultaneously. She had read physics at St Andrew’s and there was a photograph of her in her red gown on the little table beside the lacquered bamboo bedhead. I got to know that photograph very well — rather better than I got to know Gael, as it turned out. But for a season things couldn’t have been neater. Neither the show nor its most salient fringe benefit detracted from my work in Cambridge. If anything, my energy and concentration were increased. A measure of fame and a dollop of sexual luck can have that effect separately, let alone together. In the group effort to resolve the enigma of the Glimmer and thereby find a rationale for the variable radio sources associated with supernova remnants, the strategic thinking was largely mine. Cracking the problem was going to be my Contribution to the Subject. My name would be in lights — a big, if usually unspoken, consideration for all pure scientists. Getting there first really matters, if having your discovery named after you is the only lasting reward. Jimmy Connors might have been the one who said ‘Second is nowhere’ but he wasn’t the only one who thought it. We were a team, but it was my team. Right, gang? Not just in Cambridge but in three other British universities keen young high-flyers were linked to me by telephone and terminal, feeding me ideas but following my lead. If it took us all to do it, it would still be my approach. Understood? OK, let’s go to work.

Veronica dropped out, and I can’t even pretend that I resented it. She, on the other hand, quite clearly resented me. Not that she knew anything about Gael. For Veronica, however, my appearing on the tube was quite extracurricular enough. I had always taken for granted, been rather pleased by, her disapproval of my house, wife, car and clothes. Anti-flash was a moral principle with her, not just an oversight. Nobody could overlook Jim Lilywhite’s socks and sandals. They were a political manifesto, and tolerating them was tantamount to an endorsement. She found me light-minded anyway, so when my mass media activities started necessitating brief, planned absences from inspiring and supervising our group, she took the opportunity to sideline herself. I made a point of not missing her. My carefully chosen, highly motivated swot squad was linked into an international mass assault on those pulsars evincing a compact complexity of features. Among these features was a pulse so intermittent that it amounted to Restless Behaviour, a trade term for fluctuations which in the normal course of events might have been safely ignored, but in the case of these little beasts seemed characteristic. We classified them as would-be pulsars because that appeared to be what they would have been if something or other was not screwing up the signal. Apart from the Crab and Vela it had been dishearteningly tricky to get a remnant that matched up with a pulsar, but you could always turn disappointment on its head by saying that whatever interfered with a straight radio signal was the same thing that stopped you getting a snapshot — i.e., all the dust, junk and fuzz of a big star that had catastrophically shrunk to a little one. When these things suddenly contract into a trillionth of their original volume they give off an awful lot of fluff. I used to dream of the Glimmer as a football-sized neutron star cackling away brightly like an early-morning disc jockey while the Smudge hung around like a wet blanket. It had to be a remnant. For were not the number of detectable pulsars and the number of detectable remnants roughly the same? Get out of that. Any lateral displacement could be put down to the initial bang.

Nothing could better account for an irregular signal than an irregular medium. Of course, we couldn’t have it both ways: if the pulsar was displaced laterally from its remnant then it couldn’t be the remnant’s debris that was getting in the road. But in the case of the Smudge we were looking into a part of the galaxy where there was every reason not to be able to see what was going on, and for almost every other would-be pulsar the same applied. We could only listen, and wait for the X-rays, which meant waiting for more satellites to go up. We needed more evidence about what was in the way. Veronica was the only one pig-headed enough to behave as if there was nothing in the way and the evidence was already in. She just went on dumbly doodling with the Glimmer’s ropy signal as if the thing was saying what it meant instead of choking in a dust-bath. Old habits die hard, we all thought. Veronica had got her start as a junior dogsbody working on the complete radio history of Nova Lepantes, a monumental group effort which has been going on since 1970, yielding a log-book the size of a library. Now she had the chance to be just as boringly single-minded again, all off her own bat. She had her scores of little Chinese notebooks full of Arabic numerals and wanted to be alone with them. The Glimmer was her baby. The other would-bes and all her colleagues could go hang, me first. I felt the same about her. I promise you, it got to where I was saying her name as a swear word. On Christmas. morning I was helping my son Benjamin assemble a plastic model of the Millennium Falcon and when I snapped a radar dish off its pivot I said, ‘Veronica!’ Benjamin dropped the glue.

But Veronica was right. The Glimmer wasn’t sending a simple signal made complicated by interference. It was sending a complicated signal with no significant interference at all. The damned thing was a multiple. She worked out the full set of orbital elements. Not just a sub-set. The whole thing. That was what she had been doing in her childish notebooks without leaving her ratty kitchen, while I had been roaming the world from Effelsburg to Kitt Peak, from Serpukhov to Arecibo. In chukka boots and straining blue jeans, with my hands tucked into the side-pockets of my chamois bomber-jacket, I had been photographed with some of the world’s most desirable precision instruments. The dishiest of the dish aerials suffered differential expansion from the heat of my body as they stood proudly behind me, their waveguides tilted snootily skyward. The fan beam of many a large array bathed me with secret love. I travelled the five kilometres of the Cambridge interferometer for a series of helicopter shots with a gyro-stabilised camera that showed me magically appearing and disappearing in front of each aerial, like a star. Not a radio star. A television star. You should have heard me. You should have seen me. You probably did, on the cover of the Radio Times. I was explaining, with a humble yet confident smile, that it would probably take an interferometer the width of the solar system to crack the problem of the complex sources. The wind was ruffling my layer-cut hair while I was explaining. And while I was explaining, Veronica was publishing.

Her results weren’t particularly well expressed. There have been neater papers. Something of her wallpaper and her husband’s socks, a certain atmosphere of food scraps trodden into the unsealed tiled floor of a small kitchen, got into her expository prose. The central effect, however. was, I have to admit, impressive. She had made decisive use of the line radiation data. By adding the radio recombination line data to the continuous emission data she got the beginning of her picture. From there on it was perseverance, no doubt bolstered by prayer.

She was as absurdly, thickly confident as Magellan, who had a map reference of the passage to the Pacific that he didn’t realise was only the River Plate. When he arrived at the River Plate with his crew already dying like flies he should have packed it in. But he wasn’t clever enough. Veronica wasn’t clever enough either. She didn’t know when to quit. The radio signal was too irregular to have a structure. It wasn’t a shell, it was a filled distribution. Unless — and this was her act of faith — it was a set of shells. The binary star W. Ursae Majoris has two stellar cores in one envelope, like a pair of fried eggs whose whites have joined up. Veronica’s multiple, if her sums were right, must have more cores than a carbuncle, all zooming around each other in a basketwork of orbits. But what were their orbits? The separate cores, she crazily assumed, didn’t add up to a pulsar. They were all pulsars. There was no interference apart from the standard tat offered by the interstellar medium. The little demons were interfering with each other! Fluctuations, she decided in her confident madness, were to be accounted for by coincidence — accumulated eclipses that strengthened or weakened the signal depending on how many of the sources were in line. But how many sources were there?

There wasn’t an interferometer in the world — and by that time the whole world was an interferometer, with all the major telescopes linked up — that could separate a point-source pack of little pulsars and count them. Veronica did it by counting on her fingers. In the Mond Console Room behind Pembroke she ran main-frame computer programmes for brute-force calculation. If the main-frame crashed she would go back to her micro. Once the big sums had been done, she went back to her exercise books, filling them with drawings that looked like Leonardo’s unsuccessful designs for a marketable executive toy. Eventually she abandoned even the exercise books. All the figuring that mattered she did by mumbling to herself. If not this, then that. The driver into the side of whose bus she rode her bike one afternoon at Bowes and Bowes corner complained that she had seemed to have something on her mind. In New Addenbrooke’s hospital she looked dreamily preoccupied even as her husband fed her his special lentil soup from a wooden bowl. Recuperating at home, she stared entranced at the toes protruding from the cast on her right leg. She wiggled them in sequence.

Finally she got the answer, and nobody seriously argued with it. Like the double helix, the elegance of her solution silenced criticism. Objecting to the structure of DNA would have been like quarrelling with the zip fastener. Veronica’s multiple had the same authority. It was a set of five pulsars all swooping around each other like the logo on a packet of Ariel Automatic washing powder. It might have been designed to go on the cover of Time magazine, where it soon appeared, with an impressive portrait of Veronica staring dreamily through it, looking like whatever happened later to the lead singer of one of those early 1970s English folk rock groups who ate muesli in soft focus. Veronica’s multiple was red meat for the journalists. At first they called it the Pop-group Pulsar. For a while it was referred to as the Rolling Stones. But in the scientific world nobody tried to improve on the soaring euphony of its official title, the one that will go into all the books until our time ends: Lilywhite’s Quincunx.

Veronica would have been famous, if she had collaborated with the publicity machine that assembled itself around her like earth-moving equipment around a bomb crater. But she did a Garbo, and thus became more than famous. She was a legend, a myth, a charismatic figure, a numen, an avatar. I had my own views, which I did not forbear to vocalise, about why she played hard to get. You couldn’t imagine, I laughingly insinuated, that even Veronica would be cloth-eyed enough to let herself in for one of those colour supplement ‘A Room of One’s Own’ features that showed the latest silicone-bodied, sabre-toothed female junk novelist coolly at ease among the severed, chromium-plated pudenda of her previous husbands. (That was a lot to insinuate, but I rehearsed.) I conjured visions of Veronica proudly showing off her linoleum-topped child-proof dining table and plywood-framed Van Gogh sunflower print while her husband toiled in the dim background at a new petition for turning Cambridge railway station into a day-care centre. Everybody laughed. But nobody stopped admiring Veronica. Neither did I, underneath. Between underneath and on the surface, however, were several grinding, crunching strata of disappointment, resentment and indignation. When you feel like that, it is better to have it out than to let it fester. Unfortunately it was some time before I met her again face to face, and by then she must have heard that I had been propagating snidery. I would rather have not seen her at all, but for the upcoming second series of the television programme it had been decided to do something about my group project on the remnants, and we couldn’t do that without featuring Veronica at some length: without treating her as the star, in fact. My producer welshed on his promise to go and see her.

She received me in her parlour, where the sunlight, already filtered by the anti-Cruise Missile poster Sellotaped to the window, was eaten up by the gutta-percha-textured wall-to-wall carpet substitute richly strewn with small odd socks and bits of connector set variously combined. Jokingly I asked Veronica if the wooden toys of Willy Fangel had helped in her calculations. She smiled at that, but not so as to bare the gums, and those partly exposed teeth-tips, it turned out, marked the limit of what she would concede. She would contribute no opinions on the general topic, just a short exposition of her own discovery. I offered the view that the time for keeping herself to herself had passed. Perhaps rashly, I allowed my tone of voice to include the suggestion that going off on her own had been a touch antisocial in the first place.

‘Do you honestly think,’ she asked in the voice of one precluding an answer, ‘that if I’d asked for any help you wouldn’t have grabbed the discovery?’

‘Oh come on, Veronica.’

‘Oh come off it, Joel.’ She swallowed some air at that point, as if in disapprobation of her uncharacteristic play on words. Veronica was no verbal gymnast; a quality, or lack of it, which gave her sincerity an extra punch. ‘Look what happened to Rosie Franklin.’ She meant the X-ray crystallographer whose name is so seldom mentioned along with those of Crick and Watson.

‘What about Jocelyn Bell?’ I countered, meaning the Cambridge astronomer who had found the pulsar in the Crab after painstakingly screening out all possible man-made sources for the signal — a triumph of tenacity over imagination, in my view, although tactfully I forbore to say so.

‘Yes,’ said Veronica, with a nod whose weariness I would have liked to think was theatrical, ‘and she did it by plugging away on her own.’ Point proven, said Veronica’s flapping clog, whose dark-blue leather upper was held to the wooden sole by a line of rivets. I tried to imagine her underwear. Raw calico with staples? Jute?

So Veronica’s personality didn’t bulk as large in my second little series as her personal discovery did. I, on the other hand, was on screen all the time, looking less at home now that the show had moved decisively out of doors. In studio I had found no difficulty in speaking to camera. Out on location, walking and talking simultaneously, I looked a bit less of a natural talent than I had fondly imagined myself to be. The show still sounded pretty good if you compared it to the usual pop science drivel about Old Man Gravity and the putatively catastrophic effect of anti-matter on Peter Ustinov. But all that eye-witness footage of me and the telescopes made me look a bit prat-like when it was edited together. I found myself abruptly turning towards cameras that had unaccountably snuck up on me from the side. When I made wavering, long-lens appearances through the heat haze of the Californian deserts, those blue jeans of mine looked thoroughly stuffed, not just in the area of the crotch but all the way down each leg. About twenty extra pounds of anxiety had wrapped themselves around my body. It was the first time in my life that the French phrase Easy In His Skin had not applied to me. Still dubbing the last shows when the first ones had already gone to air, I began to feel hot, hurried, old and angry.

My anger was not directed wholly at Veronica. I tried to take credit for directing some of it at myself. I was kicking myself for having been too clever. If I had been dumber, I would have tested out the possibility of the Glimmer’s signal being the unadorned article. It was the same mistake I had made when doing my Wechsler-Bellevue IQ test at Sydney University twenty years before. My score should have gone off the clock. It stayed on the clock because I got stuck trying to complete a series that went something like AF CH FK etc. I did the clever thing, looking for a relationship between the letters in each pair. But I should have done the stupid thing. The only relationships that mattered, it turned out, were those between all the first letters, and, separately, those between all the second letters. The solution was so elementary I hadn’t considered it. It was an insult to my intelligence. My rage was pure, intense, disabling and long-lived. I would bore people with it. It wasn’t that I bored them without noticing. I saw them shuffling their feet and exchanging tolerant smiles, but I bored on regardless.

This time it was worse. Eaten up with disgust at my own naïvety for having been too sophisticated, I got on Gael’s nerves. Perhaps I should have taken a tip from my daughter Donna’s behaviour when playing Trivial Pursuit. French is one of her best subjects at school, so she guessed straight away that a ‘tastevin’ must be a wine-taster. But she didn’t see how that fitted into the Sport and Leisure category. Suspecting a trick, she changed her answer, hazarding that it might be a fencer. When it turned out to be a wine-taster after all, she sulked for the rest of the game, the rest of the day and half the following week. She got that from me. She drove us up the wall.

I should have realised I might be doing the same thing to Gael. But I was so careful to dress up my agony with jokes. Some of them were quite good. If Veronica got the Nobel Prize, I suggested, she would be able to afford a pair of shoes for her husband, who could give up poetry and hand out circulars full time. I tried that one out on Gael and she quite liked it, without ever having clapped eyes on him, so I knew it would go down a storm in Cambridge. But there were a lot of other jokes that she apparently liked less, especially when I woke her up to tell them. Also, the second series being something of a critical disaster, Gael had to bear the brunt of my frustration in that regard as well. just when I was getting used to journalistic jibes about my tight blue jeans, there was all this flak about how stiff I looked on the move. That smart bastard in the Observer said that when I walked he thought the single-frame advance on his VCR had got stuck. Deep down I had to admit there was something to it, so on the surface I went berserk. I blamed the production team, of whom Gael was the nearest representative. Desiring her more than ever as everything else went wrong, I naturally assumed that her commitment to our affair was increasing too, and could thus put up with some abrasion. This turned out not to be so, but I was never with her long enough to spot that she had begun to cut back on the total amount of tenderness from which I had reserved a fixed percentage for abuse. To my mind, our sweet set-up continued functioning normally. Indeed it felt all the sweeter, narcotically sweet, as things went sour at home, where I had become hard to live with. I showed Gael how hard I had become to live with at home by becoming harder to live with with her. But she didn’t have to take it. She claimed later that she had dropped many hints. I found this difficult to believe. I found it equally difficult to believe when she asked me not to call any more. A bad patch, in my then view, had been dramatised by her into a crisis. Understandable preoccupation on my part had been magnified into a deal-breaker. Worse than that: a heart-breaker. My need for everything about her became overwhelming as she moved out of my reach. The attractive force of the receding object increased rather than diminished. I had promised her nothing. Now I promised her everything.

Each week for the past six months I had come down to Liverpool Street by train, taken the Central Line to Queensway, walked to Gael’s little flat and spent a perfect evening there while pretending occasionally on the telephone to be in my sad little hotel at Shepherd’s Bush near Television Centre. Not long after midnight I would go to the hotel to field any emergency calls that might have come down the line after me. There was always the chance that Donna had set fire to her nightgown when burning the Trivial Pursuit set, or that Benjamin had got his head stuck in his Darth Vader helmet. Anxiety is never absent from these affairs. But while holed up with Gael, in the days when I was riding high, I had been as happy as I had ever been in my life, and now that I had suffered a setback she at least made being miserable tolerable. It was a weekly injection, and like an addict I reacted badly to the threat of its being withdrawn. Think what I would lose. Her tank of goldfish with the light behind it. Her poster of Sam Shepherd in The Right Stuff. (Nothing strained about those blue jeans.) Her flat wicker basket of mauve and pink pebbles on the glass table. Her bottles and boxes and sprays, which would be named in detail if this were any American novella influenced by Franny and Zooey. Her knickers, chosen with me in mind, which had been specifically put on for my visit. Her.

It was revealed that she had other plans: had always had them. There was a job open in California. Not in pure research: it was too late for that, and on her own account she would never have been up to it. But there was an outfit in Pasadena which made in-house training videos for the information technology industries. Software about software. An American head-hunter had decided she was just the ticket: knowledgeable, pretty, classy, English. His invitation accorded with her secret desire to get in front of a camera. Actually this desire was no secret. She had often told me about it. I hadn’t taken it seriously because it didn’t accord with either my wish or the realities of British television, for which the women on screen were required, with few exceptions, to be as underqualified as possible, so as not to threaten the men who put them there. Nor did I take Gael’s ambitions with full seriousness even now that the chance had arisen of their being fulfilled. I interpreted the whole revelation as a stratagem to win my commitment. The prospect of losing the last prop to my confidence was too much. Gael gasping and blushing flashing-eyed beneath me was the symbol of my power. Very well, then. The next time I arrived on her doorstep I had a suitcase in each hand. Packed in some haste, they would have revealed strange discrepancies on analysis. There were fourteen pairs of boxer shorts but no socks, for example. These statistics could not be verified at the time because I was never given the chance to unpack. The suitcases got into the building but not through the door of her flat. They stood outside, on the tough green carpet of the common parts.

We ourselves stood inside, face to face but a yard apart, while the two goldfish, Crick and Watson, maintained a similar lack of connection in a different medium. I was weighed down by my Burberry coat, which had the detachable lining zipped into it and so would have made me hot even in winter. It was summer. I was wearing the coat because I had not wanted to leave it behind. Gael didn’t ask me to take it off. On the high point of the curve of my left ear where it joined my head, sweat sprang out of the skin and bifurcated into rivulets, one going down my neck and the other down the line of my jawbone. Or perhaps it was my right ear. How could I remember so precisely? Why should you trust me? She was asking herself the same question. No she wasn’t. She had already found the answer.

‘You never really gave me a thought,’ she said. Crick put his nose up to the surface.

‘I did. I thought of nothing else.’ Watson headed for the bottom, tanks flooded, engines off. Stand by to receive depth charges.

‘Not about me. Not really. I was just another prize you were picking up. Another University Medal. Once you’d got me you did the absolute minimum.’

‘But that was the deal.’


‘Wet what?’

‘Shirt collar. Your collar’s getting wet. Look, you have to go.’

She was right. Any observer would have seen that I had to go. The chairs and the sofa were empty but there was nowhere to sit down. So I muscled the bags out into the street and after twenty minutes of counting occupied taxis I hailed an empty one that got me back to Liverpool Street just in time for the Cambridge train to show me its blunt rear end as it pulled out. The black man in the blue-dyed Afrika Korps cap smiled his admiration for the speed at which I had run in the Burberry coat with a big strapped burgundy leather suitcase in each hand. I took the coat off, folded it, mopped my face with the exposed lining, and lugged the bags upstairs to that overhanging tea-house effect, which in its heyday might have had Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard sitting in it gazing at each other with helpless decency, but which in recent times — all the time I’d been in England — had been given a new image every couple of years in a series of doomed attempts to lure the more up-market passengers who couldn’t face breaking bread with the mobile vulgus down in the cafeteria. It had been a bistro and a brasserie, a Europa bar and a coffee-house. On this occasion it had a health food emphasis. You could get slices of pumpkin cake on heavy grey-blue stoneware plates, and coffee poured from a Silex into a mug like a tankard. The striven-for atmosphere of weight-watching energy was, as it was bound to be, utterly undone by the insolent somnolence of the girls behind the counter, but it wasn’t a bad place to sit and wait until your train was cancelled. Certainly it was better than either of the bars, where along with the hordes of crew-cut squaddies travelling in mufti I would have become incapable of catching the next train when it was finally, after arriving half an hour late, ready to go out again an hour late, so as to arrive at my destination two hours late exactly.

On the way up to Cambridge the locomotive broke down only once. The second long delay was because of a broken signal. So by the time I had shuffled forward to the head of the taxi rank outside the station I had had plenty of time to think. I thought: why didn’t we have two cars? We could easily have afforded them. Then I could have left one car for Lauren, taken the other to London, and I would have been mobile, instead of standing there alone with two suitcases and not a cab in sight. I got home just before dinner. Nobody except Lauren realised that I had even been away. While they all watched Minder I phoned Gael from my study and kept getting her answering machine. Leave a message after the beep. I left a long apology, in about thirty instalments. It was after eleven before the children went to bed, and then Lauren turned away from me for half an hour before she let me have it.

She let me have it, and then, before I had even finished the usual pathetic sagging, shrinking and crinkling, she revealed that Gael had rung her up. Lauren put it in American. ‘You know that researcher of yours that you told me was so hideous you can’t look at her? The one with two heads and the bad breath? Guess what. She gave me a call.’ Gael had spilled the whole thing while I was building up my right forearm lifting that stone mug of coffee at Liverpool Street. The full Take Back Your Husband aria. So it was time I had a taste, said Lauren, of how it felt to be cynically used. Too smart for my own good as usual, I said it felt fine. She accused me of having exploited her. Not Gael, her. I had the answer to that. If I was an exploiter, I asked charmingly, why didn’t I have a car of my own?

Next morning, after Lauren had driven the children off to school, I was in a cab to the station with the same two suitcases, but this time I left the Burberry behind, because I couldn’t quite believe that I was being thrown out for good. The official story for home consumption was that Daddy would be going away to think for a while. Daddy believed it, so why shouldn’t they? I bought a first-class ticket and tried to get into the same compartment with the Duchess of Kent, but a big man in a blue suit stood up and blocked the doorway. He was very nice about it and I understood completely.

Money would be short, so I went to stay with Chance Jenolan. I could have afforded a cheap hotel, but my credit cards drew only on my personal account, not the joint account. Though the personal account was replenished from the joint account when necessary, the replenishment could easily be stopped by Lauren, and I wasn’t quite sure how she could be stopped from stopping it. She had always looked after the money side. I suppose I was a bit helpless from that viewpoint. Anyway, when I rang Chance during the thankless night between Being Used for the first-and-last time and being thrown out on my ear, he said come on down. ‘You’ll have a clear month before Angélique gets here,’ he had said sleepily. ‘The Mole will be in and out, but otherwise it’ll be just you and me. Bluey and Curley’s Reunion.’

Angélique Visage was Chance’s live-out wife. She came over from Paris to hide conspicuously in between films. The Mole was a new one on me. It might have been a pet rodent, but judging from the capital letter I had heard when Chance pronounced the name, and knowing his world-class track record, the odds were that it was some sort of woman.

Less of a woman, it turned out, than a girl. Chance had his principal London residence in the Barbican. Though I had been to his flat twice before, I still got lost following the yellow line from Moorgate to the Arts Centre. When the yellow line forked, I followed it each way, and both ways turned out to be wrong. Finally I found the right stairwell, completed a long upward journey by lift, and arrived seeking entrance to his front door just as he was letting her out of it.

‘This is Antonia Blunt,’ said Chance blearily. ‘She’s a student.’

Chance being clad in a badly creased silk dressing-gown, bare feet and a two-day beard, I could see why he was careful to specify his friend’s occupation. Otherwise I would have thought she had been sent by an escort agency in order to fulfil his fantasies of innocent young womanhood. She had Disney eyes, Swedish teeth, glistening straight-combed, square-cut chestnut hair hanging half-way down her back, dark-blue satin court shoes, sheer stockings, a well-tailored dark-blue suit, a row of pearls over her roll-neck white silk blouse, and an executive briefcase. She could have been a trainee stockbroker, if you did not discount the possibility that she was about to have a new ballet created for her by Kenneth MacMillan. Shoulders back and toes turned out, the straightness of her stance lent an extra measure of easy cachet to Chance’s casually non-possessive slouch. He signalled to her with a drowsy raising and lowering of his right hand, whose fingers were seen to twiddle minimally in what had to be, but was not one iota more than, a wave of farewell. She smiled at me with piercing sweetness and stepped away along the carpeted corridor as if she were going out on stage at Covent Garden to trade securities, or arriving on the floor of the Stock Exchange to dance a pas de deux with Baryshnikov among the hexagonal kiosks.

‘That,’ said Chance as he ushered me languidly inside, ‘is Antonia Blunt. Usually known as the Mole to avoid embarrassment. Had any breakfast?’

At that stage I could only guess at the degree of influence the Mole had had on Chance’s life, but judging from the living area, which I had last seen a year before after one of his first nights, he had undergone a neatening process which could plausibly be put down to her example, if not to her active interference. There were still books in several languages lined up double on the shelves and stacked all round the edges of the floor, including the lower wooden frame of the sliding glass wall looking out above the ornamental lake. But the dining table was actually free to be dined off. Even in this, the grandest type of Barbican flat, the kitchen could be inspected from the dining area, since nothing separated them except a sort of counter. The counter was occupied up to shoulder height by stacked books and videos, but the kitchen gleamed. On and under a set of deep low shelves in front of the counter, banks of silver video and stereo equipment glittered dust-free. The staircase led upwards to three more floors — Chance’s flat was really a town-house in the sky — and it seemed a fair inference that they too were in an unprecedently pristine condition for which only a continuously busy feminine hand could be responsible. ‘The Mole’s made a lot of difference around here,’ said Chance, confirming my impression. ‘Cleaner can’t find anything to do any more. Mole does it all.’

‘You’re a lucky man.’

‘She’s as bent as a cleft stick but it doesn’t hurt to have her on my team. Good for the image. More coffee in the machine.’

‘You mean she isn’t normal?’ I asked plaintively as I poured. ‘Isn’t bent instead of normal,’ said Chance as if he were losing interest. ‘Bent as well. Clean, though. Puts gloves on before she goes on the tube.’

‘She does television?’

‘Underground. Won’t get on it unless she’s wearing gloves.’

‘I can quite see how the Northern Line might be beneath her.’

‘You can have the spare bedroom on the first floor next to my study. A lot of her stuff there but she won’t get in your road. When she stays overnight she usually kips up on the second floor near me. I’ll just answer that.’

The telephone had squealed. Chance was still speaking into it half an hour later after I had taken my bags upstairs, unpacked my stuff and been extensively to the nearest bathroom. My digestion was out of kilter so I had to spend some time sitting there looking at a monumental accumulation of bottles and aerosols arranged on shelves like a window display in Burlington Arcade. It was an extravaganza that made Gael’s layout of accoutrements look like a first-aid kit. Could they all belong to one woman, even if that woman was Angélique? Some of them must be the Mole’s. Chance’s life, like the Mole’s allegedly bipolar sexuality, never had something instead when it could have it as well. He had always been like that, ever since I had first known him.

‘ ... if you want a no-strings yes from Bob,’ Chance was saying, ‘you’ll have to wait for winter. Have to strap on a pair of skis and ambush him on his own mountain.’

Listening in as I surveyed Chance’s collection of compact discs — he seemed to have them all — I guessed fairly quickly that he couldn’t be talking about Bob Hope, who would have to be ambushed on his own golf course. So which Bob would have to be ambushed on his own mountain? Bob Dylan? Bob Crosby? Bob’s your uncle? The breathtaking thing about Chance’s name-dropping was that he never dropped names. He wasn’t doing it deliberately. He just talked that way.

‘ ... can work it out in New York on Thursday. Got lunch with Tony and Teresa. She’s ours for three weeks between the next two seasons. But the only way we can make a window is to forget about Santa Fe ... ’

Tony Martin? Teresa Brewer? Then I caught on: Tony Harrison and Teresa Stratas. This time he wasn’t directing a movie, he was producing an opera. I caught on but I didn’t catch up.

‘ ... if Joan and John won’t write it ... Glenn will do it if Tom says yes ... I think they’ll ask Mike ... ’

Joan of Arc and John Donne? No, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. But which Glenn? Glenn Miller? John Glenn? And which Tom? Tom Thumb? Mike Mazurki? Already I was being lulled by the thin, wild blue atmosphere of Chance’s high-flying hustle. His manoeuvring was so stratospheric that it made the earthbound pressure on anyone who listened feel like a welcome burden. Chugging along near ground level suddenly seemed the thing to do. With Chance being so entirely successful, somebody had to be only relatively successful. Why not me? Flagging cabs and seeing them go by with people in the back, running for trains and missing them, I had been feeling like a wimp. The British novel I can stand least is the one about the wimp. Whether phoney Waugh or post-punk, the wimp hero is characterised by his incapacity to make anything happen. Usually, in the course of the text, the author turns up under his own name to observe the wimp’s disintegration and give him sage advice. God save me from any novel in which the author gets a mention. Not even Firbank could get away with that. God save me from the wimp. I’m not like that. I’m not a patient. I’m an agent. I’m an Australian, one of the Wizards of Oz. We can sing the mad scene from Lucia, win Wimbledon ten times in a row, revolutionise Fleet Street, restructure female consciousness, nick the America’s Cup, marry Rachel Ward. Chance himself, the embodiment of our hybrid vigour, was living proof that we, the Robust Australopithecines, can bend iron bars with our teeth and fly faster than speeding bullshit. Poet, novelist, performer, and lately director for both stage and screen, he lucratively practised all these art forms and one more besides — the art of pursuing the whole lot simultaneously. The year I arrived at Sydney University in the early 1960s, Chance was just leaving. His fame enveloped the place like the solar wind. Five years difference in age seemed like an aeon at that time. I had been in awe of him. Since then the gap had closed, but not to anything less than open wonder. The time I had thought of him as a genius was long gone. But I admired him all the more as an operator. Admired and needed. My confidence was shaken and I was hoping to catch some of his.

‘Shostakovich cello concertos are on the machine,’ murmured Chance after putting down the phone. ‘Mole’s discovery. Listen to the second movement of the first one while I get dressed. Know how to work it?’

After he disappeared upstairs I figured out the mode switches on the Mission Control console and had time to listen to the whole disc while reading most of the way through Chance’s soon-to-be-forthcoming collected poems, half a dozen copies of which were stacked on one of the big black leather sofas. The book was called The Rubaiyat of Omar Sharif. I already knew much of its contents fairly well, or at any rate as well as I ever want to know modem poetry, which on the whole makes me feel comparatively tolerant of the modem novel. But Chance’s poems had never sinned through lack of accessibility. If anything, they jumped into your lap, typifying the gossipy familiarity of the current trend which unashamedly submits itself to showbiz glitz. But Chance made a kind of discipline out of the indulgence. He had, after all, been at it a long time. In fact he had presaged the whole thing. When we were students he had filled the Sydney University newspaper honi soit with villanelles in praise of Tuesday Weld and elegies on the death of John Farrow. (Look him up and you’ll find that Mia Farrow’s father was an Australian. Yes, my country is linked by marriage to Frank Sinatra.) They were in the book. There had been no need to throw anything away. It had all worn well. Costume jewellery never dates. In the photograph on the front of the jacket, Chance looked younger than he had done in the photograph on the back of his most recent novel.

‘That lovely?’ he pretended to inquire as he returned from upstairs. ‘Mole found it. Plays the cello herself. Skis. Dances. Cooks.’

I took another look at his jaw-line. It was still fleshy, but definitely less so. The photograph wasn’t lying.

‘What does she cook?’ I asked him. ‘Lean cuisine cardboard?’

‘Nar, I’m eating like a horse,’ said Chance, rubbing his newly reaped jaw as if my glance had made it itch. ‘Just a sensible horse.’

‘It’s magic, like a face-lift.’

‘You’ll never catch me having one of those. Don’t want to end up with my cock hanging out of my forehead. So tell me what happened.’

After handing me a glass of flat champagne he lounged back on one of the sofas like a breakfast television guest whose turn had come to listen. This impression was reinforced by his suede, corduroy and cashmere casual attire. Unseasonable but suave. For most of his life, Chance had had no spare time to be anything but a slob. When I came up to Cambridge as a graduate student, he had already gone down — after a starred first in the second part of the English tripos and the unprecedented triple presidency of the Marlowe Society, the ADC and the Footlights — to increase his glory in London. Though he had loathed everything about flower power, the unwashed blue jeans and matted long hair of the period had appealed to him logistically. He had always resented time spent on having his hair cut. In recent years this problem had been made less urgent by encroaching baldness. Now that I came to look at the top of his head, he seemed to be keeping it at least as neat as Elton John or Phil Collins, but presumably he could be doing that himself, with nail scissors. The improvement in his clothes, however, could only be ascribed to an act of will. Watching him on television over the years, I had seen him gradually abandon his earlier persona as the man determined to preserve his scruffy integrity. If all his stellar appearances could have been edited together and transmitted at high speed, you would have seen an open shirt collar suddenly cinched by an acrylic tie, then the tie becoming silk, then the shirt itself acquiring a set of those Turnbull and Asser cuff-links that look like scout woggles for leprechauns or — revolting thought, instantly suppressed — the interlocking orbits of Lilywhite’s Quincunx. Sideboards would have grown shorter, eyebrows neater. And the jowls heavier, but now even that sole remaining retrogressive tendency had gone into reverse and started moving forward, one last arrow of time belatedly joining the rest of the shower that was heading towards the past-like future in which Chance Jenolan, instead of falling apart, fell together.

I had only one hour to tell my story and hear his opinion of it. After that, he warned me, he would be going with Bruce and Peter and Fred to meet Charles for lunch. After a moment’s semi-automatic puzzlement I guessed that Bruce and Peter and Fred were his fellow-Australian film directors. But who was Charles? Charles Chaplin? Charles Lindbergh? Charles the Bold? Oh. Of course. Conscious that I was eating into the timetable of a man who filled his diary the way Leonardo da Vinci filled a notebook, I gave the compressed version of my woeful saga. Only occasionally grunting and glazing over, he stared through the slowly sipped-away contents of his champagne glass as their glow waned in the waxing morning light, there being increasingly less of them to catch fire. It was an heroic effort on his part. Though not without generosity when reminded, very rarely did he concern himself with the affairs of others unless he was looking for material. I completed my exposition wondering if I should ever have begun it.

‘Don’t worry,’ he said as if reading my mind. ‘You won’t recognise anything I steal. Sweet story, incidentally. Standard plot but nice nuances. Terrific part there for Brooke Adams or Karen Allen. But it’d never make a movie. Too much like real life.’

‘I know that, for Christ’s sake. It is real life. Mine.’ With relief I noted that his socks were odd. Excellent quality, but definitely from two different pairs.

‘Mine too. That was how I screwed up with Paula.’ He meant his first wife, the one before Angélique. ‘I went apeshit about Gunilla. Remember Gunilla?’

‘Yes.’ I remembered her vividly. A fashion model too lovely to look at with the naked eye.

‘I can’t. Girl whose chief attribute was not being Paula. That and youth. Absolute airhead. If I’d fucked around more beforehand she wouldn’t have come as such a revelation.’

‘Yes.’ It was hard to see how he might have found it physically possible to fuck around more beforehand than he had, but I was lying low.

‘That’s why it’s always the good blokes who get divorced. Bad blokes aren’t thrown for a loop by their first teenybopper blow job. I don’t really live here much.’

He was looking at his acreage of windows as if explaining to me why he’d never got around to having curtains fitted. The greenhouse effect was intense. I could see him weighing the choice, testing it between his thumb and forefinger, of removing his cashmere sweater or making the advertised move towards lunch. He got up, shrugged off the sweater and replaced it with a tweed jacket that had been lying over the back of a chair, on which there was a stack of fat envelopes and spiral-bound scripts.

‘All unsolicited, these. Allegedly terrific ideas for novels or screenplays the author wants me to help rewrite. Or write. This guy here ... ’ Chance pulled a springback folder from half-way down the pile, ‘ ... wants me to publish his novel under my name so it’ll get reviewed. He says, “I did not get reviews, needless to say, for my previous novel because of course I was not a member of the literary establishment as you are. Not that I want to be a member of the London gang. We can’t all be Australians.” You can tell he’s got integrity.’

‘What’s it about?’ I asked, trying not to be sorry that the dialogue had moved off the topic of my preoccupations and on to his.

‘Usual stuff about the loss of identity. Interweaving plots. Have to go.’ He threw the offending manuscript back on top of the pile, from which it slickly slid off and fell to the floor, where it lay waiting for someone, presumably the Mole to pick it up and put it back with its doomed fellows. ‘Spare keys in top kitchen drawer. Treat the place as home until Angélique gets here. She mightn’t even stay. Likes the Dorchester.’

‘When will you be back?’ I tried not to blubber like a man overboard viewing a retreating lifeline.

‘Tonight. Stuff in fridge. Make yourself some lunch. Mole’ll get dinner. Relax. Use the phone. Forget the guilt. Robert Stack and Carole Lombard.’

To Be or Not to Be.’

‘A while since I’ve played that game with anyone as quick on the draw as you. Good to have you around. Don’t feel superfluous. I’m gone.’

The game was called Stars. I couldn’t believe that he hadn’t played it to a high standard with his theatrical friends, but perhaps he had become a bit of a flatterer, or was just stroking my ego to look after me. Long ago, when he had first picked me up, I had helped him formulate the game’s rules. ‘A game,’ he had said, ‘consists of the rules by which it is played. Wittgenstein.’ Stars is easy to play badly but quite tricky to play well. You should spot the film after hearing the names of a minimum number of its cast members. The more names you need to hear, the less you score for a right answer, but if you jump the gun and name the wrong film your opponent gets full marks. Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. Did you guess The Sweet Smell of Success? You guessed too soon. You should have waited until I said Gina Lollobrigida. It’s Trapeze. There are all kinds of tricks you can work if you’ve seen everything and have a good memory for the early screen appearances of future stars. A good memory, which Chance and I had in common, brought us together for long orgies of conversation dotted through the years. The long conversations mainly consisted of bartered names, jousting facts and figures. Probably it was a way of not meeting: Doppelgängerschrei allayed by small talk. I think he thought of me as the boffin who operated in the one field closed to him, and I know I thought of him as the lucky man who participated in the artsy creativity of which I was doomed to be a spectator.

Being thus debarred had been no hardship when I was still sure that a greater form of knowledge would one day include my name in its annals. But now I was less sure and I envied my alter ego his sureness, not to say his ego. I envied him his living conditions too. Not that the décor could be called luxurious. Everything looked incomplete. Miles of walls were white with nothing on them. The place was even bigger than I remembered. There were whole rooms unutilised, with little in them except rows of plastic shopping bags full of stuff that had obviously remained un-unpacked since the day he moved in. The main bedroom had a bed big enough to play polo on but you wouldn’t have picked it as a possible setting for Angélique Visage, even if she had been starring in a Jean-Luc Godard movie about a terrorist cadre based at La Defense. Not even the room which the Mole was allowed to call her own looked as if it had been given much loving thought. Clearly she lived somewhere else, and came here only to read and rest. There were a few books which had to be hers, because only a student would read them. Restructuring Joyce: the Artist in the Portrait. Pencilled comments filled the margin. ‘But is not Stephen’s apprehension of the void the precise equivalent of Beckett’s concept of zero? See Endgame.’ I went through her clothes in the cupboard. There were only two pairs of shoes. There was a drawer full of knickers and bras which I tried to examine as if they were merely underclothes instead of provocations to desire. I felt defeated enough to succeed, although her daintiness was already a pleasure to be anticipated as well as remembered. Where did Chance get off, affecting to be casual about a girl like her? Who did he think he was, Hugh Hefner? In a flat handkerchief box there was a sheaf of love letters, which I put off reading after checking the signatures and sampling the first paragraph of the top one. They were from Chance, of course.

Dear Spy, Missing you like blood. Bangkok is aptly named. Last night I woke up rigidly thinking of you, tried to guess where the bathroom was before turning on the light, and ...

But it wasn’t my moment to enjoy someone else’s happiness, and anyway I swore this wouldn’t be an epistolary book. (Novels with a lot of letters in them are a real cop-out, don’t you agree?) Up yet another flight of stairs, the top floor of the flat was all one big square area, two of the walls glass and one of those rigged to slide, so that you could walk on to a concrete balcony and look out over the City of London. You could see what the modem architects were doing to it that the Luftwaffe hadn’t. Actually I like the NatWest tower. Somewhere in his make-up, every scientist has a soft spot for Fritz Lang. The new Lloyds, however, couldn’t help making the odd remaining Lutyens cupola look cherishable by comparison. There was one sticking up out of the periphery of Finsbury Circus — the one with an Expo-style latticework globe of the world on top — that reminded me, by its dome and drum, of the optical telescopes along Madingley Road. Suddenly I hated Veronica. It was a disturbing experience to look at a building and loathe a woman. I turned back into the room and remembered it as I had seen it last. There had not been much in it except about thirty people, the thoughtful overspill from the floor below, where there were about fifty more. It had been the late evening aftermath of one of the preview nights of Chance’s biggest National Theatre success, his production of his own adaptation of The Ring and the Book, one of those gigantic subsidised semi-musical saturnalias from which the hard-worked originators receive no reward except a gigantic percentage of the gate when it runs commercially. Chance privately called it the Clowning Version, but if he was ashamed of trivialising himself he didn’t let it show. And indeed the four-hour spectacular had been — deadly praise — a Delightful Evening in the Theatre.

The party was better. For one thing, the cast was not present. Everyone else was. They were all there. You couldn’t move for Michaels and Toms, Peters and Davids, Kates and Helens. Standing there a year later, it still angered me how much fun Lauren had contrived not to have. She had got herself stuck with an old drinking pal of Chance’s who had evidently been kept on out of pity, to circulate in a cold ellipse at due distance from the hot light — a flaky writer of some kind called Clive James. Apparently he lived somewhere nearby in a basement flat. In the corner of the room where he and Lauren had stood boring each other, there now gleamed one of those exercise tables on which you could lie down while lifting weights with every part of your body. You could do a snatch-and-press with your arse, a clean-and-jerk with your cock, lift bar-bells with your balls. There were two exercise bikes and a treadmill with chromium handrails. There was a rowing machine. Chance had everything it took to keep his waistline from reflating. There were machines for other uses too. There was a two-screen video editing unit and a Panasonic minicam on a tripod. There was a Nashua copying machine the size of a refrigerator. There were machines adding up to a complete audio pre-production studio. Some of them were just names to me. What did a Roland SBX-80 Sync Box do? There was an Atari 24-track Sequenced Emulator which had a VDU sitting on top of it. The VDU was saying something. It was saying Track Midi Fast-Access Flags NO-NAME Unselected. There was a Yamaha smart piano which was obviously just aching to give you a Buddy Holly hit in the style of Tristan and Isolde. With all this stuff, Chance could choose the face and voice he wanted. But the main emphasis was on his choice of body. This was where he had acquired his new air of languor. He had always had self-control, but it had looked like energy on a hair trigger. Now he made Gary Cooper look like Jerry Lewis. He was so relaxed he was asleep. This was how he did it. Through sweat and strain. What was he after? Lost youth? He had never wasted a day. I retraced my steps downwards.

The study which had no room for the Nashua copier had acquired an Amstrad 512 since I saw it last. Compared with the stuff upstairs it was only a toy. I remembered Chance’s tight-lipped tirades against word processors and doubted that he had mastered this gizmo much beyond the extent of using it as typewriter. I checked one of the floppy discs: empty. Beside the VDU on the big desk was a golfball electric typewriter that looked lived in. On the floor were a couple of old ordinary typewriters he had cast aside, probably because their ribbons had gone pale. A golfball typewriter was getting perilously close to being up to date, but it was still satisfactorily user-unfriendly. Chance liked, he had said, to feel some resistance from the medium. Suddenly I loathed that golfball. I stood there fixated by it, floating silently above it, landing on it. Roger, Tranquillity: we copy you on the ground. Words sweet in my memory had turned sour. My obsession had betrayed me. It could never happen to Chance. He made his own rules, his own worlds.

Look at his desk. Neat, free of dust, but crowded to capacity. The chaos he made order from. It was big enough for ping-pong but there was nowhere for the ball to bounce. Sitting in his swivel chair, careful not to swivel in it lest I feel like a usurper, I surveyed the heaps of manila folders, proofs, carbon copies, tear-sheets. Along the far edge of the desk there was a two-level platform full of reference books. There was a floor-to-ceiling case of more reference books behind me and still more in the other set of shelves that climbed half-way up the opposite wall. Gradus ad Parnassum. Der Sprach Brockhaus. Dictionnaire Étymologique. Dictionary of American Underworld Lingo. Enciclopedia Concisa Illustrada. Biographical Encyclopaedia of Science and Technology. Almost everything I knew was either encoded into the last-mentioned book or else would appear in a further edition, to be raided by Chance, who didn’t know it and didn’t have to, as long as he had access to the words. All he needed was a technical-sounding term and he was off. Long ago he had sought me out because I shared his facile knack. Our first uneasy friendship must have been made possible for him because to some extent I shared his green fingers for a phrase. But he had gone on with it, made it his profession. Superficial, but it would never fail him. Would never fail him because it was superficial. The world wanted his glittering surfaces, so as to be entertained, so as to flatter itself that it had been understood. The world also wanted my depths. Needed them more than his shallows. But it had turned out that I could not produce the depths, and now, to my own reluctant eyes, the sparkle of the shallows had intensified to a dazzle.

Above the bookcase on the opposite wall was a cork pinboard full of personal photographs and minor trophies. But Chance had never been much of a one for parading his credentials in front of visitors. There were no posters on display for his books, his programmes, his films or his productions. There were plenty of framed old Hollywood glamour photographs, but even more of these were leaning against the walls on which they would clearly wait for ever to be hung. Without exception they were from before his time. The Garbo portrait was especially appropriate. He had always been good at, and had grown increasingly better at, doing a Garbo. The hollow phrase ‘rarely gives interviews’ had a solid ring where he was concerned. Some said it was because he had too much to hide, others that his unforthcomingness was based on a precise calculation of how much the traffic could stand. But if, as seemed likely, the keepsakes carelessly stuck to the pinboard had been put there solely for his delectation, their resonance for anyone else who penetrated this crammed sanctum could only be enhanced. His press passes for foreign assignments were up there like place-cards. There he was on the Dick Cavett show with Mary McCarthy, all three of them laughing. An amateur photograph, obviously taken at Glyndebourne and presumably by him, showed Frederica von Stade giggling with shocked delight. Elsewhere he had his arm around Peggy Ashcroft. Torn out of a magazine, a colour picture of Fellini with his face made up half-white was dedicated with a felt tip al mio discepolo. Another colour photograph showed Chance and a strikingly handsome silver-haired man both in swimming attire, holding a surfboard each and posing histrionically with an arm slung around each other’s shoulders. Angélique stood beside the silver-haired man, staring at the camera with her hand shielding her eyes, as if it were the sun. In another picture she sat at an al fresco table with Jean-Paul Belmondo, his features altered, no doubt by her, to make him look like Toulouse-Lautrec. There were posed photographs of Chance’s children, and of the Mole looking not much older. There were buttons and badges saying KRAZY KAT, CAESAR’S PALACE DATSUN, and I’M PULLING FOR BAZZA! It was a gleaming jumble. The whole place was a visual shambles. How could any dwelling be so cleanly austere and yet so full of objects that didn’t fit? A junk yard had more coherence.

On the level of language, however, there was unity. Even the images contributed to the tone. Everything had, or was, a name. Nothing was here that Chance couldn’t rework into a poem, a novel, a script, a screenplay, a lyric, a libretto. Nothing he couldn’t mangle, mince, pulp, process, rehash, reconstitute, regurgitate. His books were grouped functionally, not out of love. I loved literature and had the library to prove it. In Cambridge, my shelves of novels were a talking point for my dinner guests. You know those little Novel Library editions with wallpapered boards and the NL monogram? I had collected the whole lot, including that perfect set, almost impossible to find, of Jane Austen, six volumes with the same black spine. It was one of my three best sets of Jane Austen and not even Lauren was allowed to touch it. I kept my literature immaculate out of adoration. That was the main reason why I wouldn’t grant admission to any recent work of fiction whose author believed in his duty to deconstruct character, atomise style, etc. Bel Ami, whose author had put a lot of effort and every resource of style into constructing its main character, had a right not to be contaminated. Cousin Pons, Cousin Bette, Anna Karenina, Effi Briest, Tom Jones, Wilhelm Meister and others too numerous to mention had their names up there because they were people. They might be fictional people, but they deserved a better death than to be annihilated by the invisible gas of sciolist theory. I kept them dusted as if there were plutonium drifting on the wind.

My science books and papers were inherently harder to keep spotless, because sometimes I had to work at home, but by and large I brought the same reverence to my vocation as to my avocation. Where it stood majestically on its very own oak shell, my complete set of the Cambridge edition of Newton’s papers — bound for me in full leather by Lauren as a Christmas present — had a tiny light fitted behind it so that it was edged with radiance when we sat down to a candlelit casserole. I allowed joking suggestions that there was a certain resemblance to a Forest Lawn shrine or a fluorescent niche in the Temple at Salt Lake City. But I was mad about my subject and proud that its masterworks gleamed there in the dark, in rich half-calf, stamped with silver and gold titles, with old brass instruments for bookends. Chance just dumped his subject on the floor until he needed a piece of it. If the stack toppled, the Mole or the cleaner put it back together. Chance’s organising principle operated only to expedient ends. A cairn of books and pamphlets on the floor beside the swivel chair suggested that he was doing something about Brecht. Dreigroschenroman. Brechts Dreigroschenbuch. Dialektik auf dem Theater. A glossy picture book called Leben Brechts published in East Berlin. Brecht über Lyrik. Lotte Lenya’s memoirs. Chance must have been writing an article about his bête noire, or contemplating an adaptation, or casting the filmed biography. I visualised Klaus Maria Brandauer in the role, with Meryl Streep as Helene Weigel. I was beginning to think like Chance. No, I wasn’t. Never could, thank Christ. Christ I was tired. Forgetting about lunch, I lay down for a while on the narrow bed that was supposed to be mine.

Continue to PART TWO