Books: The Remake — Part 3 |
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The Remake

PART THREE : Somewhere Becoming Rain

I have just written the word ‘infinite’. I have not interpolated this adjective out of rhetorical habit; I say that it is not illogical to think that the world is infinite. Those who judge it to be limited postulate that in remote places the corridors and stairways and hexagons can conceivably come to an end — which is absurd. Those who imagine it to be without limit forget that the possible number of books does have such a limit. I venture to suggest this solution to the ancient problem: The Library is unlimited and cyclical. If an eternal traveller were to cross it in any direction, after centuries he would see that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order: the Order). My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.

Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Library of Babel’

I did one of those delayed drop wake-ups where you fall about 1,000 feet before the chute untangles and pops open. The bottom sheet had come adrift from the edge of the mattress and was plaited around me like a rope. The sweat on the pillow was abetted by the dribble on my chin and this time I really did have to pee. Mopping my head with a towel while trying to aim a stream into the bowl without noisily hitting the water was probably not a good idea but a few squares of toilet paper took care of the stray droplets. In the kitchen I opened a new plastic bottle of freshly squeezed orange juice and expertly caught most of the emergent gout in a glass. A wet J-cloth eventually dealt with the rest. The diodes on the VCR machines said it was three in the morning. To make myself tired I sat down and watched CNN. They had a very good reporter in the famine countries of Africa. I had come to depend on how neatly she brushed her hair and ironed her shirts. While all around her the little children were slowly inflated by playful death until they burst like balloons, she and her production team had seen the importance of keeping to a standard. It was irrational, but that was the point. To do the right thing was the only thing left when the theories gave out. And boy, hadn’t they just? There is no Third World: there are only the First World and the Second. The Second World is where nonsense written in the First World is believed.

You will appreciate that I was becoming a media expert by now. When Chance and the Mole were out, and frequently while they were in, I spent a lot of time writing in my diary while watching television, and more often than not I sat up doing both things half the night, using the morning as my time of rest. When the Mole was away in the country I did her the valuable service of taping the episodes of Coronation Street which she would miss because her father and brother always wanted to watch something else. I don’t think, or didn’t think at the time, that I was entirely without use. Chance subscribed to a lot of magazines and I read them all: New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, Vogue, Tatler, Le Monde, Die Zeit, Scientific American, Variety. I kept up and was able to guide him on to a target. I knew it all. I let it all come to me. Having explored the Barbican to its outer bastions I rarely set foot beyond. After one daring expedition to the Clerkenwell area I decided to draw in my horns. Taking the Mole’s shopping list to Safeway was already a big enough thrill for the average day. By now I was a dab hand in the supermarket. I was even able to make a small financial contribution, at the cost of being asked personal questions by the NatWest’s automatic cash dispenser. MOVING HOUSE? it flashed repeatedly. NEED A MORTGAGE? Safeway still had no cash-only counter but I had learned to check out a check-out queue for incipient cheque-book holders and attach myself to the queue with the most cash, even if it also had the most people. I knew how to hit the place just before or just after the last big late afternoon rush. Just before was best, although you didn’t get any of the Royal Shakespeare Company ballet dancers. To see them, you had to be there at midday, when sometimes the cripples in their powered wheelchairs (RECYCLED FERRARI said the jolly decals) were there too. Asymmetrically bearded hydrocephalic men who talked in sobs would squeeze their hand-throttles and corner like silent go-karts so as not to lose sight of some tall, straight-limbed, loose and easy girl in a pink track suit with blue and white Puma training shoes, her pretty head the size of a grapefruit. I flattered myself that I understood the purring urgency of those ravaged boulevardiers, but only for as long as it took me to remember that I was lucky to be walking. These moral considerations, however, only arose if I was there in the morning, and usually I was recovering during that period from the exertions of a long night watching the rubble of Beirut being fought over by a different kind of bearded man. Upright, strong enough to carry a cluster of rocket grenades on his back in the same position that a standard-bearer in a Kurosawa movie carries his banner, he was the embodiment of Santayana’s definition of the fanatic — the man who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim. Hard viewing. So I shopped at the end of everybody else’s working day. One relatively fine evening, a bulging plastic carrier-bag in each hand, I strode powerfully back through the labyrinth to find that the Mole had come home. Dressed for the street but with her shoes kicked off, she was leafing through Harper’s & Queen. She groaned longingly at a full-page Chanel advertisement.

‘Your sort of thing?’ I inquired off-handedly.

‘Inès de la Fressange,’ moaned the stricken Mole. ‘She’s probably as straight as a road. What a loss.’ The Mole leafed further through the magazine and groaned again. I sat down beside her and looked. There, spread over two pages, serpentine in black leather, pavonazzo feathers and silver trinkets, was Presley Schaufenster.

‘She’s lovely,’ said the Mole.

‘How can you tell?’ I asked, thinking here was my cue.

‘I’ve seen her without all that stuff. Chance knows her. He’s probably screwing her, the swine.’

‘Could you wear that?’ I asked hopelessly, thinking there went my opportunity.

‘Wear what? That?’ she asked, pointing at the magazine.

‘I meant could you bear that? Him screwing her?’

‘As long as he told me all about it.’

‘What the Hell is going on between you two?’

‘Not a lot, to be brutally frank,’ said the Mole, casting the magazine to the floor, where it hit a copy of Vogue and slid away. ‘It winds him up that I can’t forget Penelope.’

‘You were going to show me her picture.’

‘I was, wasn’t I? Wait here.’ In her stockinged feet, legs joined at the knees in the coltish way that not even a barre every morning can quite overcome, she ran upstairs. When she came back down she was walking, her hands clasped to her bosom, pretending to be protective of something. ‘Promise you won’t laugh at me.’

‘Of course not. Show me.’ Well primed by the advance publicity, I was expecting something spiritually rewarding, but was not prepared for such other-worldliness as this. Penelope looked like a Pre-Raphaelite commercial for herbal shampoo. The colour photograph had the misty grain of a Lartigue autochrome. She had Virginia Woolf’s eyes and mouth, with a less equine nasal structure in between. She was sensitivity incarnate, a Madonna as seen at Lourdes by Bernadette, who walked home with a song in her heart, cured of asthma. ‘Good heavens. She’s divine.’

‘Isn’t she? And since she went to Cambridge she’s hardly talked to me. Snooty bitch. She takes ages to answer a letter. And then it’s only a few lines long. You should see what her letters used to he like. I’ve got them all in my college room done up with ribbon. I bet she’s lost mine.’

‘Were you really lovers? I mean, you know, really?’

‘Of course.’

‘What did you do?’


I looked from Penelope’s face in the photograph to the Mole’s face outlined against the pale sky stretched like a cyclorama behind the towers. I tried to imagine those two innocent faces registering the pleasure of doing Everything. I could imagine it, but only at the cost of realising that my own psyche was half-formed, all open down one side. How little I knew about the world. The window whistled. A Pan-Am Boeing 747 was up there, full of people finding out about the world by going places. But there was another kind of travel.

‘I’m going to cry,’ she said, and did. It was my chance to hold her. ‘I hate crying,’ she said during a pause. ‘My lips don’t fit together. Mouth keeps sliding open.’ It did, so I kissed it, trying to convince myself that I did not relish its memories. An undemanding, helpful kiss, full of comprehension and avuncular detachment. I thought I managed it quite well and Chance evidently thought so too, because he clapped spontaneously. I had assumed he was out, but he must have come home while I was shopping. He had been lying low upstairs. The Mole must have known he was home — perhaps he had come home with her — because she did not flinch or show any sign that her troubles had been added to. She conveyed the impression that she had her own business to get on with, that of drying her tears. Once again, more powerfully than ever, I felt sidelined by both of them. Not manipulated, precisely: but marginalised, definitely. What I did didn’t matter. That was the general idea. The main thrust, as it were. The burden.

‘Glad to see you two getting on,’ said Chance, ‘because Angélique has announced her arrival in two weeks precisely. We can stage a dinner for her here and the dinner can escalate into a launch party for my doomed book. Two birds, one stone. You two can organise the catering and I’ll do the inviting. Bit short notice, but they’ll come.’

Chance’s publisher, who had his own ideas about how and where to promote The Rubaiyat of Omar Sharif, was displeased at having to cancel the Groucho but pleased that he would save money on the deal. As the Mole’s assistant I was given a new purpose in life. Ample in quantity but modest in range, the supermarket’s resources could not cope with this challenge. Twice I had to go as far as Soho. On the second last day I went all the way to Jermyn Street, but Eric helped there, and even insisted on carrying the cheese. I was afraid he would rupture the Roquefort, gaff the Gruyère, hook a hole in the Halévy. It was a dizzy stretch of time, made more vertiginous by my suspicion, or certainty, that the terminus ad quem of my sojourn was now approaching. With Angélique on hand there would be no room for me. In theory this was a relief: the Mole was a moralist’s nightmare, a Lulu played by Shirley Temple, a Circe in a surplice who had drawn Chance to some kind of strange destruction and would do the same for me. In practice this irregular, barely legal ménage was the only home I had to go to.

Also, and perhaps this was the surest proof of how adrift I was, I sensed that my love for the girl — because it was nothing less than that by now — could lead me to salvation rather than perdition. In my disappointment with my smashed career I felt that a new affirmation might be reached, if only I could share in the secret of her spontaneity, her sublime freedom from guilt. The liberal, defending complicity in a victimless crime, agonises or proselytises. The Mole simply committed it, as she might consume a natural fruit yoghurt. Twenty years before, in the age of polymorphous perversity, I had played it straight. Now I wanted to know. To find myself through yielding. To be irradiated by the revelation of the Mole’s perfectly proportioned, rainwater-pure corporeal presence. Hindering my commitment to this idea, however, was not just the Americanised sociologese in which it insisted on expressing itself, but an unavoidable suspicion that I would have felt the same way if exposed to, say, the inner left thigh of Linda Lovelace. Maybe I was just horny. If so, there was not a lot I could do about it in current circumstances, even on a self-employed basis. Chance’s vast abode did no more than the Lefortovo prison to cater for self-abuse. I didn’t exactly have to lie there with my hands above the blanket, but there were no erotic videos that I could find and he kept copies of Playboy only for the film star interviews. Searching the shelves in room after room, rummaging through packed Marks and Spencer’s carrier-bags standing squarely beside each other in corners, I found nothing more sensational than Fanny Hill, The Delta of Venus, Candy, Blue Movie and Cécile et Jean, ou l’amour interdit. Whatever some of its more obtuse critics might say, Portnoy’s Complaint could not be said to count among these. Backed up by Chance, I pressed it on the Mole as an example of a genuinely funny book. (Chance and I were both still recovering from a full-length trial reading by the Mole of her forthcoming dissertation Krapp hams it up as Hamm craps out: the function of comedy in Samuel Beckett. Chance, having helped with the title of this effort, had lived to repent.) The Mole did her best to enter into the rich and writhing New York Jewish spirit of guilt, frustration and the cloying family, but it became increasingly clear that she had no conception of any of these things and didn’t even understand the vocabulary. In the Mole’s lexicon, willy and wally were strong words. So Portnoy’s scatalogical exuberance left her stumped. She just didn’t get it. ‘What’s a dork?’ she asked, forehead screwed up, trying hard, failing the test, fazed. Chance explained. It became our running gag of that period. Shostakovich provided the tunes and dork jokes the light relief. The Mole marched everywhere making cracks about being careful not to slam the dork, leaving the dork on the latch, etc. When she hummed ‘The Assault on Beautiful Gorky’ she always let you know that Gorky’s name had been suitably modified. Chance invented a book of poetry by Ted Hughes called The Dork in the Rain. I invented the Ibsen play about the notorious Scandinavian seducer, John Gabriel Dorkman. Spurred on by this last breakthrough, we all thought at once of the Sony Dorkman, although the discovery was credited to the Mole because she laughed loudest. Dork-talk went beyond being a fad, became a rage, a mind-set, an obsession. Even today, some fused circuit in the back of my brain, deep in the verbal centre, keeps plugging tediously away at the same trick. Memed, My Dork. A Dork on the Wild Side. Waiter, I think this wine’s dorked. Why don’t you two sit down and have a nice, long dork?

You can imagine how insufferable we must have been. Even in retrospect I can’t judge whether I had already begun to heal or was embarked on the last, hilarious plunge into psychic disarray. In view of what was about to happen I think probably the latter, but I had made a few confident moves that suggested a renewed capacity to stay in touch with a wider social world, if only in the sense of establishing the terms of my exclusion from it. I resumed regular contact with Cambridge, for example, so that there was much less delay in receiving bad news. One item of ill tidings was that Chance had been there. Apparently he had tried to persuade Lauren that I was not all bad and would be worth taking back into the fold, given time. He hadn’t told me about that visit. I wasn’t so foolish as to call his going behind my back a betrayal. Perhaps I just wasn’t brave enough. Drawing myself up to my full height, however, I made it clear that I was less than delighted. ‘Look,’ said Chance, ‘I was passing through, so I called in. Mainly to say you were all right. All right?’ When I asked him whether Lauren had looked worried about me, he couldn’t honestly say she had. So he said it dishonestly. ‘Yeah. Course she was.’

That he was lying I knew from my own researches. Benjamin, bribed with some insider tips about computer programming, paid me back by getting his mother to the phone. Yes, Chance had been very nice. So tactfully concerned with my welfare that she had invited him to dinner, where, as I might expect, he had dazzled the assembled company. Veronica Lilywhite had been particularly charmed. ‘What?’ I screamed. ‘Veronica Lilywhite a guest in my house?’ To which the answer was that it was not my house. No, not my table, not my books, not my glass, not my brass, not my wall-sized picture of that lovely archipelago of lights, the Cone nebula region in Monoceros, photographed with the 1.34-metre clear-aperture Schmidt camera at the Karl Schwarzschild Observatory, Tautenberg. Not my stars and not my stardom. Veronica was the stellar presence now. I wondered if she was dressing any better. ‘Is she dressing any better?’ I asked.

‘She looked charming.’

‘Ankle-strap clogs now, is it?’

‘Manolo Blahnik gold-tipped court shoes. A bit OTT maybe, but I’m working on her.’

‘You’re grooming her, are you?’


‘What do you do together? Everything?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean are you in bed with her literally as well as metaphorically?’

‘You’re sick, Joel.’

If I was, I didn’t feel it. I felt as if my small boat, deprived by storms of its rudder, oars and jury-rigged sail, was at least, at last, connected to the current. I had begun to fancy myself as a vagabond. The self-appraisal was reinforced by news from the faculty that I could indeed regard myself as being on sabbatical, provided I realised that the sabbatical was unpaid and might well modulate into an indefinite period when my assistant lectureship would not necessarily be succeeded by a lectureship. Not, the voice went on, that this would be a professional catastrophe. My media fame, with all of its attendant rewards, doubtless outweighed all such considerations. Meanwhile a medical examination was recommended. I promised to consider this. It’s my standard way of rejecting advice. ‘I’ll certainly consider it’ is shorthand for ‘I’ll certainly consider it a gross impertinence.’ Another good one is ‘There’s something in what you say.’ Yes, and the something is a tall, conical, steaming pile of horseshit.

The television people, on the other hand, were glad for my sake that I had such a secure academic base, because the outlook for another series was dim, owing to financial pressure. Single programmes, specials, guest spots: obviously I would be the first choice for those. Any time a probe grazed a planet’s moon I could count on being there on screen to help drum up excitement about the enhanced pictures. Dig that rill. Cop that crater. But there would be no contract. No more being thrown together at Television Centre for months on end with the pretty researcher in crumpled-look overalls. Well, none of that mattered now. What I had felt for Gael had been mere passion, the wanting of her body. I wanted the Mole’s soul. To be appreciated through her body, of course, but let there be no doubt about the object: her essence. Joel’s goal was the Mole’s soul. How generous of me not to be dismissive of Chance’s casual involvement with the fons et origo of my euphoria! On the way back from Soho with two heavy carrier-bags of delicacies, the Mole and I stopped off at her little room in Bloomsbury. It had a window on a brick wall, was only twice as long as she was, and across its width she could touch both walls at once with her outstretched hands. But it was really neat. Not in Lauren’s erstwhile sense of ‘real neat’ but in the English sense of really neat. Postcards, photographs and old ski passes were arranged on her pinboard with a keen eye to spacing and proportion. Her books shone. In pride of place along the back of the desk were her poetry texts, with Milton on the left and Hopkins on the right. Of the many portrait postcards and photographs on the mantelpiece, the most salient, framed in antique art nouveau silver against the big mirror’s lower rail, was, as one might have expected, a study of Penelope which suggested that Gustave Moreau had decided to outdo Bernini in capturing Saint Teresa at the climax of spiritual ecstasy. Flanking this centrepiece, like the wings of a triptych, were two postcards occupied by great ladies of the past whose representations obviously constituted a double star.

‘I recognise Mme de Staël,’ I said. ‘Who’s the other one?’

‘Mme Recamier. Isn’t she smashing? They loved each other for a long time.’

‘Didn’t Benjamin Constant get them both?’

‘He was a wimp. They were better off without him. They were faithful.’

‘Is that the big rule?’

‘To be faithful? Yes. What do you think of Ambrose?’ She was pointing at the photograph of a haggard young man with scruffy hair and a half-shave.

‘Is he a terrorist?’

‘My boyfriend.’


‘Don’t be shocked. He’s not really. Just my Platonic admirer. Although he wants more, of course.’

‘Of course.’

‘Don’t tease. He’s my fellow-student and graceless escort. I’m trying to civilise him. He’s not presentable. That’s why I keep him dark. Chance thinks that Ambrose is the one I’ll marry.‘

‘Does he?’ Does he indeed, I could have said. ‘Doesn’t that strike you as a bit cold and calculating?’ I wasn’t really trying to drive a wedge.

‘Chance says that he doesn’t want to disturb the normal rhythm of my life. But he has to admit that mine isn’t a very normal life, doesn’t he? Now help me choose my dress for the big night.’

There were only two to choose from and she didn’t undress to try them on, just held them in front of her. So it was hardly an invitation to make a serious pass. I was a big brother, if not an old uncle. But I got a kiss. Emboldened by the discrepancy between the talk of faithfulness and the fact that she was betraying Penelope with Chance and quite possibly about to betray Chance with Ambrose, while Chance was betraying her with Angélique and quite possibly betraying both of them with Presley Schaufenster, I figured that I had something coming. She was still clasping the second dress in front of her, so I handicapped myself equally by keeping my hands behind my back. Two pairs of lips met in space. Sheer good taste. Yet a distinct step up from the purely understanding kiss of ten days before. Two kisses inside a fortnight: I was definitely on the road to dissipation. This was the high life.

‘I want you,’ I said, and knew instantly that it was the wrong thing to say: a deal-breaker, a mood-wrecker. Perhaps I should have said, ‘Let’s fuck.’ Except that when you say that, it turns out you should have said, ‘I want you.’ The fact is, that if it still depends on saying the right thing, you’ll say the wrong thing. The Mole wrinkled her forehead as if the question was too hard. I answered it for her. ‘I’m sorry. It just popped out. Foolish talk. Foolish dork, in fact.’

‘Don’t be sorry. I’m flattered. Only I’m not sure I want to be wanted just now, to be brutally frank. You understand?’

‘Life must be a bit crowded.’

‘This dress?’

‘I think they’re both too dressy. It’s not a ball, it’s dinner. I like the basic black you wore the night we met.’

So the excitement was over for that day, except for the mint chocolate chip Cornetto each that we ate in the cab on the way home. Typically I finished mine in a hurry while she savoured hers. ‘In Australia,’ I said, ‘we have a tradition that the man wolfs the whole of his Cornetto and then the woman gives him her crunchy bit as well.’ She pretended to fall for it. I think it was my consolation prize.

‘Have to grasp,’ said Chance on the eve of the big event, ‘that the Mole is a good girl. Not promiscuous. Serious. Engagée.’ We were on the balcony at dusk, with poised daiquiris. The moon and the evening star, like a modem, anachronistic illustration to James Elroy Flecker, were on display between the sawtooth towers. That many heavenly bodies I could cope with. People on the walkways were hurrying towards culture.

‘Not promiscuous?’ I didn’t mean it to sound ironic.


‘Is that the big rule?’

‘Of what?’

‘Of the game. La règle du jeu. Plurality but no promiscuity.’

‘Yep. Specially with so many bugs about. Angélique has got exactly one bloke over there and he’s faithful to her like a dog. Apart from his wife, of course.’

‘Of course.’

‘He’s a white-haired technocrat sports fiend called Jean-Louis Cravache. Shoves fuel rods into reactors. Writes books about catastrophe theory and the attainment of Nirvana. Won the World’s Freestyle Skiing Championship for Middle-aged Men. No time for any hanky-panky.’

‘Is that his picture on your board?’

‘That’s the one. A drongo, but dependable.’

‘But it doesn’t matter what the girls do with each other?’

‘Course not. No bugs. Victimless crime.’

‘Aren’t we the victims?’

‘Not even metaphorically. Victims are sick or dead. World’s full of victims. Victims in heaps. Hecatombs. No mistaking them. They swell up. They cry for years because they can’t forget what those men did to them. They get dug up with their skulls still screaming. Victims of real crimes. Enough of them to make the victimless crime a positive virtue.’

‘You believe that?’

‘By now I believe in nothing else. But it’s a private virtue. Twenty years ago, men preached pleasure. Ten years ago, women preached justice. Now the preaching’s over, thank Christ. On our own, fumbling in the dark, we seek a modus vivendi.’

‘On our own?’

‘With each other.’ He had the grace to smile. ‘Hey, there’s the phantom runner.’

Down there in the parklet beside the ornamental lake, the lone figure of Clive James plumply circulated, identifiable by the grey track suit and the extravagant slowness peculiar to those who have mastered the diffcult art of running at walking pace. Some ducks were looking at him. They were not impressed.

‘Have you invited him?’

‘Not to dinner. He’ll come in later with everybody else. Look at him go. The Widmerpool from Woolloomooloo.’ We raised our drinks to him in the gathering dark.

Preparations were well in hand by the time Angélique arrived in the early afternoon of the next day. We were on the point of taking a light working lunch when Eric rang from the airport to say that the plane was late. We were drinking coffee among the crumbs when he rang again to say that he was driving her up the ramp. Chance went down to meet her, so she had finished kissing him by the time they got to us. That left her free to start kissing the Mole. I only got my hand shaken, but it was done as if I were Francois Truffaut lying in his coffin and this was her last chance to convey her artistic respect.

‘So,’ she announced, nodding in agreement with herself, her expectations confirmed. ‘It is the great Joel. The man of science. Yet the face of a poet.’ Even though she was so busy being wonderful, she still looked wonderful, in her no-need-for-make-up make-up and her roughing-it travel clothes of designer denim.

‘We’ve met before,’ I tried to remind her.

‘I should have realised. How else could it be that Chance feels so close to you, so like a brother?’

Eric had finished piling luggage in the lobby and had gone back for more. Among the matched bags was a basket. Angélique sprang to it, crouched with her hands beside her face, fingers extended, as if miming the concept of embarras de richesse, and straightened up with a stack of glossy books.

‘These you must read.’ She was addressing us generally. ‘It is good to be among readers. In France we read only to discuss. It is you English who read. Silently. Profoundly.’

‘Don’t you want to go upstairs or anything?’ asked Chance, bringing in an extra chair from the balcony. but she joined us immediately at the table, passing out books as if they were hymnals.

‘This you will adore,’ she told Chance. It was Les Noces barbares by Yann Queffélec. ‘Yann himself has given it to me. He is very solemn. He has never danced. But he admires my work. Or perhaps he is a little in love. Do you think this is possible?’

‘Probable,’ said Chance, who was well used to helping Angélique appreciate the universality of her own appeal. ‘Those hairy uncompromising types are the ones who fall hardest when they meet their first set of silk underwear.’

‘Bernard finds him very difficult,’ said Angélique, adding, for my benefit and possibly the Mole’s also, ‘that is Bernard Pivot of Apostrophes. On the television we discuss the books.’

‘Until we’re blue in the face,’ said Chance.

‘And this one is so lovely, so amusing,’ Angélique raved on, having profited from the interruption to draw breath. ‘For you, I think, Antonia.’ The book was Mes Nuits sont plus belles que vos jours, by Raphaele Billetdoux. ‘She is very beautiful, this girl. The hair as the punk. I have shown her a few things about clothes, but not much. She has so much style. Karl adores her. Also Yves, Claude, Thierry ... ’

Playing up to the men and patronising the Mole, Angélique gushed continuously throughout the afternoon. When the helpers arrived — Di and Fergie were two robust girls of good family who wore matching butcher’s aprons — Angélique included them in her audience. To begin with they were so impressed they could hardly whip dip, but after not very long their large eyes glazed over like quails in aspic. As evening neared, Angélique and the Mole disappeared upstairs to bathe, pamper and dress. All the bathrooms were occupied for hours. When they reappeared, it was a beauty contest which Angélique won for sheer dazzle and the Mole for dewy freshness. I suppose if I had looked closely I would have seen that the actress had the clear skin and the classic features. The Mole was not past the odd spot, and her nose, on her own admission, was an afterthought. But Angélique I found hard to see for the presentation. Simplicity having been achieved, it had been chained into position with jewels. The flawless throat was underlined by a necklace that made the Mole’s earrings and bracelet look like objects for pity, an emotion which Angélique did her formidable best to articulate.

‘Did Chance give you this?’ asked Angélique.

‘Yes,’ said the Mole with shy pride.

‘It’s Cartier. It’s the best thing I’ve ever had.’

‘You must tell him to be a little more daring. Joel, you must tell him.’ Chance was in a cupboard somewhere digging out crates of champagne, so I started to say that I would tell him later, but Angélique wasn’t listening. I, however, was listening to her. There wasn’t much choice. How had Chabrol kept her quiet during all those mysterious long close-ups? He must have held a gun on her from off-camera.

‘This is by Timothy Koh Choon Bey of Singapore. Almost my best but I have others. Do you know Terewan Techapongvorachai from Thailand? I have his necklace of gold, diamond, crystal and, what is it, onyx? Also Makiko Takahashi of Japan, his brooch of emeralds and rainbow silk. I wear it on my black velvet hat, big like a wheel. This size. Right out here. There are many wonderful Japanese.’ Her hands, tapered for ever like Makarova’s, conjured all the wonderful Japanese with a gesture big enough to include sumo wrestlers, kamikaze pilots and war criminals. ‘Timohiro Asayama, you know him? He makes the watch as the bangle. And of course in Paris there are always Kenzo, Issye and Kansai, old friends by now since many years. How do you say vieux chapeau?’

‘We say vieux chapeau,’ said the Mole, with great presence of mind, I thought.

‘Yes, you say it in French,’ said Angélique, who, knowing everything, could not be startled by an item of information, but only, at most, be mildly surprised by the need to be reminded of something she knew already. ‘It is strange how you do that.’

The strangeness didn’t slow her down. She was still rattling away, with the Mole sending me arched eyebrows of fellow-suffering conviviality behind her back, when the other dinner guests began to arrive. Conspiring with the Mole helped to keep me going through the introductions. The guests were a daunting bunch. In Cambridge, brains and chic tended to be mutually exclusive, but apparently in London you were supposed to have both. I had borrowed a velvet bow tie from Chance to go with my summer suit, but I felt a bit underdressed. Chance’s agent, Joni Dankworth, was in Angélique’s class for grooming and had a famous novelist husband whom I won’t name, out of revenge for his books, to which he gives multiple endings. If he can’t be clear about what he’s doing, why should I be clear about who he is? Only a few minutes behind those two, Monty Forbes, the homosexual painter, arrived, billed by Chance as one of the three best-read men in London. Leaning on Monty’s arm, a brave posture in view of the current afraid-of-Aids climate, was the recently most talked-about young American feuilletoniste, Shir Horowitz. Variously described as an updated Anita Loos or the next Elaine May, she wore a tweed jacket with her dungarees and could not be called glamorous, but she had her own visual style. Tiny but tough, she looked like the top half of Lee Marvin.

Chance’s publisher, Nimrod Plooey, was a poet in his own right. In that field he had, by far, a bigger reputation than Chance himself. Through the unmistakable, indeed inexorable, originality of his similes, Nimrod Plooey had overcome the handicap of a name which some critics had rated as the most unpoetic for a poet to burden himself with since W. D. Snodgrass. With his Tolstoyan beard and penchant for peasant garb — always an embroidered shirt outside the pants with a belt over the shirt — he looked so Russian that you wondered why Joseph Brodsky bothered to keep up the pretence. As far as the literary world was concerned, Plooey had clout where it counted — i.e., outside the literary world. He rammed home his prestige by appearing on big occasions, such as tonight, with Eva Brownlow, a glossy magazine editor who had been a coming young writer herself before moving out, as she put it, into the fast lane. She signalled her presence in the fast lane by dressing at least as well as her models and much more expensively. Although blessed with a sumptuous figure, she had some reason to cover it up with care. Plooey wrote poems describing Eva’s nether regions. His wife, when she read these in Eva’s magazine, greeted them with relief, since previously it had been her own private parts which had been the subject of her husband’s inexhaustible powers of comparison. Minus his genius, Plooey would have been lynched long before. But his brilliance obliged the literary world to treat him as a singleton, and so he behaved on this night, from the moment his hair-rimmed head, bifocally enlarged eyes, belted calico shirt, baggy trousers and knee-length boots appeared in the lobby behind everybody else but somehow demanding attention as if in front. Everyone complained about how hard the place had been to find. It was just that Nimrod Plooey complained loudest and longest, even though he started last.

‘I couldn’t believe how lost we got,’ said Monty Forbes. ‘I’ve been here before and I still couldn’t identify anything.’

‘Yeah,’ muttered Shir Horowitz. ‘Wild. Guggenheim Museum full of lost people that works of art come and visit, you know?’

‘Darling,’ said Joni Dankworth to Angélique as they clinched. ‘Congratulations on being here at all. You must think you’re still at the airport.’

‘So original,’ said Eva Brownlow. ‘Nobody lives like this in New York.’

‘Nobody lives like this in London,’ said Joni Dankworth’s unnamed novelist husband. Or perhaps he said something else.

‘Nobody lives here at all,’ shouted Nimrod Plooey. ‘Including us. We’re dead. We died on the way here. It’s a bomb shelter by Kenzo Tange. It’s a holiday home for Edward Teller. It’s a wet dream by Otto Wagner. It’s a dry come by Richard Wagner. What a labyrinth! Borges would have boggled. Ariadne would have lost the thread. We passed Lord Lucan in the corridor.’

‘He’s sharing a flat with Martin Bormann,’ said Chance, trying to damp Plooey down.

‘Who built this place?’ asked Plooey, as a man will who has already rehearsed the answer on the stairs. ‘The Todt Organisation? The A. E. van Vogt Organisation?’ He crossed to the windows and stared dramatically out, hands on hips, at the towers with their long vertical rows of horizontal balconies notching the sky. ‘Aeroplane combs,’ he pronounced.

After half an hour of champagne during which Plooey talked for twenty-nine minutes, we all sat down. The Mole and I were at one end of the table and Chance and Angélique were at the other, so that I was opposite Chance and the Mole opposite Angélique. Down the outside of the table, facing into the room, were Joni Dankworth on my right, then Plooey, and then Eva Brownlow on Chance’s left. Down the inside, facing the glass .wall, were Monty Forbes on the Mole’s left, then Shir Horowitz, and then the unnamed novelist on Angélique’s right. Di and Fergie, pronounced by everyone to be absolutely marvellous, did the fetching and carrying, so there was no need for those dining to stop talking, except to eat, which the more loquacious did only sparingly. In the early stages everybody spoke politely to his or her immediate companions. Since I already knew the Mole well, I left her to tell Monty Forbes about Amanda and Robert Grill-it — we had agreed that this would be a good topic for her to start off on — while I tentatively consulted Joni Dankworth about Chance’s flirtation with the idea of downgrading his literary output.

‘He mustn’t even think of it,’ she said. ‘But it won’t happen.’

‘Why mustn’t he think of it?’

‘You can’t imagine what his pulling power is like. Not even this book of poems will manage to fail. Even though he’s done nothing to push it except throw this party, and he’s only done that for fun.’

‘Perhaps he’s tired of having it too easy.’

‘Well, Rod Plooey isn’t tired of having it too easy, let me tell you. That’s why he’s here tonight and giving his full publishing genius performance. As an artist, Rod’s in favour of Chance following any whim that suits. As a businessman, the very idea of losing Chance Jenolan’s contribution to the bottom line is enough to make Nimrod Plooey’s hair turn straight overnight.’

I looked. Plooey’s hair was certainly very curly. You could tell that, even though his head was moving all the time: now plunging forward towards the vichyssoise, now thrown back so that he could laugh at the ceiling, now shaken from side to side in a mimed negation of one of his own fantasies. This last manoeuvre left his spectacles dislodged, which made everyone at that end of the table laugh except Eva Brownlow. She smiled tolerantly: i.e., intolerantly. With a reputation for New York cool to protect, she was sitting next to a dangerous source of destabilisation: On the other hand, he was very famous. It must have been difficult for her, but Chance was beside her to smooth things over. Eva Brownlow knew exactly where she was with Chance, you could tell. Was she on the list of his old flames? I muttered the question to the Mole and received the answer ‘Snooty bitch’, which I took to mean yes.

The Mole went immediately back to telling Monty all about the nouveau roman. Angélique overheard their colloquy from the other end of the table and joined in. General conversation thus began rather early. While in no wise resistant to the charms of Joni Dankworth, I was relieved by this. I had always preferred a whole table talking. Split up into isolated units of politesse, it wastes energy. When all contribute, even if the topic is only nominal, a synergy is generated which becomes, in the course of time, the real subject, as if everyone present has recognised that to keep it going is the real object. The participants have to be well cast, of course. It doesn’t hurt if a few of them just listen. Listeners can even be in the majority. But the talkers must not get in each other’s road. Usually it takes a good hostess to sort them out. This was one of the rare occasions when four monologists in world class — Angélique, Monty Forbes, Chance and Plooey — were all able to bang away at once without the whole system overheating. Observing, I decided that it was Chance, through the feminine side of his nature, who made this possible. The hostess in him stopped him from going on too long and made sure none of the other egomaniacs — I suppose I was the fifth — did either. He enjoyed the event too much to let it ruin itself.

Angélique started off by saying how well she knew Robbe-Grillet personally. ‘Always I am telling Alain to write another L’Année dernière à Marienbad just for me, not? It would please me so much to stand there in a mysterious manner on the marble staircase like Delphine.’

‘Saying nothing,’ said Chance.

‘No, no,’ said Angélique, not quite getting it. ‘He is eloquent, Alain. It is just that he is, what is it ... ’


‘Taciturn. Laconic? What do I mean, Joel?’


‘Terse! Exactly. He is terse.’

‘I’ve just been reading Three Trapped Tigers by Gabriel Cabrera Infante,’ said Monty, ‘and the guy’s so terse I can’t tell what’s going on. I’m up to page 175 and I can’t tell what’s going on.’

‘That’s magic realism,’ said Chance. ‘We’re not allowed to be scathing about magic realism in this house because One Hundred Queers Gain Altitude is Antonia’s favourite book.’

‘It ... ’ began the Mole, but was beaten to the draw.

‘Marquez I know well,’ said Angélique. ‘He has told me ... ’

‘Bananas!’ shouted Plooey. ‘It’s a variation on the Bananas school of writing.’

‘OK, Rod,’ said Chance, with the air of a matador twitching his cape for the first time at an enormous animal that will take him several hours to kill. ‘What’s the Bananas school of writing?’

‘Women writers who start off every novel in the first person by coming home from the baby-minder to work on their new novel and they find a puce hippopotamus in the bathroom. The hippopotamus says ... ’

‘Which women writers?’ asked Eva Brownlow.

‘Doesn’t matter. The hippopotamus says, “Don’t be afraid.”’

‘Why does it say that?’ asked Eva Brownlow.

‘Because,’ said Shir Horowitz, ‘if this was a Kafka story it’d be a cockroach.’ Everyone except Eva Brownlow laughed, although I noticed that the unnamed novelist did not laugh aloud. He made a laughing mouth and did a laughing shudder, but it was all unvocalised.

‘Your husband’s the strong silent type,’ I said sideways.

‘He’s gathering material.’

There was a lot to gather. Long before the after-dinner guests arrived, it was already a party. Nimrod Plooey would have danced on the table if Di and Fergie had allowed it. As it was, he did a Russian folk dance in the centre of the room, while being pelted with champagne corks. The unnamed novelist threw grapes at him, an embellishment which the host, I think, regarded as lèse-majesté, against himself if not his publisher. But Chance did not show anger, or anything except delight in the moment. Earlier, I had naïvely thought that he was enjoying a night off. Now I realised that he was staging a production.

The impression was confirmed when the after-dinner guests began to show up. I’m afraid my memory of events, though precise in detail, becomes structurally impressionistic after this point. Naturally I had drunk too much. It dimly occurred to me that I had been drinking too much for weeks. Pouring some more champagne in order to quell this thought, I played twin wallflower to Monty Forbes as the new arrivals poured in. Most of them had come on from dinner parties at which they had been stars. They were still stars, but they had changed clusters. Some of them I recognised and the others were identified for me by Monty, who knew everyone.

‘Where did you find Shir Thingowitz?’ I asked through the eruption of the entryphone buzzer.

‘Horowitz. Isn’t she a bulldozer? I got her here to see Angélique. The sort of thing she dreams of. Here they come.’

The bespectacled and bedraggled young novelist David Bentley arrived, with the scholar Charlotte Windhover. Monty called them a typical London couple. ‘Her second husband and his second mother.’

‘We got lost,’ said David Bentley.

‘And we’ve been here before,’ said Charlotte Windhover, who turned out to be one of the Mole’s teachers. I was glad to see teacher and pupil talking to each other. I was feeling very protective towards the Mole, what with Angélique on the scene, not to mention Shir Horowitz. From whom was my little girl safe? Perhaps, for the moment, from Nicholas Crane, who was swept into the room on the tidal wave of triumph generated by his huge new hit book, entitled Huge New Hit Book. On his arm was the effulgent, visibly pregnant Sally Draycott, soon to be back on our screens after two seasons of fronting arts documentaries for an American cable enterprise that had rewarded her for her hard work by going bust. ‘Holy shit,’ said Nicholas, kissing Chance warmly. ‘We got lost again.’ I was glad to see that Chance’s return kiss was less demonstrative. ‘How’s the passenger?’ he asked Sally, giving her, gratifyingly to my mind, a rather more physically abandoned welcome than he had just given Nicholas. He hadn’t completely succumbed to local habits. Angélique fell on Sally with cries of love which seemed to startle their recipient. A less honest woman than Sally would have been glad to go along with the pretence that they knew each other extremely well. As it was, Sally’s smile was somewhat strained. Perhaps Angélique had bumped the baby.

By now, however, any embarrassments went unnoticed. There was just too much traffic. A handsomely dissolute man in a wine-stained white suit arrived. He had green skin. Monty told me that this was Colin Thinwall, Chance’s ambiguously sexual crony from his alternative existence as a Grub Street literatus. Every Friday when he was in England, apparently, Chance dined at Foscari’s in Fitzrovia, where he was still categorised among the Australian poets at a table monopolised by the influential literary cabal known as the Dregs. The rest of the Dregs now came trooping in. Literary editors on the verge of retirement arrived with their actress daughters on the verge of stardom. There were female TV producers who looked like models, models who looked like juvenile delinquents, juvenile delinquents who had formed a dance group. Everyone was there except the kind of culture-circuit journalists that Plooey would have most liked to see But there was some publicity value in Chance’s not wanting to see them. Yes, Plooey told the world at large, that could be an angle.

The show’s gathering momentum was almost stopped by the unaccompanied entrance of Presley Schaufenster. Stripped of black rubber and silver insignia, clad only in some short ruched white slip arrangement and a pair of high heels that seemed to have no shoes attached, her outrageous beauty was on unimpeded display. Her lightly tanned body looked to be fashioned from some unexpanding, uncontracting, unimpressionable material. Monobloc hot-cast carbon? Her hair was pulled back in lacquered black flames to reveal a severely classical face which would have been fearful enough in its symmetry even without whatever it was she had done to her eyes. These shone with little red white and blue roundels where the corneas should have been. The effect was hypnotic. ‘Fluorescent contact lenses,’ said the Mole. ‘What a tart.’

‘She looks like a Spitfire!’ screamed Nimrod Plooey, just as Peter C. Bartelski walked in. That sensitive scholar, thinking that the publisher meant him,. turned on his Cuban heel and walked out, but thought better of it and walked in again. It was a long way back to Cambridge and this was the place to be.

Fuelled by champagne, the party spilled out on to the balcony and all the way up the stairs to the gymnasium, whence it spread out on to the other balcony, overlooking the illuminated city. Chance’s hideout filled up with people as if a mass of star-making material had been released through a time-tunnel into an empty stretch of space. I went with it, lurching helpfully from group to group, asking people if there was anything they wanted, although it must have been clear that I was beyond helping, indeed beyond help. I heard all kinds of things, though.

‘Why is it called The Rubaiyat of Omar Sharif?’

‘Chance likes Omar.’

‘Does Omar like the book?’

‘Must do. He’ll be here, later. He’s playing bridge at the Clermont.’

Chance was on the top balcony giving a lecture. People who had been sitting talking on the keep-fit and weight-training equipment drifted out to listen. ‘Down there,’ he pointed, ‘is where Australia started. A mile along the Mile End Road. Where Captain Cook lived while he was waiting for a ship.’

‘He’s got a lot to answer for,’ said Colin Thinwall.

‘And the first bomb of World War II fell just over there. And Grub Street ran right under there. Milton’s buried just over there, under that church.’

‘Milton who?’

‘Milton Friedman.’

Back downstairs again, I found Shir Horowitz pumping Di and Fergie about life in Verbier.

‘And one of the chaps calls out “Dead ant!” ... ’ said Di.

‘ ... and you have to throw yourself on your back in the snow ... ’ said Fergie.

‘ ... with your poles and skis in the air ... ’ said Di.

‘And then the guy fucks you?’ asked Shir Horowitz. She had already been to Ascot and Wimbledon but this was valuable material.

For a while I helped carry things upstairs but I overdid it and the Mole made me carry some of them down again. I overdid that too and was pensioned off. Monty talked to me. I could always depend on good old Monty.

‘What do you think of the Kraut’s eyes?’ he asked. Presley Schaufenster was being mobbed nearby.

‘Can she see through those things?’

‘No way of finding out,’ said Monty. ‘She can’t talk. Do you remember the Princess of Nassau in Proust?’

‘Yes. She had mauve eyes like astronomical clocks cut in opal.’

‘They tell me your father’s got the best private library in Sydney,’ said Monty, who had a famous private library of his own.

‘I wouldn’t say best. But it was certainly big. Too much for me. Main reason I became a scientist, I expect.’

‘Chance has got some marvellous books here but they’re all getting kicked to pieces lying around on the floor like this. I hate to see it.’

‘Dad used to polish his.’

‘How did he get them there?’

I was still answering the question when we were joined by the grim figure of Shir Horowitz. Monty sidled off, the traitor. ‘How does the streetwise New Yorker find our provincial gathering?’ I asked de haut en bas, an angle which her abbreviated stature made easy.

‘Nice try, but I was born and raised in the Texas Panhandle. Town called Muleshoe.’

‘Does a lot happen in Muleshoe?’

‘My uncle once threw a monkey wrench clear over a grain elevator. Made the front page of the Lubbock Avalanche Courier.’

‘Lubbock. Isn’t that where Buddy Holly came from?’

‘Well,’ she said wearily, ‘he sure as fuck didn’t come from Muleshoe. You think you could introduce me to that chick with the RAF eyes and the terrific ass? You know, give me a build-up?’

‘Sure.’ My acquaintance with Presley Schaufenster was slight, but I effected the introduction with some assurance. After all, I lived there. Yes, I felt very much at home. Any bottle with half an inch of wine in it I cleared away after upending it over my glass.

‘I’ve just realised,’ said Chance as we passed each other on the stairs, ‘that the best title isn’t by Hemingway at all.’

‘What is it?’

As I Lay Dying, by William Dorkner.’

I overheard David Bentley telling Nicholas Crane that he, David, had just been fired from writing the script of Chance’s epic movie. I hadn’t realised that the project had got to the stage of being written. So that was where Chance got to during the day. Then I overheard Nicholas telling David that he, Nicholas, had just signed a contract to rewrite the script of Chance’s epic movie. So the project had already got a stage further. This was confusing. Feeling like someone who knew nothing, I sat down on the stairs next to Clive James, who was looking rather out of it. I hadn’t seen him arrive and he didn’t seem to know who I was, but we got on. We had a good vantage point from which to see over the heads of the crowd. Nimrod Plooey was dancing on the dinner table. He was actually quite good.

‘Look at those two there,’ said Clive James, nodding towards Di and Fergie, who were clapping time as Plooey leapt and spun. ‘Salt of the earth. Well brought up. No thought in their heads except to give their lives for an ideal. Hand-maidens. Ladies in waiting. Once they would have served royalty. And you know what?’


‘They’re still serving royalty. The media moguls are the new royalty. Apart from that, no change.’

‘Are you envious?’ I was being frank. It was easy. He had a drink in each hand.

‘Not really. Bit pissed off.’

‘At what?’

‘I didn’t get a crack at writing Chance’s movie.’

‘Hang in there. It still might come your way.’

Feeling like someone who knew a thing or two, I lurched off to join the Mole in the group around Plooey. Back at floor level now, with sweat dripping from his beard, he was giving an outline of his ideas on how the Arts Council should bring poetry to the people.

‘Air drops!’ he shouted. ‘You have to imagine these poor benighted peasants on the fells or the moors or whatever it is, and they’re looking up at the sky as a Lockheed Hercules comes roaring out of the sun with its back door open, and then out come the poets one after the other! Ted Hughes! Seamus Heaney! Geoffrey Hill! The parachutes snap open and they’re already reciting through loud-hailers ... ’

The Mole let me hold her hand through some of this and then introduced me to her allegedly Platonic boyfriend Ambrose. He looked like his photograph except even more sullen.

‘Thanks for asking me,’ he said, ‘but I’m off back to the squat. I can’t stand all this.’

‘All what?’ asked the Mole, hot and bothered.

‘Everything,’ he said, with a comprehensive gesture that took in everything. ‘This bloody awful Swatch commercial you call a party.’ Did he know what the Mole and Penelope meant by Everything? If he did, it probably mattered less to him than the mere sight of people who had money to spend. How well I knew him. No I didn’t. I had always been a star student: money from home, top scholarships all the way, jobs to burn. Until the jobs burned.

Ambrose pushed off towards the door. The Mole, her lips manifestly not fitting together, made her way, like a salmon climbing rapids, quickly upstairs towards one of the bathrooms, which, she reached before I could get to her. I waited outside but needed a bathroom myself. When I returned she had gone back downstairs and was talking to Chance. So I went back up to the top balcony just in time to be accosted by Shir Horowitz. ‘Fräulein Weirdeyes can’t say a fucking word,’ she grunted, ‘and you are an asshole.’

‘What did you do with her?’

‘I handed her over to that French radio station we were at dinner with. They’re made for each other. Is she yours?’

‘Who? Angélique? Christ, no.’

‘I meant the teenager with the fabulous tits.’

‘Yes, she’s mine.’ The Mole had appeared and wiggled her fingers at me as if she was. Then she turned around and went downstairs again. I started to follow her but got lost on the way. Eric was standing in the kitchen with his hook around a beer. ‘Steve McQueen and James Coburn,’ he said.

The Magnificent Seven.’

‘Har! And Charles Bronson.’

‘It’s still The Magnificent Seven.’

‘And James Garner.’

‘It’s ... Oh. Ah. Oh yes. The Great Escape.’

‘I always get them with that one. Got the governor with that one once.’

I left him leading a hook-to-mouth existence. At least I hadn’t said, ‘on the other hand’, or used any other wounding expression. Sensitive to Eric’s feelings, or perhaps cravenly keen to avoid embarrassment, I always exercised a strict self-censorship over what I said to him. The most effective method was to keep the conversation short. Half a bottle of champagne ambushed me. I fought my way out of the trap but my legs could do no more than help my mind wander. Speech arrived at my ear but I couldn’t pinpoint the mouth it came from.

‘Have you heard that Christopher Booker’s new novel is up for the Brookner Prize?’

‘The facts of the TV-am thing are very simple. The guys fucked up and the girls carried the can.’

‘Nobody in New York lives like this. I want Bruce to take some pictures of it.’

‘Elena’s idea of roughing it is pheasant sandwiches.’

‘Have you heard that E. O. Parrott has written a book about Flaubert? Guess what it’s called.’

‘Gunter Grass I know very well. So much of a man. Also Enzensburger is a close friend ... ’

‘Plooey tried to write a poem about his own bum but the shaving mirror kept fogging up.’

‘Rock Hudson and Ernest Borgnine.’

‘No bid.’

‘And Patrick McGoohan.’

Ice Station Zebra.’

‘The facts about unemployment are very simple. The jobs aren’t coming back. Every robot creates twelve jobs and destroys twenty-five. Net loss of thirteen.’

‘So what will people do if they’re unskilled and they’ve got no creative talent?’

‘They will become Channel 4 commissioning editors.’

‘I’m a spectateur engagé. Raymond Awn said that. I wish I’d said it.’

‘Yeah. You could have said it in English.’


‘Rock Hudson and Rod Taylor.’

‘No bid.’

‘And Mercedes McCambridge.’

‘Mercedes McCambridge? Sounds like a well-educated Scotsman in a sports car. No bid.’

‘And James D ... ’


‘Nobody can play this game unless they’ve spent their whole lives in the dark. Isn’t there another game?’

‘Famous People of Humble Origins.’

‘How do you play?’

‘It’s a cinch. Robert Taylor made clothes. Watt Tyler laid tiles. Like that. Nick starts.’

‘I give up.’

‘No, I meant Nick will start. Nick, you start.’

‘Rab Butler.’

‘Mark Boxer.’

‘Eldridge Cleaver.’

‘Raymond Chandler.’

‘Jane Fonda.’


‘Her grandfather ran a fondue restaurant.’

‘Who is that bloke?’

‘Some kind of scientist. One of Chance’s tame ... Whoops.’

‘If she can’t get the right table at Elaine’s, she won’t go. She won’t eat at the Russian Tea Room on the wrong day. She’s going to starve to death, that girl.’

‘Karl, Jonathan, can I prise you apart?’


‘Australian men look like Mel Gibson as a compensation for thinking like John Newcombe.’

‘You don’t look like Mel Gibson.’

‘I’ve been here too long.’

‘He’s calling it From “Duel in the Sun” to “Jewel in the Crown”: a Study in Semiotic Imperialism.’

‘What does he know about semiotics?’

‘Same as he knows about imperialism.’

‘I have met this marvellous German girl. She does not interrupt. I think that is so important, not?’

‘Mm? Oh yes. Absolutely.’

‘Do you know what Auden wanted to call his autobiography?’


Reflections on a Marine’s Penis. We had to stop him.’

Long after midnight, Omar Sharif finally arrived and was ceremonially presented with a copy of the book. Nimrod Plooey did not underplay the scene. The Mole looked safe enough, talking to the unnamed novelist. I could tell by how she was drawing little circles in the air that she was telling him her theories about self-reflexivity. They would go over big with him. He wrote the same sort of novels himself. Come to think of it, his appearance had changed. He had grown shorter and his hair was a different colour. Hadn’t he been wearing brogues before? Now he was wearing loafers. Perhaps he was someone else. Or perhaps I was. I was feeling very odd.

Everything would be all right again if I could just be with the Mole. So I went to wait for her in her bed. She never joined me. I slept without dreaming, or without remembering I had dreamed, and woke up with no sense of time having elapsed, just an awareness that everything had changed. I went downstairs and there was nobody there. The rubbish had been tidied away and all the glasses washed. Once again Di and Fergie had been absolutely marvellous. After a long swig of tap water I went back upstairs. On the floor above mine I heard Angélique’s voice coming from Chance’s room. ‘That is heaven, darling. That is completely heaven. Make more of a circle with the fingertip.’ Then I heard the Mole’s voice. ‘Like this? Do you like that?’ Angélique groaned.

Chance’s door was open as if I was meant to look in. If it hadn’t been I would probably have kicked it down Or just stuck my head through it. I had to see this. Was he between them? But it was worse. I could see him sitting there alone, softly lit in his blue silk dressing-gown, in a chair by the drawn curtains. From the direction of his smiling gaze I could tell that the two women were on the bed to the left of the door. He was watching them. Angélique cried, ‘Yes! Oh yes!’ The Mole groaned in sympathetic ecstasy. Betrayed, raging, I took the fatal step further into the room and turned towards them, the breath already drawn with which I would call my darling girl a little liar and two-faced dyke bitch.

She was rubbing cold cream into Angélique’s face. Angélique was sprawled in silk with her head in the Mole’s lap. The Mole was in a girlish night-shirt, her own face glowing moistly. Angélique must have already given her the same treatment. Hating their intimacy for its chasteness, suddenly too short of evidence to stage a scene, I was caught flat-footed.

‘You look as if you’ve seen a ghost,’ said the Mole.

‘You look like one with that stuff on,’ I said, with a misplaced accusatory tone. A feeble thing said forcefully, it was a lapse which Chance immediately picked up.

‘What did you think they were up to?’

‘About page 164 of the Kama Sutra, by the sound of it. I’m going to bed now.’

‘Thought you already had.’ He always let you know that he had spotted your discomfort. It was an old trick of his.

‘Can I have my bed back now?’ asked the Mole.

‘Sorry about that. I just collapsed into the first one I could find.’

I saw Angélique smiling at Chance and I knew that he must be smiling back, so I said good night without looking at him, nodded curtly to the room in general, and went down to my cell. Later on I heard the Mole’s footsteps on the stairs and I thought of knocking on her door and explaining. Then I thought better of it. There was nothing to explain, except my disappointment at a missed climax. A proper scandal would have put her safely beyond me. Indeterminacy meant that my behaviour could still affect events. That made me responsible for my conduct. I tried to take comfort from being capable of so sustained an analysis. How I longed to slip into that small bed behind her. How pleased I was at my good judgement in not trying to. Yes, I was a definite improvement over the man I had been a few hours before. Redeemed through love of this unique young woman. Was she sobbing into her pillow at how badly Chance was treating her? I stole along the dark landing and listened at her door. Yes, there were stifled whimpers. I eased open the door. More darkness. A soft mechanical buzz stopped with a click. The Mole sighed without resignation. ‘Oh for God’s sake, Joel,’ she said, ‘will you please fuck off.’

Chance took me to lunch at the Zippo next day. I wasn’t feeling very well, but he more or less insisted. First we had to stop off at Presley Schaufenster’s studio in Docklands. The Granada rolled down the ramp and headed cast, with Eric at the wheel. He drove correctly, his left hand at ten o’clock and his hook at three o’clock. Uncomfortably aware that I had not made a good showing the previous night, I concentrated on such trivia. Not that there would be a scene. Not in front of Eric. It was remarkable how clean and healthy the East End looked compared with, say, Oxford Street. By the time you got to Docklands, everything was as neat as an architectural drawing. Big, crisp vertical surfaces were so empty of defilement that the eye was startled. The graffiti artists were still working their way east. The thieves, needless to say, were already here: had arrived with the builders. A small armoured door in the wall of a huge building that must once have been a warehouse swung open after Chance had tapped out a code on a set of numbered plastic keys that were revealed when he unlocked a metal plate.

‘The city’s replacing itself, towards the estuary,’ said Chance in the lift as we whined softly upwards. ‘Suppose David started it really. He’d been living down here for what Di and Fergie would call yonks, but when the media started running those stories about him editing Passage to India in the kitchen the whole world caught on. And then Rupert did the Wapping thing and it was on for young and old. Presley had to pay quite a lot for this drum, even in Deutschmarks.’

We walked out of the lift straight into Presley Schaufenster’s domicile. Dwelling. Ambience. Wohnraum. Environment. It was enormous. You could have serviced a Boeing 707 in there. The arched windows, six of them one beside the other along the front and three more on the side, were of Piranesi dimensions. They faced west and south. London was out there, on the far side of a straight-edged sheet of water that looked as untouched as a glacial lake. I had already decided that Presley Schaufenster inhabited what could only be described as a Space. Through the acres of venetian blinds the light came in slices, throwing zebra stripes across long trestle tables full of photographs. Presley Schaufenster had photographs of everything and everyone. She didn’t seem to have anything else. There were hundreds of books, but they were all of large dimensions, because they were books of photographs. The walls were covered with photographic collages, all done with meticulous care and, I had to admit, wit. Aluminium catwalks and stepladders on tracks gave access to the upper areas. The ceiling was one enormous, enormously elaborate montage of photographic images. Ranged in their own scaffolding construction, itself as big as the average flat, there must have been 1,000 box files, each identified only with a photograph. I could have moved in among them and settled down. I felt like doing so. It was the next world, the world without words. Truffaut had forecast it. Do you remember that scene in Fahrenheit 451 where Montag looks at the dossier on a suspect and there is nothing in it except photographs? Now here it was. The future was with us already.

‘Take a look around while I talk to Presley,’ said Chance. Looking fairly normal today in a cotton shirt embroidered with a retching dragon, baggy paratrooper’s pants and a pair of soft velvet shoes with long crumpled points like two anteaters who had raced into a wall, Presley Schaufenster was working at one of the trestle tables. Working seemed to consist of looking at photographs, picking them up and moving them about. The coloured lights had gone out of her eyes, I was relieved to see. She had a portable remote-control computer terminal in her hand, on which she was punching numbers, perhaps to enter her images in some information retrieval system, according to criteria at which one could only guess. How Chance communicated with her I didn’t care to imagine. After a long trek, I reached one of the windows and looked up-river at Tower Bridge, all white and blue and shiny bright as if the Americans already owned it. I was there for a long time, waiting for the bridge to open, but it didn’t. Perhaps it never did any more. Painted shut. Polished and broken. I wandered back to one of the trestle tables and looked at a lot of people thinking. You could tell they were thinking because they had one hand to their forehead or cupping their chin. One of them was Einstein. Another was Ronald Reagan. The look of the thing was all that mattered.

‘She’s working on the look of my movie,’ said Chance when he at last joined me. ‘Got extraordinary eyes.’

‘So I noticed.’

‘Yeah. Weird, that, wasn’t it? Never would have thought of that myself.’

‘How did she get into this?’

‘Her grandfather was a cameraman at the siege of Leningrad. Carried the first Arriflex into battle. Most amazing collection of war photos. Basis of her archive. We’re putting them in the picture.’

‘What about the people? Who’s in it?’

‘Still casting it.’

‘What sort of film is it? Are we allowed to know?’

‘No secret. Just can’t describe it. Sort of synthesis. Ring and the Book but without the Renaissance setting or any of the characters. Or the story. Or the verse, of course. Very tricky. Keep having to change writers.’

‘I can’t wait,’ I said, although I could have waited for ever. Either he was going mad or I was. But he solved that one for me.

‘Been a bit worried about you these last few days. Maybe you should get away from us for a while. Talk about it at lunch. Let’s go down the other way and you can see the gadgets.’

The other way was a wooden staircase with high-tech pipe banisters in a well of re-pointed black bricks like caked soot. It led to a space below, which was possibly even larger than the space above. The gadgets seemed to be one of each of every desirable object produced in Britain since the Second World War. The Vickers Viscount airliner was absent, but otherwise Presley didn’t seem to have missed any tricks. Her pink Jaguar was one of half a dozen cars present. There was a leaf-green Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire, a sapphire Sunbeam Alpine, a crimson-lake Riley roadster, a matt-black Bristol 404 and a pearl-grey Alvis Grey Lady. On a long dais, there was a platoon of shop-window mannequins dressed, painted, pierced and plumed as neo-post-punk fashion plates, death-like down to the smallest detail of nose-ring and knuckle-duster. Palaeolithically out of place in the same line-up, a cinema foyer life-size cut-out of Diana Dors smiled like the grille of a Cadillac Allard. In sharp contrast again, two unsmiling blond young men who looked like Hitler Jugend tank commanders were loading an LE Velocette silent motor-cycle into the back of an antique Dormobile. Fussily guarding their black overalls from any hint of oil, they addressed each other in the clipped, strained accents of an access television programme for Young People. Where had they come from? They looked as if they should have been killed in Normandy forty years ago, sounded as if they were born on an estate that was still being built. Everything was moving past me. I paused beside a red telephone booth with a black telephone inside that featured buttons marked A and B. Its paintwork wasn’t even chipped. Outside in the real England the latest telephone booths, machined from a single block of tungsten, had a life expectancy of about thirty minutes before they were attacked with cold chisels and plastic explosives.

‘Uncanny, isn’t it?’ asked Chance, not expecting an answer. ‘Her mother crawled out of the ruins of Essen. We used to go there and pulverise them. Now they come here and preserve us. Almost equally intrusive, somehow. Presley’s the Bomber Harris of the Betjeman brigade. Door’s over here.’

In the car, Chance talked of everything except my impending eviction. Not before the servants, bless him. Rather than shame me in front of, or at any rate behind, Eric, he talked of where we had just been. ‘Ideal place to be, this. Thought seriously about living here at one point. Power boats are a bit noisy on Saturdays. But when the Stolport’s running you could be in Paris in a couple of hours.’

‘Why did you decide against it?’

‘Came here for the old London.’

‘The Barbican isn’t the old London, for Christ’s sake.’

‘Built on top of where it used to be.’

‘How can she afford that place?’

‘TV companies want stills. Film companies rent stuff from her. She’s already in profit. Only wish I could have helped her more. Would have been in for a bigger share. Bread on the water.’ Then he talked of where we were going next. It transpired that he owned a piece of that, too. ‘Still own a share of the Groucho. Good place. But I needed a place to lie really low. Few of us thought up the Zeppo. He was the Marx brother that the other Marx brothers all hated. Only thing that kept them together was how they all hated him. Nice idea. But it sounded a bit slavish. So we called it the Zippo. After the cigarette lighter. Anonymous. Solid. Built-in shelter from the wind.’


‘Can’t, guv,’ said Eric. ‘One way.’ We were in Soho.

‘Drop us here if you like,’ said Chance.

‘Nar,’ said Eric. ‘Soon be there. Here. Try this one.’


‘Robert Duvall and Robert Vaughn.’


‘How did you know that? That’s absolutely amazing,’ said Eric, hooking the air. ‘Hardly anyone knows Robert Duvall’s in that.’

‘I didn’t know,’ I said, truthfully. ‘What did he do in it?’

‘He was a cab driver,’ said Eric, still shaking his head as he drew to a halt in front of an entrance so discreet you couldn’t tell what it was. ‘Just incredible. Straight on to it.’

‘Stick close behind me,’ said Chance as we were shown into the dining room of the club, ‘or you’ll fall over a chair.’ He was right. Care had been taken to eliminate all light not strictly necessary for the purposes of eating and drinking.

‘Do you want the braille menu?’ he asked when we were seated.

‘No. I’m getting used to it.’ As my eyes adjusted I noticed that Di and Fergie were the waitresses. Media people murmured to one another across tables in the half-light. Not media personalities. Media people. The people who employed the personalities.

‘The Los Angeles equivalent of this place,’ said Chance, ‘is a windowless Nissen but in the middle of a three-acre car park full of Mercedes runabouts. This serves the same purpose better.’

‘The purpose being?’

‘Paranoia control. Everybody here genuinely likes the darkness. Craves anonymity like a drug. Especially me. Got to the stage when I can’t bear it if even I know what I’m doing.’ After ordering two flutes of champagne, he returned to the same theme. ‘Comes a point when you can’t read about yourself without feeling pieces are being bitten out of you. Rilke said fame was the sum total of all the misunderstandings that could gather around one name. Pity about that rhyme: fame, name. Ruins a good aphorism. Doesn’t happen in German, of course. Rhum, Name. Good gimmick for a novel. Author gets so sick of his image that he puts it into the book as a character. So the character with his own name is the one least like him. Listen.’ I thought for a moment that he wanted me to test the quality of the whispering silence. Then I realised that he was changing the subject. Broaching the real subject. Over the first drinks and the cold soup it was thoroughly aired. Unilaterally, I need hardly add. Not that I had much to contribute except assent.

Chance had gathered that the Mole was confused. No, she hadn’t complained. He had dragged it out of her. But she didn’t want to feel responsible for my mental welfare. She cared about me too much for that. (When I suggested that this was tantamount to saying she didn’t care enough, Chance told me not to be so touchy.) She wanted to be free. Above all, she didn’t want to be disapproved of. (When I said that I didn’t disapprove of her, Chance replied that she felt I did.) Anyway, the Mole would soon be leaving for Lausanne, there to spend three weeks or so helping out at her old finishing school. Meanwhile, Chance’s flat in Biarritz was without a tenant and needed to be sat. Normally he would be down there at this time but preparations for the movie had reached a critical stage. He needed the Barbican to brood in. He would be hard to live with even if Angélique wasn’t there. I could be useful by going down to Biarritz and looking after things. A plane ticket would be immediately forthcoming. The whole place was crumbling into the sea but it was an ideal existence down there. Couldn’t be more out of the swim. There were no human hazards except his old friend and rival Jean-Louis Cravache, technocrat, surfer, sailor, dancer, mystical philosopher and lover to Angélique. I should watch out for that bastard. Otherwise it was sun, sand and pretty girls to look at. Not meretricious pretty girls as on the Cote d’Azure. These were well brought-up pretty girls of good family and modest means. French equivalent of the Mole. ‘Do you good,’ said Chance, in what I could tell was his peroration, ‘to realise she’s not unique. Help you realise how unique she is.’

‘I don’t get it.’

‘You adore that perfect body. Watching a hundred other perfect bodies bouncing up and down might wean you off mere lust and on to a proper appreciation of her salient individual characteristic.’

‘Which is?’

‘Already told you a million times,’ said Chance as he addressed himself to the main course. ‘Mole is a good girl.’

Chance had ordered breast of duck with ginger and I the medallions of beef. Both of us had been given circular works of art in which the ceramic component predominated. There was hardly any food on either plate. Just fan-shaped arrangements of slivers and segments.

‘Savour it,’ said Chance. ‘You’re eating a concept. There’s a Japanese cook out there called Yamamoto. The admiral’s great-grand-nephew. Studied in Paris. This is what happens when nouvelle cuisine meets sushi.’

‘I’m going to be hungry at the end of this,’ I said, lying. Nothing in my head could challenge the case he had made but my stomach felt miserable.

‘People have died of malnutrition in here,’ mumbled Chance around a tiny mouthful. ‘But they died elegantly.’

We talked of other things over the dessert and the coffee. My dessert looked as if a sick sparrow had laid two chocolate eggs from the top of a ladder. A single strawberry had been added. Getting hungrier as I ate these iron rations, I topped up with more of the petits fours than the Mole would have approved of, but that didn’t matter now, did it? Conversation was a bit restricted. Not wanting to talk about my career, wanting still less to talk about women, I fell back on talking about old times. Whatever happened to so-and-so? I could see the answer in Chance’s eyes: the same thing that’s happening to you, only with them it happened earlier. He looked impatient. He hated talking about the past. He was like a shark, always moving forward. Having fed, we nosed away between the tables as if they were palely glowing outcrops of a reef in the sea at night. Eva Brownlow looked up.

‘Chance, it was fun. Bruce wants to do some pictures. Nobody in New York lives like that. I’ve already talked to him about it.’

‘Lovely to see you there,’ said Chance, looking at Eva’s companion. I looked too. In that light you couldn’t be sure, but the visible evidence suggested that she was extraordinarily handsome, rather along the lines of those Argentinian tennis players. Boyish but girlish.

‘Imogen,’ said Eva, ‘can I introduce you to Chance Jenolan? Chance, this is Imogen Cambio-Wechsel Todotiempo.’ Eva didn’t give me a mention. Either she had run out of breath or she couldn’t see me in the dark.

‘Hello Moggy,’ said Chance. ‘You’ve grown up. Meet my friend Joel Court.’

‘Hello,’ said Imogen Cambio-Wechsel Todotiempo.

‘Hello,’ I said, out of it; although not as put out as Eva, who had played an ace and seen it go for nothing. ‘I didn’t know you two knew each other,’ said Eva, with pique ill-concealed even by the dark. She was probably more diplomatic behind her desk.

‘When I was her mother’s house-guest in the Veneto,’ said Chance, ‘Moggy used to make me push her around in a miniature Ferrari. Had a little engine in it but she pretended it was broken. Natural actress.’ Suddenly he didn’t mind talking about old times. For a while I feared that we might linger. I didn’t want to be faced with any more evidence that his life contained so many personable women he had become immune to their disturbing magic. Luckily he had somewhere to go.

Eric was driving Chance to Shepperton, or perhaps Bad Gastein. So I walked home. To quell panic I did this in easy stages, starting with a detour via the National Gallery. I hadn’t been there for a long time. It was full of things I didn’t want to see. There was an astronomical instrument in Holbein’s ‘Ambassadors’. I didn’t want to see that. Tintoretto’s girlfriend was squirting the milky way out of her tit. I definitely didn’t want to see that. Less predictably, I didn’t want to see the dimpled yet firm, polite yet provocative arse of the Rokeby Venus. Velázquez, notoriously a prude, had somehow managed to forecast, along with her primping self-regard, the exact physical proportions of our polysexual little strumpet, right down to the twin dimples at the base of her spine. It took a Vermeer virginals player to cool my anger. There was no slighting her. She looked out of the canvas with the resignation of a good Delft bourgeois housewife prepared in advance for the challenge of sitting to a painter whose work rate was one portrait per decade. She had nothing but time.

The afternoon was hot enough for me to take my jacket off and carry it slung over my shoulder as I walked home along the Strand, down Fleet Street and up Ludgate Hill: the royal route to marriage. In Fleet Street I saw a man whom I took to be a journalist on his way back from lunch to the office, although he could have been a man with locomotor ataxia whose walking frame had been snatched from his trembling hands. He was wondering how to get from the footpath to the street. The vertical difference was three inches but he looked at it as if he were standing on the rim of a chimney. If he didn’t make the leap soon, his office would be gone: Fleet Street was in the process of dispersing itself all over the city, a Gondwanaland transformed into wandering tectonic plates. I wondered how I could help him. I wondered how he could help me. At least I’m sober, I thought, almost stepping under a car. In front of St Paul’s, a coach-load of Japanese were already in position for the next royal wedding, more than a year away at a conservative estimate. A Japanese emporium had opened up in St Paul’s Yard. There was a Japanese bookshop. It was a little stretch of the Ginza away from home.

Home. Murphy’s word. Play it again, Sam. What a sense of humour. Packing should have taken ten minutes but I dragged it out to twenty. On CNN they were dying in Beirut. It looked easier than living in Beirut. The high-rise apartment blocks had acquired extra, ragged windows in odd places, so that the camera could zoom in and see people just sitting there in space. You could see somebody’s feet through one hole and then through another hole you could see the head and shoulders of the person he was talking to. It was all elliptical, like a work of fiction, except that the chosen details were irrelevant to any theme save randomness. There’s always someone worse off than you are. Does that make you feel better? Nothing could make me feel better, except that lovely key crunching in the lock, followed by the triumphant trill of the home-come Mole. ‘Hello! I’ll put this stuff away and have a widdle and then we can go for a walk. Isn’t it a lovely day?’

But it didn’t happen. She never arrived. The hot afternoon became the muggy evening. Vaguely I remembered that Angélique would be somewhere else. But there had been no mention of our little darling’s possible absence. All alone in the place from which I was getting thrown out owing to lack of Lebensraum, I built miniature Beirut apartment blocks out of ice-cubes, filled their interstices with fluid, and stared out over them at the towers of the Barbican. Down there on the walkways, people were arriving for their date with Gwen John, who had loved Rodin too well. They were hours early for their tryst with Hamlet. In the Arts Centre they circulated from level to level, gathering in front of the jazz quartet, dispersing during the bass solo, breathing subsidised air braced with art ions. Culture had become universal. At the poolside tables of the cafeteria, Young People threw their plastic cups to join the lilies. Coke cans bobbed until they filled, then tilted upright and floated with only their top rims gleaming above the water: contact mines for ducks. I put down the field glasses long before dusk. It was never dusk. Daylight dragged on. There was a Lean Cuisine in the freezing compartment. Chicken à l’orange, my favourite. The scissors must have been blunt. I had to hack at the plastic bag and got sauce all over the blades. Several hundred compact discs and twice as many tapes held nothing I wanted to hear. The best thing on television was a documentary about North Vietnamese boat people in New Orleans who were being persecuted by the Ku-Klux-Klan. Terrific. When Chance rang, it was like the door opening on an isolation cell.

‘There’ll be a ticket waiting for you on the Air France desk,’ he said among other things. ‘Don’t forget your passport.’

‘I won’t,’ I said. ‘Where is she?’

‘Angélique? French Embassy ball.’

‘No. The other one. You know the one I mean.’

‘Staying at home for a few days before she goes to Switzerland.’

‘Can I call her there to say goodbye?’

‘No, don’t do that. Too confusing. Give her a buzz at Olympia tomorrow.’

‘What’s she doing there?’

‘Earning three days’ pin money at the Personal Computer exhibition. Call her on the Ultrasopht stand.’ He spelled it out.

‘Ultrasopht. Sounds like ice-cream.’

‘Here’s the number.’

Feeling better after that, or less desperate, I read all her letters from Chance over again. I had a real binge with them. There was some of her underwear I gave what for as well. And I found that machine. It wasn’t in her room. It was in among Angélique’s kit-bag of high-class toiletries. It was lurking in there like a blind torch. The Mole must have borrowed it for the night. I felt relieved. Not an habitual user. Just occasionally, for kicks. I twisted the base of the object and a kick is what it gave me. It was like a mild electric shock. A high-frequency buzz that I could feel in my teeth. You little bastard, I said to that machine. Leave my girl alone or I’ll get the boys on to you. Then I dropped the thing, still buzzing, into Angélique’s all-absorbing reticule and went back downstairs to pour myself the last drink of the night. It was a Mies van der Rohe masterpiece. Less is more, but not as much as more is. There was scarcely any hope of drinking it. I moved into it, slipping in water-slides of liquor down its icy inclined planes. I could just tell that I was the only man of my age in the whole of English history listening alone to Sade singing ‘Smooth Operator’. So I stopped her. Pushed down the silver tab and choked her off. Channel 4 had torture in Uruguay. Tupamaros talked about their season in Hell. Feeling bad about feeling miserable, I put on a video of The Band Wagon, zipped through it until I found ‘The Girl Hunt’, and watched it over and over until I nodded off with the remote control still in my hand. The sluggish suggestion of a breeze through the open sliding glass door woke me long enough for a zig-zag wall-banging stumble upstairs and an approximate dive on to her bed, where I soaked the pillow with sweat and tears.

Next morning I felt so lousy that I laughed. My hangover was like a low ceiling that I had to hobble around under in a crouch. If I straightened up I hit it. When I called Cambridge to say goodbye, my own voice told me to leave a message after the beep. So I said goodbye to myself. Eric buzzed me on the entryphone when it was time to take me to the airport. He had all the details worked out but after co-operating in a long discussion about Steve McQueen I was able to persuade him that it would not hurt our schedule if we stopped off for a few minutes at Olympia. All along the footpaths from Knightsbridge to Kensington the pretty girls were out like flowers. Agreeing by means of grunts that in Le Mans Steve McQueen had achieved the miracle of conveying the full range of his facial expression through the eyes alone, I observed the up-market young ladies proliferating around Harrods. The Albert Memorial was the centrepiece for an international exposition of clear-skin sweethearts. Perhaps Chance was right; although the perfect bodies had to be guessed at, even through the floating summer dresses. But there were plenty of perfect faces, impeccable pairs of upper arms, unimpeachable twin-sets of delicately articulated ankles. In the sweltering, un-airconditioned heat of Olympia there was more of the same. Just as naturally as the old Motor Shows at Earls Court had featured tarts tottering on high heels with swimming costumes they had to keep rescuing with a crooked finger from the crack at the back, the new high-tech exhibitions featured the kind of girl you hoped your son would meet and marry. There were Dis and Fergies all over the place, busy being marvellous. There was a Caroline looking alert on every stand, an Emma handing out pamphlets in every aisle. A few Amandas and Lucindas were actually working the machines. Visual displays altered brightly as long fingers with well-kept nails pressed sculpted keys. The figures of authority, however, were mostly male. Millionaires to a man, they weren’t much older than the females, but they had the look of being in control, whereas the girls were just being marvellous. From far off, down a long aisle, I saw the Mole being marvellous on the Ultrasopht stand. She had her long light-blue cotton dress on, the one I liked best. She was greeting people, handing them pamphlets and guiding them about. As I walked towards her, some of the men on the stands waved to me. They were science-minded and had seen me on television. Evidence of my existence accumulated thinly in the form of nods. It was nothing beside the evidence that the Mole existed. She burned. She beamed. She even had a smile for me, instead of the shocked grimace I had expected.

‘Hello! What are you doing here?’

‘Chance has sent me into exile. But I thought I might say goodbye on the way.’

‘We can go and have a drink. My break’s just coming up. I get the first break. Don’t I, Jeffrey? Can I have my break now? This is Joel.’

‘Of course you can, my own lovely,’ said a young man with an oiled quiff, Buddy Holly black-rimmed glasses, a Black Watch tartan zoot suit and monogrammed casuals. ‘Glad to meet you, Joel. Jeffrey Chaucer’s the name. Welcome to Ultrasopht Eposanal. Electronic point-of-sale analysis. They buy, we scan, you profit. That’s our programme. And let me say that I love your programmes, Joel. You’re a communicator. And at the end of the day, that’s the business we’re all in. Am I right?’

‘Well, I’m not sure it’s a b ... ’

‘Look after this nut-case here. She does wonders for our image. Because at the end of the day, Joel, the customer isn’t just buying the technology, he wants to know that the dealer is user-friendly too.’

‘I’ll look after her,’ I started saying several times during the momentary pauses in his flow. But as usually happened, she looked after me. Firmly she took me to one of the biggest stands — Olivetti, as I remember it — which had a coffee bar on its roof. From up there you could look down on the whole acreage of state-of-the-art electronic commerce, human beings forming interacting groups to interact with machines which interacted at a distance. It was Interface City. Nothing could have been further from the Mole’s temperament, more alien to her attainments: a fact which she realised the necessity of explaining.

‘I know nothing about all this, so they’ve got me just folding bits of paper and handing them out. Jeffrey is a total jerk but his father knows Daddy. Look what Mummy’s done to this dress. I’m so cross.’

‘What’s she done to it? I love that dress. It looks perfect.’

‘She shrunk it.

‘She can’t have. It practically scrapes the ground.’

‘It does not. The waist used to be right down here. God knows how she managed it. This isn’t denim, you know. It’s cotton. So how could it shrink? It’s not as if she’s got much to do all day except wash my clothes and bugger up the Porsche. But she’s turned all my bras pink and now she’s shrunk this. How did she do it?’

‘Did you know he was giving me the push?’

‘I’m going, too. It’s better, anyway. I can’t stand Angélique and she takes up all the room. Thank God she’s never here for long.’

‘You can’t stand her but you rub cream into her.’

‘Vanishing cream. It’s the only way to shut her up. If she opens her mouth I stick some goo in it. He doesn’t get much out of either of us, you know. He’s sort of lost the knack.’

‘Who hasn’t?’ This was news I would have to consider later, always granted that I believed it. ‘Can I phone you in Switzerland?’

‘It wouldn’t be a good idea. Madame would throw a moody. You can write to me, though. Will you do that?’

‘You won’t think I’m being a pest again?’

‘I’ve never thought that. Not for a minute. You’re one of the nicest men I’ve ever met. But you were making me a kind of symbol or something. And I’m just me. Barely that, really. And anyway I couldn’t respond. Because of, you know.’


‘You don’t hate me for being gay, do you? I only am a little bit.’

‘I’d still think the world of you even if you were that a lot. Anyway, I don’t disapprove if it’s women. I’m a bit turned off at the idea of men. Also it seems to have got a bit fatal for them lately. But I can’t say that I disapprove even there. Especially not here.’

‘What’s special about here?’

‘Computers all come from an idea by Alan Turing. He was a mathematician at Cambridge who worked out a way of decoding German radio traffic. This was World War II, about three wars before you were born ... ’

‘I know about that. Don’t tease.’

‘Hitler almost won it. Without what Turing did, England would have had to surrender. The U-boats would have starved her out. Turing didn’t win the war all on his own, but it would have been lost without him. And he was a queer. A queer boffin. Not even attractive to other homosexuals. Just an awkward poofter with a high-pitched voice. He had an awful time. It was illegal in those days and he got caught at it. They made him take medicine to straighten out his hormones and he ended up growing breasts. Not pretty ones like yours. So he killed himself.’

‘The poor man. How did he do it?’

‘He ate a poisoned apple. The man who saved the world. Every time I walk through King’s I think of him. It’s one of the reasons I love Cambridge. His memory. Some people feel that way about Wittgenstein. They go to Trinity college chapel and commune with his brass plate. PHILOSOPHANDI NOVAM VIAM MULTIS MONSTRAVIT RATIONEM EX VINCULIS ORATIONIS VINDICANDUM ESSE. He showed how reason must be unchained from language. I feel that way about Turing. He could see how everything came down to numbers. But that didn’t make nature less marvellous. It made it more so. When I’m feeling down, I go for a walk through King’s. Or I did. It’s a while since I have.’

‘Are you very down now?’

‘It’s not a good time in my life, Mole. But knowing you has made it better.’

‘You’ll like it on the beach. There are simply masses of pretty girls.’

‘Yes, but you’re my popsy.’

‘How can I be your popsy? Daddy’s my popsy, silly.’ Sometimes she was straight out of Jackanory.

‘Never mind. just another word that’s gone out of date. They all do, in time.’

‘What did all that Latin mean?’

‘What I said. He liberated reasoning from the chains of ... ’

‘How is this nut-case looking after you, Joel?’ asked Jeffrey Chaucer from behind my shoulder, on which his hand had descended with a squeeze of reassurance. He sat down with us, although by rights, caught full in the chest by the glare I beamed at him, he should have been thrown backwards over the balustrade with his legs in the air. ‘I’m just passing through, Joel, I’m afraid,’ he went on, the hand still in place, ‘otherwise I would have liked nothing better than to join you for a good one-on-one thrash-through of what we’re doing in your field. But there’s no let-up down there. It’s fantastic. And we have to stay on it. No, I don’t mean you, Antonia. Come back down in your own good time. Pace yourself. Because at the end of the day, it’s the whole week’s work that matters. And that can take a while to assess, Joel. At the end of the day, you might not know for a year.’

‘There’s something in what you say.’

‘Look after this madwoman now. Mind how you go, Joel. Love your programme. Glad to have met you. Look after yourself. God bless.’


‘Goodbye, he says. I like that. A man of few words. The one word that sums everything up. Precise. Love it. Antonia, look after this nut-case. He’s a precious commodity.’

‘I’ll see you later, Jeffrey.’

For a while it seemed as if she would be seeing him later without his having gone away in the intervening period, but finally — at the end of the day, as he would have put it — he withdrew, littering the air with further blessings, farewells and injunctions to have a nice one. Frittering away the short sweet time with my popsy. We sat for a while in the wreckage of our conversation. We parted at the foot of the blue-carpeted plywood stairs.

‘Look after yourself,’ I said, putting my hand on her shoulder.

‘Mind how you go,’ she said. ‘And don’t forget to use a lot of blocker the first day. Even if the sun isn’t out. Really cake it on. Do you promise?’

‘Don’t worry. Bronzed Aussies never burn. I hope you’re getting some loot out of Jeffrey. At the end of the day.’

‘I know he’s a bit naff but he’s very clever. It’s a bit depressing really. They all understand it. I mean, I can stand you understanding it, but they’re all my age. I’m just going to get a not very good degree in English and what will I do? What am I for? I’ll be washed up. I wish I was technical like you.’

‘You can be technical like me and still be washed up, believe me.’

‘Now you’re depressing me worse.’

‘I have to get going. Is it all right to miss you?’

‘Yes. I want to be missed.’

So I walked away from her along the blue carpet of the aisle, applauded by VDUs full of information I didn’t want. It should have felt like progress towards rehabilitation. I had made a fool of myself with her, yet without losing her friendship. By my standards, that was a breakthrough. It still felt like a breakdown. Eric looked put out, but he made up enough time on the M4 to feel cheerful again before we reached Terminal 2, where he handed me my final defeat.

‘Robert Redford and Katherine Ross,’ he said, hefting my hold-all from the boot of the car.

‘Here,’ I said, ‘let me lend you a ... It can’t be Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Steve McQueen isn’t in that. Deal me another.’

‘And Barry Sullivan.’

‘I give up.’

‘Tell Them Willy Boy is Here.’

‘Steve McQueen isn’t in that!’ I protested loudly.

Course not!’ laughed Eric, the happiest of men. ‘I got the governor with that one as well.’

‘You’ve widened your range, Eric.’

‘Yeah. You’ve got to know how to mix the serves. Got to be a bit of a John McEnroe. Take care of yourself, now. Mind how you go.’

The ticket to Biarritz was business-class, with an open return. They were sending me out in style. The Caravelle was only two hours late getting away, because Düsseldorf airport fielded the general alarm in time to pick up Mr Nagoya at the immigration desk. Mr Nagoya, a Toshiba executive, had checked his baggage on to our flight, walked unchallenged through the wrong gate, and left us with one passenger too few, so that all our luggage had to be unloaded on to the concrete and checked for bombs while he headed for Germany, where he arrived under the impression that it was France. Many of our passengers cursed the chief cabin steward for having so officiously counted heads, but I did not. I didn’t really want to leave anyway.

Continue to PART FOUR