Books: The Remake — Part 4 |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

The Remake

PART FOUR : Jailbait Teriyaki

But he knew the happiness of watching. Nature had told him of it. No eye could be clearer or brighter than the eye that had nothing to create, nothing to do but gaze. The invisible horizon beyond which the conscious eye could not penetrate was far more remote than the visible horizon. And all manner of entities appeared in regions visible and accessible to consciousness. Sea, ships, clouds, peninsulas, lightning, the sun, the moon, the myriads of stars. If seeing is a meeting between eye and being, which is to say between being and being, then it must be the facing mirrors of two beings. No, it was more. Seeing went beyond being, to take wings like a bird.

Yukio Mishima, The Decay of the Angel

Arriving at Biarritz in the late afternoon, I found it impossible not to feel better. In that context, the sunlight struck me as relevant. All the arrangements went smoothly. As instructed, I asked the taxi driver to take me to Le Sable d’Or, and he took me there instead of to the local Saab dealer, a mistake which my accent might normally have been expected to bring about. Le Sable d’Or was a charming restaurant perched on the cliff top above the Côte des Basques. Chance had said it was a good place to eat and that I should treat it as my dining room. The proprietress was a lady of advanced years who had been born and brought up in San Sebastian and had the lustrous eyes to prove it. After an adult lifetime spent in Biarritz, her spoken Spanish had lost all of its endings except those that helped to make her French unintelligible, so she sounded a bit like me. We got on famously from the start. When I asked her for the key to Chance’s flat she smiled nicely. When I mimed the same request she caught on. I was introduced to one of the waitresses who was also her stepdaughter and doubled, or tripled, as Chance’s char. Madame detailed the stepdaughter to show me the way. The block of flats was only fifty yards away along the same cliff top. The stepdaughter, whose name was either Marie or Maria, showed me how to work the lift and didn’t complain when I put my bag down on her foot. She tried to unpack it when we got inside the flat but I shoved her out, closed the door behind me, and went over to the balcony, where I dared the view to impress me. It was a wow.

Five floors up in a building whose base was already a long way up from the beach, I looked straight out on nothing except sea and sky. The sky was more white than blue and the sea more blue than green. If not for the colour, you would have said that the Atlantic was doing an imitation of the Pacific. It should have been a more serious green, but otherwise I could have been looking at three lines of breakers rolling in at Cronulla. Out beyond the third line, surfers on potato-chip boards waited in clusters for a wave worth the effort of paddling back again afterwards to where they already were. Further out, windsurfers wrestled their sails to find a breath of moving air. Skeletal catamarans, with sails lit through like pastel spectra, slowly manoeuvred in the calm or caught a wave and came scudding suddenly in. It was peace with a ragged edge. Under the still air the sea was mobile. Bodysurfers with flippers took a long lazy ride but got off early so they could go back for another trip. Greedily I weighed the odds against getting down amongst it before the light went. The sun was falling towards the horizon even as I watched. No, better wait until tomorrow. My exile would last long enough, in this unsung outpost of Chance’s empire.

Compared with the Barbican fortress, Chance’s Biarritz redoubt ranked only as an airborne foxhole, but it had been well tended in his absence. Though there was nothing in the refrigerator except ice-cubes, there were some interesting bottles in the drinks cabinet. With my fist around a slowly cooling glass I explored the place. There were only three main rooms but they had everything. A wall of cassettes duplicated, or more correctly predated, much of the music library in the Barbican. He seemed to buy these things prodigally, although not indiscriminately. Always the best performances: the Honegger Second and Third Symphonies, for example, conducted by Karajan. Think what you like of Das Wunder, the ghost was with him when he recorded those. Screen International was present in flat stacks, up to the latest issue. Marie-Maria must have had, among her duties, the task of stripping the wrappers from rolled-up subscription copies of magazines and putting them on the right pile against the master’s return. Probably he got the subscriptions as gifts, like his wines. There were a lot of books: a whole working library, dating from the days when Chance had come here for months on end to write books himself. One entire wall was given over to paperbacks of everything Simenon had written. Simenon’s volumes of mémoires intimes were also there, along with a collection of magazines and newspaper literary sections containing interviews with the author. The special Simenon edition of Lire had an interview with Chance in it, recording his debt to the master. Chance might have been an intellectual gadfly but he usually worked a patch pretty thoroughly before gadding on. Only slightly less impressively, another, smaller wall case displayed everything Chance himself had written. I resolved to read it all again. There were notebooks, typewritten manuscripts, files of xeroxed letters. Rich pickings for the archaeologist — the right word, because it was clear, despite the neatness conferred by Marie-Maria, that Chance had left all this behind, dead and buried. He had shipped out. As if to rub this in, the phone rang.

‘You comfortable?’

‘Couldn’t be more so. Where are you?’

‘New York. Listen, if you want to stock up on milk and stuff you’ve got an hour before the supermarket closes. Turn left into the rue Gambetta and it’s about a hundred yards down the hill towards the town centre. Got any money?’

‘I changed some at the airport.’

‘Don’t be surprised if you dream a lot. The weather’s changeable. Gets into your head and stirs your brains around with a spoon.’

‘I do anyway.’

‘Yeah? Got to go. It’s all yours.’

If it was, there was no reason to take it in all at once. Leaving the town centre for another day, I went only as far as the supermarket, where my Safeway skills came in handy. After transferring some of the contents of the supermarket to my refrigerator I showered, changed and went to dinner at Le Sable d’Or, just as the sun prepared for its farewell performance. Sending its light rays the long way through the earth’s atmosphere, it turned the colour of simmering plum juice. The sea turned to beaten silver, shivering like a gong struck with a soft mallet. The bands of light cloud above the horizon flooded with pink as the disc took its dive. There was no holding it. Behind the stone balustrade on the cliff’s edge, the fringe of tamarisk turned a deeper green, a darker gold. Then it was a silhouette. Madame asked me if I did not think the effect was formidable. Clearly I was to be her favourite. Though the restaurant was jammed with people of all European nationalities, she would attend to me personally. Forewarned, I ordered my meal with care, pronouncing the words as clearly as possible, resorting to mime when it came to specifying the fish. From empty air I conjured a fillet of plaice which Marcel Marceau could not have made more flat. Madame brought me veal instead. Well, veal was flat too, and nobody made a mistake about the wine, which thickened my tongue like a dentist’s injection. Having asked for mixed ice-cream, it was no surprise to receive a basket of fruit. Some of this I ate and the rest I took with me, back up to the fifth floor for an early night. The Comédie-Française production of Cyrano de Bergerac was on television. There was no twenty-four hour channel of the international horror show we call the news, so until Soir 3 came on I had to content myself with Cyrano lending his magnificent eloquence to a fool, while Roxanne, the biggest fool of all, failed to realise that the man who talked so well in the dark was the same man who had talked so well in the daylight. Later on, it was hot enough for me to lie in bed with the window open and nothing over my bare body except a sheet. I didn’t dream, but that could have been because I didn’t sleep. Knowing that the Mole must have lain on the same bed many times with her legs wide apart didn’t help. Out on the balcony with a drink in my hand, I did not look up, although in the light thrown up from the town the sky would not have been all that brilliant. A long way to the left, where the coastline curved outwards, the lights of Spain shone steadily. Out to sea were the red riding lights of fishing boats, where they put their nets over the side to catch veal. They put the veal in a veal-creel. Clunk clink. Another drink. Clink clunk. Another drunk.

My first day on the beach was more than I deserved. Making a gradual start, by late morning I was on my way down the cliffside trottoir that descended through the clumps of tamarisks by a switchback series of easy asphalt ramps, well signposted by mounds of fresh dogshit. Where the ramps switched direction, there were way-stations with benches. Old ladies sat with their leashed poodles. The dogs had their tongues out, gathering strength to shit again on the next stage. It was as if the Tour de France des Chiens Merdeux had reached a climbing section. The dog that crapped most often wore the yellow jersey. In my Hong Kong thongs I flip-flopped carefully downward. Flip-flopping through the plop. The thongs I had brought with me from England, along with my swimming costume, shorts and T-shirt. My straw hat and rattan mat had come from Chance’s copious supply of beach gear, and from his bookshelves had come my volume of Julien Green’s journal, Les Années faciles. Thinking seriously of working my diary up into something more grand, I was looking for tips.

There was a road along the sea wall with a parapet on the seaward side. The grand staircase down to the actual beach was a couple of hundred yards along to the left. It would have been an easy walk along the footpath if not for the females sunbathing on the parapet. I would like to be able to say that my imagination, warped by the glossy pornography of the everyday soft-core hard sell, received so much unadorned naturalness as a salutary shock. Indeed, the topless old ladies were not a pretty sight. But the topless young ladies were. As I flapped and flopped past them only a few inches away like a shot-up vulture making a crash landing, they ignored me in the nicest possible manner by sitting up to oil their breasts or by simply lying there with their pubic mounds, cupped by the flimsiest of bikini bottoms, swelling softly skyward like little radar blisters. Resisting the impulse to choose a pair of slightly separated young thighs and plunge my head between them, I just made it to the stairs without tripping over my tongue. An erection would have converted me into a tripod. Luckily there was no sign of such a thing. In that area I was numb as if cauterised, blasted and stunned as if struck by lightning. Too large a stimulus had obliterated desire. It was like feeding a whole power station into a curling iron.

The tide was in. From overheard conversations I deduced that there would be no beach for another hour. Its potential population was draped around the battered cement staircase, which led half-way down to the beach in one broad flight and then, before bifurcating left and right for the final descent, formed a landing, itself equipped with a parapet on which yet another row of oiled girls offered themselves to the sky. They glistened as if they had been cooked in a light sauce. Rows of under-age girls were connected by their succulent colour. Jail-bait teriyaki. I sat on the stairs and cursed myself for not having worn a pair of Chance’s mirror-finish sun-glasses. Tomorrow I would, so that I could gaze my fill. I had to get enough of this. Not enough was too much. As it was, there was nothing to do except take off my T-shirt and wait for the water to recede. Already it was only lapping at the rocks which it had previously swamped. Some sopping patches of sand intermittently appeared. A few oldsters waded away to bag a good spot by perching on a rock above it, where they would wait for the sand to dry before spreading out their gear. Eventually I did the same. I was one of the oldsters. But at heart I was still a bronzed Aussie. Scorning all protection from creams or filters, I stretched out in the deliberate quest for a mild burn. That was the way we had always done it in my childhood: bum today, brown tomorrow, don’t mind if you peel. Hence the tough tone of my skin, out of practice but still well able to cope with anything that hazy sun could send down. You could tell it wasn’t very intense, by the soft colours of sand and water: raw calico and faded blue denim. It was hot, but not unpleasantly so, and whenever I felt a tingle I could always submerge myself in the flat surf, walking further to it each time.

The first time, there was a girl walking towards me, leaving the sea with her translucent Dayglo pink flippers held in one hand like two shopping bags from a chic boutique, her one-piece Lycra apple-green costume simply bursting with meaningful content. The second time I was a few yards behind two topless girls above whose firm bottoms a line was drawn which could be identified as the horizontal component of a G-string only by the central knot, because the vertical component had been sucked in so decisively that it would have taken forceps to retrieve it, although I would have been willing to try with my teeth if given the opportunity. Perhaps I was already feeling better: not better in terms that any feminist study group would applaud, but better in the sense of more alive. Striving to maintain detachment, however, I was careful not to draw level with them and they waded out through the frilled swell. I didn’t want to face the full, flagrant challenge of their swelling breasts, the outer curves of which could already be seen from behind when they threw up their arms to punch an avenue through the froth. At last there was a breaker that they had to dive under or else be bowled over by, and here I drew the dubious reward for my forbearance, because suddenly they had both porpoised forward and their brown bottoms flashed against the wall of white water like the Greek letter omega carved twice in marble. Two ziggurat sets of ten toes materialised for a moment and then plunged out of sight, a lost Atlantis. The same wave knocked me rolling. I let it happen. The next one I tried to catch, missed, and followed in on my feet, attacked from behind by its sycophantic friends, a walking patsy. Then I lay down, propped on one elbow, and ate a peach out of my flimsy, filmy plastic carrier-bag from the supermarket. The beach was expanding. Young men drew tennis courts with their feet. Not interested in young men, I fell asleep, to be awakened some time later by an English voice.

‘You’ll be sore tonight, at that rate,’ it said. It was Ann Todd in The Sound Barrier or Virginia McKenna in The Cruel Sea: an English rose in a bucket of ice, wired for sound. Looking up into the hot light, I focused on a shape at odds with the emitted noise. Tall, taut and tanned, she was in her well-preserved early forties. The bare breasts held themselves up unassisted. The G-string unashamedly spilled ash-blonde hair that looked strong enough to sew on a button with.

‘Nice of you to be concer ... ’ I started saying.

‘Chance told us you might be showing up. I saw you on telly last time I was over. My name’s Gloria Cravache. Jean-Louis and I have a house back that way.’ She gestured inland. ‘We’ll get you to dinner, yes?’

At the water’s edge, the man I recognised from Chance’s pinboard was taking a catamaran apart. He and Gloria must have just arrived on it. White of hair, flat of stomach and trim of limb, he turned and waved to her, then pointed at the waves, picked up a surfboard and ran out towards them, stepping extraordinarily high. ‘That would be ni ... ’ I started saying.

‘Bloody Hell, he’ll be there for another hour,’ said Gloria, but showed no inclination to spend the time with me. She moved away towards the staircase, saying, her head only half-turned, ‘We’ve got the number. Call you soon. Put a shirt on or you won’t be able to come.’

Still feeling more hot than burned, rather enjoying how my sweat ran, I scorned her advice. I could see why Jean-Louis found Angélique such a nice change. After being interrupted all the time by your wife, it must be a relief to be interrupted all the time by your mistress. Sitting up, I watched him out there in the waves, which, even though the tide was still going out, were beginning to run high. He must have sensed they would. Perhaps they always did, as a tribute to him. He was like Poseidon, except that he didn’t just stand on the water, he danced. Rarely did he merely face forward on the board. His long legs were bent sideways so that his behind was between his ankles. He swivelled the board from left to right like a flopping fishtail, finished a ride by turning all the way around and flying off the wave going back the other way. Young surfers on their way to the water stopped to study him, compare notes, shake their heads. I watched fascinated for as long as fascination felt fascinating, then peevishly diverted my gaze to the pages of my book. ‘ ... voici la vérité sur ce livre; je suis tous les personnages ... ’ Oh Christ, I thought, not you too. How about writing a book in which you aren’t all the characters? But he had said this on 5 October, 1928, when writers were still professing to make things up, and the claim not to have done so must have seemed daringly frank. You had to admire the poor old faggot, getting something out of every day. Resolving to start work soon on the reworking of my diary, I closed the book and looked up just in time to see Jean-Louis catch a wave and stand on his hands. High up on the sea wall behind me, spontaneous applause broke out from the frieze of well-oiled nubile lovelies. Ten years younger than Jean-Louis and feeling twenty years older, I packed up my gear and headed for the stairs, the sand sucking me down as the water buoyed him up. It isn’t always a question of your attitude towards the world. Quite often what counts is the world’s attitude towards you. But at least I didn’t care how I looked. I left all that to the bleached-haired young male surfers with long faded trunks and peeled-down hip-length wet-suits, raw blisters on their chests from their crustily waxed twin-fin boards. Even the middle-aged ones looked no less fit than Henri Leconte or Yannick Noah. Feeling less ridiculous than negligible, I retraced my hazardous route past the outstretched houris. They couldn’t see me, but I could see them. A girl with Julie Christie’s nose was oiling the back of a girl with Jane Fonda’s behind. Bits and pieces of grown women were gravitating into the next generation. The girl with the oil gave the other girl’s back a final stroke and then wiped her hands on her own breasts. I looked away just in time.

At dinner I mimed for the fish by pouting with my mouth and wagging my hands like fins. Already it had become evident that my burns would allow me little sleep that night. Before the meal was over I found it difficult even to stay seated. Leaning forward and tensing my legs so as to keep my back and thighs clear of the chair, I spooned ice-cream into my mouth as if its coldness would quench the fire in my skin. Madame and her family, including distant relatives, gathered around me to discuss my redness and offer remedies. Coated with various white creams, I spent the night foraging in Chance’s archives. As long as I didn’t turn the pages too violently I felt no more pain than I would have done if whipped with a sting ray’s tail. Poised so as to present the minimum skin area to chair, couch, bed or carpet, I read the abandoned manuscript of Bad News Travels Fast. Chance wrote an italic hand which was legible even when he scribbled with a thick black Pentel. His working methods were easy to follow. He drafted on the right-hand pages of the folio notebook and corrected on the left-hand pages.

Bad News Travels Fast started out as a mystery story set in the world of sports car racing. It would have been an obvious pot-boiler if not for the fact that it was so obviously an obvious pot-boiler. In other words, it was a spoof: horsepower instead of horses, a Dick Francis on wheels. But it was not content to be a spoof. The book began to discuss its own genre. When he should have been investigating the death of a racing driver — had the car been sabotaged? — the hero ruminated on the difference between a straight Simenon novel and a Maigret. The private eye became a literary critic. He was immobilised by critical reflection. Thinking too precisely upon the event, he could not get back into the real world, the realm of action which alone gave him his raison d’être. The way Chance kept the mystery plot going while simultaneously developing the protagonist’s inner conflict was a tribute to his craft. Though the whole concoction thoroughly exemplified the kind of polythematic, multimodal Chinese-boxes novel that drove me nuts, Chance was incapable of writing a dull sentence, even as parody. He could imitate the cracked tone of books with titles like The Horsepiss Discrepancy and still generate a narrative drive, a vivacity of response to the observed world, that the lampooned author would have been glad to possess — unless, as seems likely, limitations are crucial to success in that type of writing. Guying cheapness and considering its possible merits at the same time, Chance was, or had been, engaged in a dialectical tour de force. But in the fifth chapter, which brought the manuscript to a premature end, the highwire act went haywire. The fifth chapter was called ‘Headlights in the Forest’. At two o’clock in the morning of the second day of the Le Mans 24-Hour Race, the hero was at Le Ferme, standing behind the metal barrier at the edge of the Mulsanne Straight, just before the big cars, travelling at 230 mph plus, take the full-bore right turn known, apparently, as the Kink. But let him tell it.

If Claxton had not been alone he would have done his best not to flinch. But in the dark and unobserved he allowed his body to do at least something of what it would have liked to do. The speed had impact. It would have had that even without the noise. Far enough away, each pair of headlights began as a point source. When they separated, they were obviously a bit closer. Far sooner than you would have believed possible, or experience could get you used to, they were a lot closer, their radiance cut up by the trees into thin slices, slats from a mother-of-pearl fan. If you moved your head quickly, panning it like a camera, you could identify the car as it transformed itself from an arriving object into a departing one, the nacreous display of headlights, now decorated in its dark centre with an array of rubies, curving away to the right so that the dark trees cut across it vertically. Going that fast a few feet from your face, the car was already an injury. But the noise added insult. Claxton checked his ears in the hope that his earplugs had fallen out. They were still there. Three Porsches, two from the factory and the Joest No. 1 car, went past one behind the other on the racing line, a rocket train in a light storm.

After a while, Claxton’s neck hurt. He settled for just looking up the straight past the café and watching the indiscriminate glare of the distant headlights separate into pairs of spectacles that came shrieking forward pushed by ghost faces and went out of focus past his unmoving head, a Doppler swoop in his ears and an opalescent diffusion in his peripheral vision. So he was actually watching Bannerjee’s Porsche — although he didn’t yet know that it was Bannerjee’s Porsche — when the pair of spectacles turned into a monocle, then a ruby brooch, and then back into a pair of spectacles which were too near the barrier. The crunch could not be heard in the general uproar, but Claxton felt it in his stomach. The headlights of another car, which was already manoeuvring to get past an accident that was still happening, illuminated the wreck as it crossed the track, covering a lot of ground forwards as it did so, and clouted the opposite barrier. After that, the smash provided its own light. Spilling fire, the main component of the mess crossed the track again. Claxton saw the lime-green lightning flashes on the white undertray panels and knew it was Bannerjee. A big piece of body panelling went up in the air, caught by the glare of the flames and the headlights of the cars coming up behind. It hadn’t landed before Claxton was over the barrier and running in the narrow grassed gap beside the track. The No. I Joest Porsche lit him up as it came by at less than 200 mph but already accelerating back up to racing speed. Claxton blinked and ran on. A marshal who was running too made a gesture towards stopping him, but ...

But Chance lost interest. Beyond that point he couldn’t make it matter. The hero tried to care about the victim and couldn’t. What was worse, the author couldn’t care either. He had tried. Paragraphs had been written, crossed out, rewritten and crossed out again. Then the pages went blank. I wondered what had happened. Even when he wasn’t with you, when you were merely dealing with something he had touched, it was so unusual to see him at a loss.

My month alone in Biarritz fell into a rhythm after that sleepless night. The weather changed next day. With my skin lit up like a red bulb, a clear day was the last thing I wanted, so it was good to see the sky filled in with cloud. Rain fell out of it emphatically. I established a routine which I kept to on overcast days from then on. The Bar du Haou had an unusually sayable name for a Basque establishment. Biarritz, I soon found, is full of names that not even the locals can pronounce, unless they have Basque blood. Challenged by the signboards of the Boulangerie Axolotl and the Blanchisserie Exocet, it was a relief to sit down under the striped canvas awning at one of the outside tables of the Bar du Haou and watch the world go by, which it did even while the rain sluiced down. There I would sit toying with sobriety — I dared the occasional Orangina in among the Kronenbourgs — while I fiddled with the short first draft of a long letter to the Mole, or re-read Chance’s books, or, stung to action, reassembled bits of my diary in what was meant to be a more significant order. At Prisunic I had bought a big plastic-covered exercise book for this purpose. Borrowing Chance’s technique, I drafted on the right-hand page only, keeping the left-hand page for notes and revisions. The book started to fill up quite quickly that way. It startled me to see how altering the order of events altered the events. My diary had been like life: things happened, but not as a consequence. My super-diary was more lively. It was the edited highlights. I was able to eliminate those long stretches in which we change, but don’t seem to.

Perhaps I should do the same here. When the sun shone, I lay down in it, and what I saw over the next few weeks healed me, or at any rate what I thought about it did. But practically nothing happened. Later on in that first week I went to dinner at the Cravaches’. There were fifty other people there, all eating salmon off china plates with silver forks. A lot of the girls who looked so good on the beach in a bikini bottom or a rolled-down stretch one-piece were there to prove they looked just as wonderful when dressed for dancing. One of the girls I especially admired, a Spanish teenager whose black corneas shone like Continental coffee beans against eye-whites like poached eggs, seemed glad enough to dance with me — or, rather, dance in front of me while I did a reined-in dead-foot tremble. Far gone into sobriety by now, I had been too smart to show up drunk, and so was able to manage a pretty convincing display of avuncularity. Dignified enjoyment: that was my role. Besides, Jean-Louis all too clearly had the monopoly of middle-aged marvellousness. He danced as if John Travolta had taken lessons from Fred Astaire. Chance had told me, in one of his phone calls from various parts of the world, that Jean-Louis practised dancing in front of mirrors. His house, which only the absence of the Loire saved from being classed as a château, had plenty of mirrors everywhere, so he, must have felt as if he were still practising on his own. Gloria also danced very well, but strictly as a foil. People stood back to watch Jean-Louis. They clapped their hands in time as he dipped, leapt, slid and spun. His permanent smile could have been called self-satisfied by the envious. I was the opposite of envious. I deeply, sincerely considered him just about the biggest prick I had ever met. Thus detached, I was able to see his pleased grin for what it was. He was delighted with the prodigies of which the human body was capable. It was the merest coincidence that the body in question happened to be his own. Gloria, as she had on the beach, looked bored, but only in the way that Mary Magdalene might have done if Jesus had lived to be a hundred. She had grown used to miracles.

Otherwise there was no news, especially not in the local newspaper, although as I lay in the sand on one elbow I was mildy appalled to see Jeffrey Chaucer, mine host of the Ultrasopht Eposanal stand at Olympia, staring keenly out of a story about Biarritz’s already redoubtable, and soon to be revolutionary, commitment profonde to information technology. Despite the presence of several anomalous new hotels and high-rise blocks of flats like the one in which I was sleeping each night, the architectural fabric of the town was still mainly pitted stone, flaky plaster and crumbling cement dating back to the Empress Eugénie’s heyday. Above the shop windows the façades were of timbered Basque houses or belle-époque pastiche follies designed to convey the holiday spirit by the frou-frou of their embellishment. But under the shop counters, the wiring all led to central computers. Biarritz was plugged up like the Pentagon. According to the newspaper, the town was already unique in the opportunities it offered the citizen to conduct banking operations from the tranquillity of home. Now, based on the electronic infrastructure already laid down, the town’s nervous system would be remade. Soon, electronic point-of-sale analysis would also be the norm. M. Chaucer of England was here to co-operate with eminent French technicians. So was M. Nagoya of Japan. M. Nagoya’s face, heavily bespectacled and grave with secret electronic knowledge, betrayed no sign of his having recently paid an unplanned visit to Düsseldorf. There was a paragraph about how, late at night on a date not far in the future, all the electric power in town, save that devoted to essential services, would be switched off in order to expedite the scheduled supplement to the capabilities of an electronically integrated system already unparalleled in its sophistication. Bound by the Fascist-looking collar insignia that serve the French for quotation marks, the word high-tech featured largely. Superficially a throwback to a bygone age, Biarritz would acquire, beneath its cherished carapace, a microchip musculature, a digital nervous system. Through being remade it would be preserved.

Perhaps I was regaining my interest in the future, but from where I now sat it didn’t look so bad. My favourite naiad, the one most stunningly combining long hair, big breasts, short waist and amphibian affinity with water, went stalking past me on the way to her element, her pair of translucent Dayglo pink flippers easily dependent from her right hand. On the wrist of the same arm was an iridescent pistachio digital watch. Wasn’t she going to take it off? Of course not. Small boys kicked their way down the face of a dumping white wave on radiant Rip Curl Hot Squad boogie-boards. There were shapes of luminous colour everywhere, from nearby out into the far distance: small triangles of bikini bottoms, large triangles of sailboards and catamarans; ellipses of potato chip surfboards, discs of Swatch faces, Frisbees and fat soft beach tennis balls. Zinc cream for the nose was now a neat miniature pink pyramid instead of the proper white splurge I had grown up with. William Cameron Menzies had been wrong not just about the shape of things to come but about their colour. The science-fiction future, far from being monolithic and clinically white, had turned out to be a fractionated aggregate of supersaturated colours, the contents of a smashed kaleidoscope, or of one of those giant jars that fill the windows of candy stores in American shopping malls. The beaches of Biarritz, once Picasso’s playground, now looked as if they belonged to Joan Miró. When you looked down from the cliffs you saw a hessian wall-painting lying on the floor, the near half unprimed, the far half stained with Reckitt’s Blue, the whole thing spattered with these hard-edged patches of aching pigment, a swathe of relaxation prickling with local intensity, a daylight version of the night sky as it had once pleased me to conceive of it. It wasn’t an idea I wanted to work too hard on. I was beginning to cope with the lack of pressure.

‘Great place to just lie down and do fuck all, isn’t it?’ asked Chance proprietorially on the phone one night. ‘Spanish Basque terrorists come up there to relax. You’re pretty safe around there unless one of their bombs goes off while they’re actually building it.’

‘Can you tell which ones they are?’ I asked with strained offhandedness.

‘Ones on the beach with dark glasses reading Jeffrey Archer novels in Spanish translation. Place gets into your system. It’s in half a dozen of my books.’

‘I know. I’ve been reading them again.’

‘I’d come back from somewhere like Tibet and start writing about poor bloody Biarritz again. The newest place to have become old. Just love the worn-outness of it. Like me. Thought I was going to keep on coming back for ever.’

‘You aren’t?’

‘Not now. Miss it though. Love that sleepy feeling in the limbs. Takes all day to write a letter. Buying lunch becomes an epic. Mole and I had a gang down there last year. Called it Wimp Squad. Otherwise known as the B-Team or the Mild Bunch. Idea was to do nothing. At an agreed signal we surged into inaction. I wanted to call it Ziz-Cars but the Mole had never heard of Z-Cars, needless to say. We were awe-inspiring. Our inertia was formidable. Onlookers were astonished by how little we could do.’

‘Where are you speaking from?’


‘Are you with her now?’

‘No. She’s still at school. I’m in a kind of clinic.’

‘Is there something wrong?’

‘Nothing they can’t fix. It’s a nice lay-out. Magic Mountain with overtones of Scott Fitzgerald. Girl doctor who ought to be called Dick Diver, if you get me.’

I got him. The double entendre was one of his more imitable verbal tricks. He had others that were harder to fathom. Working my way again through all his books in sequence, there was little I did not remember from before but still less that did not come up fresh. It was his way of putting things. His merest sentence was packed tight with meaning and painted shut with tone, like Technicolor Latin. How could he give up? Certainly it wasn’t for lack of ideas. Among his papers I found a working notebook empty except for the first few pages, but those were full of sketched notions that betrayed no lack of conceptual energy, however appalling their want of taste.

Idea novella. Nazi middle-rank war criminal harmlessly growing old under false name. Has a stroke. Gets taken by daughter to Miami for last holiday. All hotels booked out except Fontainebleau. He thinks it’s a concentration camp run by Jews. Swimming pool full of children makes him remember cess pit, etc. (Check Max Frisch, Tagebuch.) Electrical storm makes him think prisoners suiciding on wire. Same tone of lamentation as Death in Venice. Same slow drum-beat. Thinks self great man. Our unfinished task, etc. Dies fright.

Idea short story. Academic working on study of Flaubert’s interest in red wine. Provisional title: Flaubert’s Claret. Refuses to be discouraged when Peter C. Bartelski-type rival academic publishes Flaubert’s Garret: Atelier and Ivory Tower in Second Empire French Fiction. Goes ever deeper into subject. Everything F. wrote. Everything written about him. Proust’s essay. Ce n’est pas que j’aime entre tous (sic) les livres de Flaubert, ni même le style de Flaubert. He reads all of Proust. Henry James’s review of F.’s Correspondance. ‘Why was such a passion, in proportion to its strength, after all so sterile?’ He reads all of Henry James. Grows old. Like F. he must go on verifying. Finally someone else publishes Flaubert’s Carrot: the Vegetable as Challenge to the Stylist of the Imperishable. Shoots self, but bullet emerges slowly from barrel of gun and never quite reaches his head. Rigor mortis precedes death.

Idea story main characters made up from spare parts. Douglas Bader’s legs, Sammy Davis Jr’s eye, Wittgenstein’s brother’s arm, Van Gogh’s ear, Freud’s jaw, etc. Half Apollinaire’s head? Whole Jayne Mansfield’s? Could be fictional components also. Claire’s knee. Achilles’ heel. King Charles’s head real and metaphorical. Pompey’s head. How funny amputation to amputee? Ask Eric.

Idea self-destruct novel. Deconstruction bonanza. Art form wants suicide? Let it. See how self-reflexive can be. All main characters coded versions each other. Narrative insist emerge? Kill it. Personality comes through? Distort it. Whole thing self-conscious, calculated. To the roots. Whatever survives must be essential self. That whereof we cannot speak must be us. Game? Not now.

So even then he was leaving now. Nothing for him was now any more. He had thought of a book to end his life as a writer, but already he was so finished that he could not begin it. I wondered whether he had written down what had stopped him. If there was a secret document, a Saragossa manuscript, it was probably here. Here was where energy ran out. Except, I need hardly add, for Jean-Louis. I read his books too, or one of them. No doubt he was a good enough technician, but as a philosophe he was Teilhard de Chardin with a cocksure impertinence that was all his own. His universal theory, a sort of omnium gatherum of all the transcendentalisms, was soup plus cheek, soap plus chic. Decking out the mandatory Althusserian re-reading of Descartes was a diagram of something called, in English, a Force Field, with arrows leading from Magma Impulse to Individual Consciousness, etc. It was voodoo. As a tract promising the reader a perception of the All through relentless pursuit of Self-Realisation it had no more internal consistency or rigour than a hundred other silly books like it. Externally, however, it had the persuasive attribute of having been written by Jean-Louis, a man whose Self had been Realised to an extent that would have left Pico della Mirandola feeling like a builder’s labourer. On the beach one day I was actually snorting with superior knowledge at one of Jean-Louis’s footling diagrams when the roar of a speed-boat made me look out to the calm sea. From the speed-boat a long tow-line led up at a shallow angle to a parachute about fifty feet in the air. Jean-Louis, wearing long tight surfer’s trunks, was hanging from some sort of trapeze suspended from the parachute. People on the beach clapped. The girl with the pink flippers, on her way to the sea, or on her way back, or more likely just walking about in her normal sequence of loosely adopted poses, waved to him with her free hand. Her chartreuse Lycra one-piece was rolled down to a bikini, leaving her magnificent breasts free to hang. They didn’t. They stuck straight out like guns. The speed-boat cut its outboard, slowed and turned aside. Jean-Louis left the trapeze and turned a lazy, open one-and-a-half somersaults on the way down to the water. When he surfaced to applause, the only wave of the afternoon welled up and crested to bring him in. Before he had reached shore I was already on my way up the cliff trottoir, having called it a day. He talked bullshit, but he could back it up. Tolerating him was going to be part of my breakthrough. I didn’t want to rush it.

Angélique talked bullshit too, of course. No wonder she and Jean-Louis had found each other. She arrived in the form of an electronic image. I was drowsily watching television one wet night when the screen was suddenly full of her instead of Joelle Hazard, the blonde beauty who functions as Soir 3’s Middle East correspondent. Perhaps I had nodded off with my finger on the remote control. Anyway, there she was: Angélique Visage, with a whole show devoted to her career. A master of ceremonies in a velvet suit, patent leather pumps and a bouffant haircut marshalled a panel of film critics in leather jackets as they chorused hosannahs in her praise between film clips from which her co-stars had evidently been edited out. Then a curtain opened, the swing-band-sized studio orchestra experienced sexual climax, and Angélique was revealed to be physically present, standing on a columnar, capitalised plinth. Although the appropriate garb would have matched that of the Winged Victory of Samothrace, Angélique had sensibly chosen a Chanel suit. She looked, I had to admit, ravishing. A set of airline-type steps glided into position under its own power and she descended to the crashing chords of what was clearly her signature tune, written for her by someone like Jaques Brel, unless the orchestra was just practising scales. Do not leave me, sang a tuneless voice, do not leave me do not leave me do not leave me. For if you leave me, it went on, you will have left me, and I will be left alone. The hubbub was maintained until she sat down in a semicircular banquette-cum-conversation-pit with the assembled savants. The MC handed her the same sort of microphone he and the other contributors to the symposium were already holding. They all sat there gripping these bulbous devices with attached flex, as if attending a convention to discuss the historical reasons why French television engineers had been unable to invent the radio microphone. It was a tribute to Angélique’s poise that she could wag that thing in front of her mouth in a stylised manner while discussing herself with a pack of hierophants whose leading questions on the subject of her genius would have been disproportionate if addressed to Madame Curie.

But Angélique gave even better than she got. She talked of how Edwige Feuillère had influenced her Art. Arletty, too, had had a great impact on her Art. Also Michèle Morgan, particularly with the voice. Angélique’s Art had positively reeled under the impact of, been saturated by the influence of, Michèle Morgan’s Art of reading aloud, especially from the work of Colette. The MC cued for silence and all present listened reverently while they melted away into a black and white picture of Michèle Morgan in her prime. A voice that must have been hers — unless they were playing a trick and giving us a recitation by, say, Madame Pompidou — began speaking about a cactus rose. Dimly I recognised the narrative as a late piece by Colette, whose face, still feline in old age, was now mixed into vision. After lingering for a while, the old lady became Michèle Morgan again and then went all the way back to being Angélique, listening with genuine attention, or at least with what appeared to be that, instead of with what might normally have been expected of her — namely a show of genuine attention just bogus enough to remind you that here was no ordinary individual paying attention, but someone in the public eye coping with the paradox that while she was paying attention to the world, the world was paying attention to her. Perhaps I had been too hard on her. No, there was no perhaps about it. I had. She was lovely and gifted and worth her salary. Other women who were an even bigger pain in the arse were none of those things. I communicated this change of heart to Chance when he rang.

‘Always been pretty stunning on her home ground,’ he admitted.

‘But you might have been thrown by the culture.’

‘Whose? Hers?’

‘Theirs. Centrality of it. When you see them all discussing literature on the local equivalent of This is Your Life it’s hard to quell a pang of envy. Doesn’t happen anywhere else. Certainly not here.’

‘Where’s that?’

‘New York again. Did the Today show this morning. Have to do that sort of stuff here. No book shows worth a damn.’

‘It must be tough.’

‘Was. Jane was away.’ Jane Wyman? Jane Austen? Lady Jane Grey? ‘But Tom was filling in for her.’ T. S. Eliot? Tom Thumb? Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son? ‘Don’t be amazed if the Mole shows up. There’s a few things going on in London, so I asked her to stay out of the picture and do some business for me down there. Think she took umbrage. Calm her down, will you?’

Honestly, I coped. In the days of waiting, which might well have gone on indefinitely, I looked forward to her arrival with pleasure, but without desperation. My long letter to her, which had never got much past page two of the rough draft, I could now safely abandon. On the mend, my soul clicked healthily like a scab touched with a fingernail. Though I could never quite convince myself that things would be even better if she failed to materialise, I persisted in enjoying my solitude. Insisted on it. Chance had sent me there that I might be cured of my madness for her. Either he had forgotten why he had exiled me in the first place, or else I had got the whole thing wrong, and he had posted me away only in order to get me out of his transplanted hair. Or then again, perhaps he was testing the cure. If so, I would pass. By the contemplation of women I had been restored. To begin with, I had ogled askance the odalisques on the wall and wondered how I could live without them.. Now, although I still couldn’t walk past them without looking, I was able to accept that they could exist without me. Older women no longer offended me when they bared breasts less than perfect. No saint, I was not visited by the urge to kiss their varicose veins, or dote on the liver spots that still showed through the deep tan. But I could grasp why the fact of their not mattering to me sexually should not matter to them at all. They were alive without me. Women even older, women so old that they had been alive before any grain of the sand on which they sat had replaced the grain which had once occupied that position, were knocked sideways by the wave’s edge in a thalassic rough-and-tumble for which they volunteered like elephants for death. They were worse than shapeless. They were a parody of shape. Legs like bags of moules were spread so that the foam might rush in like a tidal bore up a river’s mouth. Over they went, wrecked like the Deutschland. But I had begun to see them as part of the process. It is one thing to understand the process of replacement, but another to feel it. You can understand it and not want it. But to sympathise is to participate. I had the inklings of belonging. There was a beautiful mother on the beach. Such a body, which two children had stretched but not ruined as a spectacle. The stretch marks were there in her tan like sand ripples under shallow water. They were not lovely in themselves, but her two children made them so. The little boy pointed his peanut at the little girl and blew a raspberry. He was a path in the neck who made a point of kicking sand on my towel and farting up-wind so I could get the drift. But I loved his mother from afar. Not having her wouldn’t kill me. She was not alive for my sake, but for her sake and for all their sakes. Seeing how alive she was, I had possessed her sufficiently. It was generous of me, this forbearance, because when she stood up, arched her back, and walked towards the water, the build of her showed all over again how important is proportion compared to texture — even when, as in her case, combined with texture. Those stretch marks were on a skin like silk. Why didn’t I die of lust? Because lust was keeping me alive. The same force had switched tack. Or it had spread out. Yes, that was it. Lust was getting into everything, like gravity. Not de-fused. Diffused.

The girl with pink flippers was no less enticing than she had been before. But I had begun to enjoy, on top of the way she looked, the look of what she did. Swimming as far out as the strongest men, she caught a wave in two strokes and rode far forward on its sliding façade with her head and shoulders in front of the foam. When she got off the wave she tumbled forward like a sprinting swimmer turning between laps against an invisible wall. Her bottom and the backs of her legs lifted out of the flurry. Fitted together like two pieces of an elementary jigsaw puzzle, the pink flippers swung over and slapped down as if a Disney mermaid had become angry. She was gone long enough for the transition to seem plausible when she smoothly surfaced facing the other way, into the next wave. When she slid under that, I saw the flippers edge on, a thin pink line until they opened in a casual flutter that drove her deep. All this was either sexless or it was all sex. To behold was to desire.

‘It’s all sex,’ Chance had once told me, long ago in London. ‘When they give me a Sunday lunchtime TV show I’m going to crawl into bed with a million pommy women while their husbands make the morning tea.’ He had already gone down from Cambridge then. I was still up, of course, but whenever Lauren and I were in London to see a show — we saw everything together in those days — a foursome formed with Chance and his first wife, Paula. Though worldly success had not yet wrought its full damage, they were already spending a lot of time apart, which scared us. We congratulated ourselves on keeping them together for a single evening. Lauren’s money came in morally useful. We established a tradition of dining at the Étoile once a month. The tradition lasted about three months, but as this world goes, anything that lasts long enough to be recognised as repetitive lingers in the memory like an old song. A custom is anything that happens twice. From the balcony I looked down at the tide going out, the waves returning in an endless series of comebacks, like Nellie Melba. Thalassa, thalassa. It would always be part of me, this place. I patted the door frame as if it were made of timber from my ancestral lands.

The Mole arrived to announce that Chance had sent her on a mission to sell the flat. ‘He’s being so strange,’ she said when I met her at the airport. ‘A bit beastly, really.’

‘What have you got in these bags?’ I grunted. It’s a hard sentence to grunt unless you are trying to lift three hundredweight.

‘Books, mainly. For my long essay. I think he’s changing. Penelope didn’t ring me even once.’

Our girl wasn’t happy, but we kept her busy. Chance was on the telephone every evening, mainly from Tel Aviv or Hong Kong, telling her whom to see and what to send him for signing. In her spare time during the day, I established the tradition of walking with her, when the tide permitted, all the way south under the cliffs for as far as we could go. Charlotte Windhover and her children, with her first husband in attendance in the role of servant, had a base camp on dry sand near the start of the journey. The Mole would linger to talk for a while, while I pretended to study the dribbling clay of the cliff. Then there was mainly wet sand and jetsam all the way to the next proper beach, called Milady. Just before we reached that point, however, there were two rocky salients hedging a cusp of driftwood-decorated sand where men sunbathed nude. Some of them were not content merely to sunbake. They played beach tennis, threw Frisbees, stood on their heads. The Mole did her best to avert her eyes but there was nowhere to avert them to except the sky. There were exposed virile organs everywhere. The Mole called it the Cactus Garden. One character just stood there on a rock, one hand on his bony hip while the other cradled the bowl of a smoking briar pipe on which he sucked reflectively, his majestic member descending like the lazy proboscis of a grazing elephant. Inevitably we christened him Hugues d’Orque.

Luckily the ponderous plumper of Hugues d’Orque did not react to the Mole’s presence, or it would have knocked us both into the water. How Hugues’s titanic tonk remained quiescent was a mystery, however, because the Mole looked pretty enough to excite the erectile tissue in a flatworm. Among her books she had found room to pack a couple of one-piece black stretch swimsuits which so fitted and flattered her dancer’s body that Miss Pink Flippers looked past her sell-by date by comparison. Yes, the peach of the beach lay on the towel beside me. Who cared if they all thought I was her father? While she lay on her breasts and wrote long letters to Ambrose, or shorter, more urgent ones to Penelope, I smoothed cream into the curve of her back as if she were a sculpture I had just finished: Rodin, thinking of nothing but lunch. Tell Mademoiselle John that I am not at home. There is a satisfaction that precludes intercourse, or at any rate takes the sting out of its absence. Lying awake beside her as she dozed, I could feel the rough caress of my folded T-shirt under my cheek as if it were a poultice. The moment of happiness was like the moment of truth: I knew myself, and knew also that I was not unique. The world is not just you. Solzhenitsyn, I recalled, had spent such a moment of bliss in the Lubianka, lying on the floor of a crowded cell with his head under a bunk. He had felt the cold granite floor under his cheek and loved the world. Nor had the Mole been lying next to him: you had to give him extra points for a solo effort.

Another tradition was to bathe in music while basting the body. I was equipped with an old Walkman from Chance’s junk cupboard and the Mole sported a brand new, state-of-the-art Sony Professional that he had bought her when he had an hour to kill at Changi. Deciding that Shostakovich was too heavy for the beach, we passed through the Prokofiev violin concertos — it was a toss-up between Itzhak Perlman and Shlomo Mintz — and finally arrived at a mixture of Chopin, Debussy, Ravel and Satie piano pieces, with Alison Moyet for light relief. The Mole knew a girl who had been to school with her. It was a pleasure to see that the Mole, who had never heard of Blossom Dearie and regarded even Crystal Gayle as an historic figure, went suddenly mad for songs with real words. She had to admit, if pressed — and don’t think that I didn’t press her while rubbing the cream into her lumbar regions — that those ‘no more war no more war’ lyrics of Sade’s perhaps erred on the side of the simplistic. When Alison Moyet sang ‘Where Hides Sleep’ the Mole smiled at the sky. I could always guess it was that song, and sometimes which stanza, even though no sound leaked through her earphones, as she made a little moue in the direction of Andromeda, mercifully hidden, like all the starry heavens, by the white light of a perfect day.

We would also, by night, after one of our traditional salad dinners by candlelight, make our traditional visit to the open-air grand chistera match at the fronton a mile away inland. Before the chistera match began, there was always a session of Basque folk dancing, which the Mole liked. It affected me like an all-Soviet folk-dancing show I had once sat through in the Palace of Congresses in the Kremlin, when team after team of Young People in peasant garb had come on to perform a pantomime of boy chases girl, girl runs away from boy, boy catches up with girl, girl flirts with other boys, boy retires defeated, girl beckons boy, boy returns to girl, whole team spins around rapidly in delight. The Basque version had a less riveting plot but from the Mole’s angle there were compensations. While the boys in black berets were not very interesting as they hit each other’s tin swords — the parallel with Morris dancing was inescapable — some of the girls were charming, with elegant hands which had survived, in proportion if not in texture, the daily round of baking gâteau basque or, increasingly more likely, pressing the keys on the supermarket check-out desk’s electronic cash-register. Yet even the Mole had to admit that the choreography did not look very demanding. Apart from a high mid-air scissors kick which only the boys were allowed to do, the most spectacular step was a shuffle forward and a skip sideways, with hands on hips. A wimpish boy with steel-rimmed spectacles, who looked rather like Jim Lilywhite getting ready to recite, was the star skipper, eliciting learned applause from old men in berets as he hopped about in time to the sparse music emanating from another boy who blew on a pipe while beating a small drum. None of this looked hard. It was a sweet, neat little folkloric culture well worth preserving, but not to the point of letting bombs off in Madrid or training young men to withstand torture by torturing them in advance. While the Mole watched, tapping her foot, Joelle Hazard was no doubt dodging bullets in Beirut, Biarritz’s riddled twin. The star skipper might look a bit more macho with an AK-47 to supplement the tin sword, but one hoped — could only hope — that it would never happen. When he at long last skipped off, I couldn’t help worrying about where he had skipped to.

In sudden and vivid contrast to the dancing, the chistera match looked hard in every aspect, especially the ball, which men in white pyjamas flung with smooth violence from a long basket strapped to the right wrist. The ball rebounding from the high front wall of the fronton made a cracking report which echoed off the back wall, about 150 feet away. Sometimes the ball itself rebounded all the way to the back wall, following its own sound, only to be caught by the full-back of one of the two three-man teams and flung forward all over again. The Mole informed me that the ball did not travel quite as fast as in cesta punta, the indoor version of the same game, in which the players had to wear helmets or else be killed. But the indoor game was separated from the spectators by a fourth wall of strong wire netting. Outdoors, in the sweet warm night, there was nothing between us and the hurtling pelote except balmy air. For an admission fee of thirty francs, the hundred or so spectators sat anywhere on a three-step stone terrace along the fourth side of the floodlit court, hired cushions extra. It was advisable to keep your eye on the speeding pill, lest it terminate one of its frequent incursions into the crowd by smashing you in the teeth. Sharing the danger with the players, one found it difficult to remain unmoved. The Mole bounced up and down with excitement, like a little girl. Wait a second: she was a little girl. I had to admit that it was a great night out, even though the second and more important match turned out to feature, as captain of the home team, none other than Jean-Louis, who waved his basket at the Mole in what was obviously fond memory. When she told me what a wonderful guy he was I took it quite well, screaming only through flared nostrils.

Any hopes that Jean-Louis would be shown up by the local boys were soon shattered. They might have spent their whole lives mastering the basket, but our man was an all-sports fanatic who knew his physics. The crowd cheered and even the opposing team made clicking noises of approval as he whirled, dived, scooped and flung. One of his cross-court whip-lash winners came fizzing straight at the Mole. She ducked just in time and I caught it neatly with the side of my head. ‘He should not have put is haired in front of the pelote,’ said Jean-Louis as he bent to kiss the Mole. ‘Does he not know it is dangerous? Now we must interrupt the game.’

‘Are you all right?’ my darling asked me concernedly, instead of getting up to dance the tango with Jean-Louis as he clearly wanted. Ah, I thought, more power to your elbow, dearest, and less to his. Ah. Oogh. It was, no use currying any sympathy apart from hers, however. It soon became obvious that any injury to a spectator was generally regarded as an interval in which to buy the children one more Orangina each. An old man in a beret and baggy pants shuffled slowly across the court and examined my wound, jabbing it with an expert thumb to make it worse. He pulled a large white handkerchief out of his trouser pocket, but instead of binding my head with it he waved it to indicate that the game might continue. Within seconds Jean-Louis was running, whirling, diving, scooping and flinging all over again, leading his team to victory. I could see Gloria in the half-light behind us, leaning against a tree, yawning so often that she no longer saw any point in covering her mouth.

My temple was still hurting when Jean-Louis’s final overhead loop-shot from a backward somersault brought the evening to an end, but my eyes were working again well enough, which was lucky, because then, at that unlikely time, came the real epiphany, the emotional crisis of my spiritual recovery, the climax of my cure by the contemplation of women. Believe me, as I must believe myself, that the moment would still have come even if the Mole had not been there to kiss my sore place and make it better. Gathering its children, the small crowd streamed across the court to the exit. One pretty young mother was too expensive-looking to be local. If French she must have been from Bordeaux or perhaps even Paris, if Spanish from Madrid or Barcelona. Probably she was Spanish, her hair was so black and the white of her eyes so very white. The Mole groaned, but it was not just the woman’s beauty that moved me. It was the way she held her crippled son by the hand. He was palsied. So badly was he stricken that his walk was a careening lurch, a movement not aided by an extra, windmilling gesture that he was making with his free hand. He was pretending to catch the pelote and throw it. He was wielding an imaginary basket. His mother smiled down at him, her night complete because she had made him happy.

‘Look at that,’ I said.

‘She’s lovely,’ said the Mole.

‘You’ll be like that.’

‘I hope I don’t have to be. I couldn’t cope.’

‘But if you have to, you will. It’s why I love you.’

Don’t imagine that she let me sleep with her after that. Romance between us never came so easily. But with the night turning suddenly stormy outside, we lit candles, drank Punt e Mes and let Ivan Moravec loose on César Franck’s Prelude, Chorale, et Fugue. (‘The fugue is not a fugue,’ sniffed Saint-Saëns, unhinged by envy.) Moravec’s stamp-collector’s touch with Debussy had led us on to all his other Vox and Supraphon recordings, of which Chance’s shelves seemed to lack not one. I don’t know why, in exchanging the Thames for the Bay of Biscay, we had replaced the cello with the piano. Perhaps it was because the sea was already scored for strings and we wanted a countervailing range of colour. ‘The piano is my second self,’ said Chopin. For a nightcap we unleashed Michelangeli on the Mazurkas. As was traditional, we slept in separate beds, but I was allowed to give her the Big Tickle. While she lay on her front, I stroked her minutely from the neck down, stroking her bottom pink, stroking her thighs open. Finally I got the job of human vibrator: no batteries necessary. My dubious reward was to hear her, at the instant of ecstasy, sadly cry out the name of the girl she loved. If it sounds like the biggest prick-tease in history, let me tell you it felt like it. All I can say is that I didn’t press the point. She wasn’t mine, you see. She was Penelope’s. That was my consolation. Her love for Penelope was something we could both rely on as paramount, even if it was no longer requited. In fact the Mole relied on it even more than I did, now that Chance was subtracting himself from her life. For a long time Jenolan Pasha had surrounded himself with his women while retreating from the world, and now, it seemed, he was retreating even from them.

In the morning we did some more packing. Everything in the flat was going into boxes which would be strapped up to be stored in Battersea. ‘I wonder why he isn’t sending all this stuff to the Barbican?’ mused the Mole as she stacked books.

‘Have you asked him?’

‘He’s being vague. Pretty shitty, in fact.’

In the afternoon we were down at the beach to catch waves as the tide came in. The Mole rode Chance’s boogie-board like a wicked child in a Bruegel snowscape sliding on a tray. Miss Pink Flippers did her forward roll. As I looked up from the prone position, the jailbait teriyaki glowed on the sea wall, like Playboy’s version of classical entablature. The old ladies were there again at the sea’s edge to be tipped over. The young mother with the watered silk stretch marks wagged a fine-drawn finger at her little boy to stop him farting. My new young mother was there too, with her devastated offspring whom she could not leave alone for a minute. She had bought him a toy chistera. The basket hung from one uncertain arm as if aimlessness had been extended. He scooped sand and flung it inadvertently at a nearby pot-bellied male sunbather, who woke snorting, started to protest, saw, stopped, and fell back mollified by her smile of apology. That boy was always going to be a problem. He was heart-rending only when he was still. I could feel my heart hardening as I looked at him. Then I looked at her. She was better than I was. I was saved.

I must have been, otherwise I could not have borne the sense of loss when the Mole came dragging her long straight feet towards me through the shallow out-thrust selvage of the spent wave. A boy who had thrown a thin disc of plywood on to the film of water and taken a running jump on to it went sliding past behind her, creating a parallax effect which made me feel as if I had been sent instantly sideways but without inertia: a dream world. ‘I was mad not to get a trim in Switzerland,’ said the Mole, pulling at her hair as she sat on her heels. ‘The minute I go home I’ll have to get it all done again.’

‘Don’t you like doing that?’

‘Yes, but it costs money. And I might not be a kept woman exactly but Chance does give me the odd few bob. Or did.’ She rolled down the top of her costume. Exactly equal, her breasts looked all set to outdo each other, like two shapely coupés lined up for a game of chicken. Remember Rebel Without a Cause? The Mole didn’t even remember American Graffiti.

‘I could afford a haircut for you.’

‘Not this one,’ she said with a firmness that I tried hard not to be miffed by. ‘You like my hair, don’t you?’

‘I love it. So natural.’

‘Well, it wouldn’t look so natural if Nikky at John Frieda didn’t cut it. Hair has to be cut really cleverly if it’s going to look good whatever the wind does to it. See the way the fringe at the front looks like a layered cut until I sweep it back like that? Two and a half hours in the chair. It costs money. Not an awful lot. Just more than a student’s got, believe me. Ooh look, she’s bought him a basket. Isn’t that sweet?’

A break in her self-absorption was the most I could expect, having so recently attained the same standard myself. She was a good girl and soon she would be a good woman, but not soon enough for me. My responsibilities lay elsewhere. I swear that I could already feel myself turning towards them. The readiness was in me. They say that a Boeing 757 jet airliner, should both pilots die, will fly itself back to the factory in Seattle.

That night, after the Mole had been stroked to sleep, I found the manuscript. Lack of time had intensified the search. Originating from Rome, a phone call from Chance before dinner had invited us back to London the day after next. Movement orders. Before we went, I wanted to know his secret. Here it was: an Italian notebook of unlined hand-laid paper between marbled covers, with nothing printed on the spine. Roughly the same size as the famous green and gold first edition of A. D. Hope’s The Wandering Islands, it had been slipped in beside that book and a later, more complete collection of Hope’s verse, up on the Australian shelf along with the poetry of Douglas Stewart, James McAuley and Judith Wright. I would have gone on overlooking it if the spine had not been blank. When I took it down, I found the first half of it crammed with Chance’s handwriting, distributed in the usual manner, notes and additions on the left-hand page, text proper on the right. The front flyleaf was covered with provisional titles, of which LETTER TO A YOUNG STUDENT had been inscribed latest and largest, in block capitals cross-hatched and edged, as in the work-book of a schoolboy who makes up with doodling energy for what he lacks in concentration on the actual work. In this case, however, the actual work turned out to be the most concentrated thing Chance had ever done in the essay form. From the first sentence until it petered out it was a megalomaniacal cadenza addressed directly to the Mole. In giving you the edited highlights, I don’t mean to suggest that there were longueurs. This was a piece he had written as if his life depended on it. You could tell by the elaborations arrowed from the left-hand page into every second sentence on the right; the sentences rewritten to unscramble their overloaded structure; the words crossed out, replaced, and then restored with a STET after the replacements had been replaced. Here were the death-throes of a living style, the Totentanz of a technique.

The time will come when you have to forgive me for calling Rilke a prick. At the moment, as your higher studies begin and you face the dazzling prospect of having literature’s political dimension expounded to you by Georg Lukács — or, more likely, the political dimension of Georg Lukács expounded to you by Terry Eagleton — there is no reason for you to be concerned with a poet so precious that he could not write a line except on paper made for him, paid for with money that he had to beg for, with letters to great ladies written on that same paper, in rooms they assigned to him in their palaces, glad to be needed by so spiritual a man. The joke is that he actually was a spiritual man. Keats put on his Sunday best before sitting down to write. Rilke took the same principle far beyond clothes, into cakes of soap, nail scissors, matched hair brushes with silver backs, manners, protocol, the perfectly wrapped gift, every detail of life. After you have finished the formal studies you have just commenced, and have begun the informal reading which will light the life you lead without me, you will meet him, and find at last, after so much transcendental literary theory has made you weary of abstraction, that there really is such a thing as the mind that moves above objects — but that it can do so only through knowing them to their depths. You will recognise yourself. The way he arranges his paper and pens is the way you cut onions, line up your little bottles, slip that MOMA silver book mark I gave you so carefully into place at the top of the page, and ache to interfere with the disorder on my desk. By how you listen to Jacqueline du Pré playing the Elgar, I can already tell how you will react to the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus, although I think you had better approach them through the lower slopes, the smaller set pieces like the poem about the carousel. Und dann und wann ein weisser Elefant. The German you learned at school in Lausanne, and from your ski master when you got stuck on the Triftji at Zermatt, will come in handy then. But if you want to jump the gun, you could always try his prose masterpiece in translation. Letters to a Young Poet is the real reason I bring up his name, because something of what he said to the obscure Franz Xaver Kappus I want to say to you. It hardly needs pointing out that I am a less well equipped teacher. To compensate, however, you are a much quicker pupil. There is no evidence that the young poet took in a word his mentor said. There were ten letters, written in, and scrupulously posted from, Paris, Rome, Viareggio, Worpswede, and several addresses in Sweden. Thus bombarded with the distilled wisdom of a lifetime, the tyro ignored it all. He might have been right, and perhaps you will be wise to copy his indifference. The advice of the old, said Vauvenargues, illuminates without warming, like winter sunlight.

That was the gist of the introduction, which despite its ground-swell of self-regard I thought charming. But after a few more paragraphs of mock-modest disclaimer the tone grew less relaxed.

You can grow to admire a precious poet. A robust novelist you can love immediately. Stendhal you will adore as if he were a beautiful woman. He half was, though a notoriously ugly man. (Henry James was almost as keen to point that out as to find Le Rouge et le noir ‘unreadable’.) One of Stendhal’s principles has always sounded to me like holy writ. I don’t know where he said it, I only know that the film director Robert Bresson quoted him to this effect in an interview, but here it is. ‘It’s the other arts which taught me the art of writing.’ For me, when I heard that, it was not a case of copy, learn and use, because I already believed it. All I needed was the courage of my convictions. But in loving the other arts, loving learning from them, I got too involved in them — or perhaps, in my case, they weren’t art. Acting, speaking, performing, directing: these things paid for time to write, and a life to write about, or so I thought. So I let fame draw me forward, and lost my simplicity.

Now here was a confession. At our lunch in the Garrick he had blamed the press. Yet in these pages, which must have predated that conversation by almost a year, he seemed to be taking the responsibility on himself. A little further on, the matter was settled.

Montaigne’s mutability of the ego was my ideal, until I realised it. Beware of what you dream, said Wilde: it might come true. Possessing the world, I thought it was mine to command. I still believed — and believe still — that the writer must pursue the magic sentence. But I had come to confuse the magic sentence with my jealously developed trickery. I thought that instead of being given, it could be generated. And then one day, preparing for a television interview with Primo Levi at his house in Turin, I was re-reading his great book Se questo a un uomo (If This is a Man, a humanistic triumph which I won’t spoil for you by telling you it will help you grow) when I came across a truly magic sentence that reduced the best of mine to the calisthenics of a card-sharp. ‘E all’ alba i fili spinati erano pieni di biancheria infantile stesa al vento ad asciugare.’ Which means, roughly, ‘And in the morning the barbed wire was full of babies’ washing spread to dry in the wind.’ The previous day, the Italian Jewish internees, who had been rounded up by the SS, had been told that the next morning they would be put on a train. All the adult prisoners knew that this meant a quick death if they were lucky, a long agony if they were not. But during the night the mothers washed the nappies ready for the journey, and hung them to dry on the wire.

When I read this, I knew that I was finished as a writer. It was not just because Levi had been there and I had not. Believe me, his participation in these awful events was not what I envied; and, as I later discovered, he himself was too honest a spirit to feel that he had been in any way privileged. What I envied him was his science. Where else did the purity of his art come from? His real life in chemistry had kept him simple: brilliantly simple, symmetrically concentrated, able to contain, like a pressure vessel, the incandescence of the magic sentence when it finally arrived. He had earned, kept and cherished the right to speak the unspeakable.

Do you know what my best idea on that same dreadful subject had been? I had an idea for a long short story about an old concentration camp commandant dying six million deaths from fear in a Jewish hotel in Miami. Come to think of it, it’s still not a bad idea. But an idea is what it would remain, even if I wrote it down with all the power of evocation I still might summon. And an idea is not a thing. When the words exceed the thing said, it is blasphemy.

On the left-hand page beside these paragraphs there was a note. French bus with spastic children: say can’t say. The note had been left undeveloped. I half-remembered that a chartered bus full of children from a spastic school — or else the bus actually belonged to the school, which made it even worse — had crashed and burned on a fog-bound autoroute, killing almost everyone aboard. Chance must have planned to cite this as an instance of what could not be said by him, but had then realised he could not say even that. He kept it general. The generalities were frightful enough.

It would be an easy claim to scruple if I said that the world’s horrors had got beyond me. They have; they did early on; and especially when the victims were children. If a terrorist bomb blows an innocent adult’s legs off, the rest of him can at least guess why he has been chosen as he lies there. Randomness was the reason. Arbitrariness was the rationale. But for the ruined child, there is no explanation that begins to cover the case, either for her — in my mind it has always been her, and now the her is you — or me. I can give myself no points, however, for these fine feelings. The truth is that these worst cases are only the beginning of what I can no longer treat. If I had kept my innocence, though I might never quite have caught the whiteness of the children’s underclothes on the barbed wire — or the pinkness of the inside of the starving child’s enormous open crying mouth in Ethiopia, or the redness of the baby pulped by a grenade in the Roman synagogue — I could at least have kept track of my own happiness, my own luck. I could have told the real story of my love for you. But like the hero of Hofmannstahl’s story Brief des Lord Chandos an Francis Bacon — another perfect stylistic pleasure you might embrace early by reading in translation — I had got to the point of being unable to say anything through having learned too much. Do you remember, on that first day at Mürren in the fresh powder, how our ski tips floated through the snow like the prows of Viking long ships slicing silently through the estuarine mist? And how I crashed into the deep drift and couldn’t find my ski and you made your joke about my being pissed-off off-piste? You can’t imagine how I would like to write about that.

You just have, I subvocalised with some impatience. But it was a rare moment of obvious fakery. The whole tract rang dishearteningly true, and the last paragraph reverberated like a passing bell, albeit a cracked one, because surely there would have been much more to come if the manuscript had not fulfilled its own prophecy by choking in full flow.

When the time comes to show you this fragile testament it will probably be too late, so why finish it? I will no longer be able to make that sort of claim on your attention. The chances are that I will be gone altogether, having shaken loose the gravity of my wordy knack and disappeared into the weightless effulgence of the inconsequential. ‘Literature without tradition,’ said the great scholar Ernst Robert Curtius, ‘is destiny without history.’ To my shame, consternation and regret, I think I have grown to like that idea. Just after the Second World War ended, Curtius met André Gide at an open-air café within sight of the rubble of Cologne. A civilisation lay in ruins. Gide took one of the first commercially available examples of a new invention out of his pocket and showed Curtius how it worked. It was a ballpoint pen. I merely record this fact. Soon that will be all I am good for: to note the details of blind renewal, the impulse, which not even mass murder can quite quell, to remake the world. Do I insult you when I say that half my love for you is for how young you are, and the other half for how I must let you go, when by growing older you move on to be someone else’s and share your life with ...

Him or her? He left that word blank, the mad bastard. Did he insult her? Boy, did he ever: comparing my darling — who even as I finished reading sent a little dreamy moan through the open door of the bedroom — to a ballpoint pen! The effrontery of it! But when I simmered down, it was not the tone of the piece so much as its timing that interested me. He had been preparing to get rid of her even as he met her. He was so calculating, so cold. I had to work hard to remind myself that I owed him my life. Deciding that if he had meant her to see this shameful treatise he would have had the grace to finish it, I dropped it into one of the packing cases and consigned it to oblivion, or the University of Buffalo, or wherever it was that the Man of Destiny’s foul papers would eventually end up.

Next morning, while the Mole was locked in the bathroom doing whatever it was she did to make herself even more fragrant, Screen International arrived. With a glossy crackle it unrolled to reveal, in a full-page advertisement on the inside cover, the next stage of Chance Jenolan’s apotheosis. So Clive James had scrounged a few days’ work after all! He would be pleased to see that he shared with Robert Browning the honour of having his name misspelled in what seemed to me the most suicidal act of self-abasement since Jimmy Carter took up jogging. Obviously the advertisement had been written in Tel Aviv or Hong Kong, perhaps both. One could only assume that Chance had not seen the page proof. The result might help him to see sense.

‘It’s absolutely doomed. It’s a disaster,’ I told the Mole over our traditional health-giving breakfast. ‘This will cost him everything.’

‘Do you think that’s why he’s selling this place?’ she asked, adding live yoghurt to the stewed fruit and brown sugar to the live yoghurt.

‘I shouldn’t be surprised. Nothing about him surprises me any more. But I didn’t mean it’d cost him just money.’

‘What else?’

‘Reputation. Respect. All that.’

‘I don’t think he cares much about that,’ said the Mole, sounding as old as the hills and innocent as a lamb. ‘He’s always found those things a bit too easy. I bet he’s sleeping with that Presley cow.’ From her fastidiously held spoon the Mole dripped bloblets of yoghurt along Presley Schaufenster’s name.

‘I thought you said he couldn’t,’ I coaxed hopefully.

‘If it got him out of paying her he might just manage it. This is why he kept us away, I expect.’

‘So he could operate.’

‘He’s not a doctor, silly.’

‘No, it’s an American word. Operator. It means a wheeler-dealer.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘An operator. Someone who does clever deals.’

‘Do all Australians speak American?’

‘I don’t really speak American. Just old English.’

Yet my distance from her no longer worried me. I could see her better. While Chance moved towards disintegration, I moved towards coherence, as if energy were being conserved. Having finished packing, and with no beach because of the tide, we spent the late morning under the parti-coloured awning in front of the Bar du Haou. The rearrangement of my diary was taking a definite shape. I drew more arrows, renumbered pages, put whole paragraphs into reverse. Always careful to dote on the Mole only when she wasn’t looking, now I forgot her presence for minutes at a time. It made the impact more delicious when I looked up. Wearing white jeans and a pale blue sloppy joe marked OUTRAGE SKI EXTREME, she was absorbed in Peter C. Bartelski’s Fiction Beyond Fiction: the Unlimned Character in the Modern Novel from Thomas Parke d’Invilliers to L. S. Caton. Periodically transmitting some insight she deemed especially profound, at any sign of resistance from me she would get het up as if by the sun. She was particularly insistent on the metafictional principle that any background information about a character should be withheld until it was too late to be useful. Suppressing all mention of Chance’s manuscript — if I had read it earlier, how much more I would have understood about these last confusing months! — I based my dissenting vote on the precept that to postpone the background might well make a novel about Australians more mysterious, but could only empty a novel about Britons of all content. ‘But that’s what’s supposed to happen,’ she protested, and went on to explain how reducing the content to technique, and demonstrating that the technique constituted the actual discourse, was the whole idea.

She was still explaining while we bought fruit in the market for the lunch we would have down on the esplanade. I watched her mouth pour forth its meaningless music while her hands, which knew their stuff, floated over the wine-dark plums, sending down sonar signals to test their ripeness. The men in white aprons behind the counters fell over one another to serve us. They invited her to prod their peaches, suck their nectarines, burst their grapes against her palate fine. Down on the sea wall, we spread the feast on flattened plastic carrier-bags. When the beach grew big enough we camped on our rattan mats for the afternoon. All the female members of the cast were present and correct, I was glad to note. Less gladly I noted that the computer software tycoon Jeffrey Chaucer had appeared at the head of the stairs, taken a fix on us, and started walking towards us even as he waved. Though he was fully kitted out for the beach, his skin suggested that he had not recently spent much time exposed to the sun: only the very freshest radish could have been more white. A straw hat, sun-glasses, long shorts and leather sandals did something to cover him up, but he would have stood out even if he had not been accompanied by a man I immediately realised must be Mr Nagoya. They looked like Mandrake the Magician and Lothar, an analogy which held true even for their relative proportions, because Mr Nagoya was enormous. His whole attire a minuscule black satinised posing pouch in which for some reason he had positioned himself vertically, he looked Japanese only to the extent of wearing spectacles and having too many teeth for his mouth. Otherwise he looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger. While Mr Nagoya stood there with his hands behind his back as if waiting for someone to climb him, Jeffrey set down all his gear — mat, sponge bag, hotel towel, small portable refrigerator, word processor — and did the introductions.

‘Hideo and I would have liked nothing better than to have been down here with you two enjoying the briny, Joel. I hope this nut-case has been looking after you, Antonia, my own lovely. But at the end of the day, the job has to be done, even if it takes weeks. And let me tell you it hasn’t been a doddle, dealing with these French city engineers, especially when Hideo’s English is hardly the most fluent, which Hideo would be the first to admit, am I right, Hideo?’

‘My Engrish is not fruent,’ said Mr Nagoya, smiling as if James Coburn and Burt Lancaster had been forced to share the same mouth.

‘And of course theirs isn’t either, so we’ve had no let-up.’

‘What exactly are you trying to accomplish?’ I made the mistake of asking. Jeffrey started to tell me how the whole town would be integrated into one interactive informational interface, starting tonight. There was a lot involved, and Jeffrey had the facts to prove it. The Mole snuck her headphones on and drifted off on a personal tide of ‘Where Hides Sleep’. I could tell by how she pouted at the sky. Mr Nagoya stood immobile for a further five minutes, but then, as if actuated by an electronic signal, took off his glasses, set them down on Jeffrey’s towel, and ran towards the water, moving only slightly more slowly than Carl Lewis in the final of the 100 metres at the Los Angeles Olympics. It was amazing how his legs were not bowed. Equally amazing was how there was so little diminution in his pace when the depth of the water obliged him to stop running and start swimming. He just swam straight towards Canada, not even diving under the wave on which Miss Pink Flippers surfed towards him, but punching straight through it like a torpedo set to run at constant depth.

‘ ... so we got them watching Hideo’s video, and at the end of the day the penny dropped. They finally agreed that the only way to monitor a potential power surge was to shut off the whole area for twenty minutes and run a dummy programme. Except for the hospital, of course. So it’s all happening tonight.’

‘At the end of the day,’ murmured the Mole — rather too loudly, as one tends to do when wearing headphones.

‘Ah, Antonia, you always were the sarcastic one,’ said Jeffrey with undisguised admiration. ‘What we could do with you on our sales staff permanently. Make her think about it, Joel. It’s the future.’

Yes, I thought, it was the future. The cold future. But the future has to be cold, or there would be nowhere for all this warmth to go to. The arrow must have somewhere to land, or it can’t fly. While Jeffrey droned on, I contemplated, for what I thought must surely be the last time, the women of my cure. They were as warm to the eye as they would have been to the touch. Miss Pink Flippers was teaching Mr Nagoya to surf. He didn’t learn straight away. It took him several minutes. His main problem was to slow down so that the wave could catch him up. When it did, his head was there beside hers: two freshly installed gargoyles shouldering their way off the marble cornice of a cathedral. The mother with the palsied son was on her slow way down the steps beside him. Left behind by the retreating sea, there was still a trapped pool of water around the base of the steps. She set up camp next to it so that he could dig canals with the chistera that was already broken. Sometimes she took her eyes off him for a few seconds to sweep the beach with her dark glasses, like a radar dish. When she brought her gaze back to him, he was still the same. One of the old ladies had started her epic trek from the steps to the sea’s edge, like an elephant on its last legs. Soon the heat would go out of her, into the ground or adding its few calories to the fire. Her sons must be my age. She was on her way to let the salt sea into her dry womb. To be scuttled. Behind me and high above, letting nothing into their bodies except daylight, the jailbait teriyaki looked seaward unmoved, as if there were nothing to choose between the young men who sat out there astride their potato chip surfboards, pulling the nose of the board up into the rising swell, floating fertility symbols waiting for the breaker. The boys waited for the waves and the girls waited for the boys. Their children were in the future. But it was the near future, where nothing was decided. Only in the long, long term was everything cut and dried, and cold. Here and now and soon were warm enough.

Having cleaned up the kitchen preparatory to our departure, that night the Mole and I took our evening meal at Le Sable d’Or. Madame made such a tremendous fuss of the Mole that we almost didn’t get fed at all. The Mole’s finishing school French being so precise, I didn’t need to imitate a sea bass, so the old lady had no chance to bring me a double bass instead. We had two bottles of a reasonably effective Saint Émilion for old time’s sake and barely made it down the dogshit-dotted cliff trottoir in the dark for a long walk around the point to the children’s beach, where there was a roundabout on which the Mole had promised herself a ride. While I watched from a folding metal and wood chair that might have come from the Luxembourg Gardens — but more probably came from a plastics factory in which strips of rusty mild steel and slats of wood covered with chipped dark-green paint had been successfully imitated in polystyrene — the Mole rode, her back as straight as you might imagine, on a pinto pony that really was made of wood, you could tell from the grain in its half-missing haunch. In a white two-seater swan out of a touring production of Lohengrin rode the palsied boy and his mother. The other animals and cars and the little red Fokker triplane were all empty. There was no one else to be seen except the owner-operator, a weathered Basque who in ancient times might have hunted whales out in the ocean. He gave the boy, the boy’s mother and my recurrently radiant darling a long ride for two francs. When the mother swung towards me she was carefree. When she swung away I could see her protective arm stretched tautly along the swan’s back, above the poised tail and between the vertically held swept-back pinions. I could see the little wrinkles of the skin already loosening at her elbow as by turning on the spot she journeyed forward into time. Such a complex of emotions, such a complicated motion. She was both a wave and a particle. She was like light.

When the music wheezed to a stop, the Mole came back to me. She was quite peeved that I had spent so long looking at someone else, I was glad to notice. We walked out over the little bridge to the big rock where the Virgin stood floodlit. More floodlights bathed the foam that bathed the broken, tilted pieces of superseded cliff. ‘Happy?’ I asked like a fool, knowing that she was not. ‘Tipsy,’ she said, meaning no. The floodlights and every other man-made light in the area went out. The Virgin became a silhouette. Above me, where I looked for the first time in many months of nights, you could see the sudden difference. Without interference from the town’s illumination, the sky grew distinctly brighter, as if it had all jumped forward a few inches. It was a switch-on.

There they were, with their names in lights: all the lucky ones who had been written into their subject. Hubble’s Law. The Kelvin-Helmholtz Contraction. The Mohorovičić Discontinuity**. The Schwarzschild Radius. Some of them had done even better. They had elevated their names beyond theoretical principles and into actual phenomena: the Van Allen Belt, the Seyfert Galaxies, Halley’s Comet, Lilywhite’s Quincunx. The all-star spectacular. Well, that would never happen to me. But there was a consolation. Halley’s Comet had no idea of its own name. Nothing up there needed us. That was the first thing to grasp and the last to lose sight of. It was the basis of awe, which induces humility, which chastens curiosity and gives us science. Now that I had lost my pride, I had at last joined them, the mighty ones, if only in their eternal childhood. Up into the lights I stared, chosen and afraid, like an American footballer in a Monday night game preparing to receive the punt, or like Halley himself on St Helena in 1677, as he looked up at the hot point of Eta Carinae in the southern sky. If only I had stayed down there, I might have had my name up there. I could have been an Aussie with his monniker in neon, like Colin Gum, who in 1952 found the Gum Nebula, a huge hydrogen cloud between Sirius and the Coal Sack, a cloud whose curling filaments are made shiny by a pulsar. Only 11,000 years ago the Gum Nebula was ten times brighter than Venus. Imagine having your name on that. Doesn’t the Court Nebula sound better than the Gum Nebula? Forget I asked.

Because envy was impertinence. It was all too glorious. ‘The moth-soft Milky Way,’ says Hopkins in The Wreck of the Deutschland, ‘The leaves of desire.’ To pin down the night sky we need all the poetry ever written, even the overwrought. What else is the Veil in Cygnus except an art nouveau intricacy, a frayed violet Liberty silk scarf with pink highlights, the drowned Ophelia’s hair as seen by Gustav Klimt? ‘Rivers of beer,’ said W. C. Fields, ‘flowing over your grandmother’s paisley shawl.’ We give no sufficient answer by calling it a set of emission nebulae, remnants of a supernova outburst 160,000 years ago, sending radio signals from the edge of its loop but strangely without a hot central star. When you call it a reef without an island, already the metaphors creep back. Science must guard itself against the seductions of analogy, the purely poetic connection. But the organising principle within us loves a likeness, and charged language leaps towards the attractive fact as your glance is drawn to the girl across the room, even while her beauty drains towards the future, the cold future. She is beautiful now. Her eyes are like stars.

And stars are like jewels. On the border between Ursa Major and Canes Venatici shines the eighteenth-dynasty Egyptian brooch of M106, a lapis lazuli oval with two long chrysoprase spiral arms and the other arms attenuated to amethyst-dotted mountings for the hinge and hook of the pin behind it. In Virgo, M87 is a galaxy surrounded by a shell of 4,000 globular clusters, a pimpled baseball of diamonds given added sparkle by the blue jet and counterjet of synchrotron radiation at the system’s core. You could take it down and wrap it up for Elizabeth Taylor, if it were not so hot to handle. That jumbo bauble from Rodeo Drive contains a black hole the size of 2.7 trillion suns. Let it stay where it is. It looks lovely there. And how wrong would Angélique be to drool over the planetary nebula in Lyra, which is like a frozen smoke-ring for her little finger; over the pink lagoon nebula near the Great Rift; or over the star nursery M83 in the southern sky, a Celliniesque extravaganza of diamonds and sapphires set in beaten gold? She might go mad. They wouldn’t care, being different now, or perhaps dead. But there is no now. Not up there.

And stars are not like jewels. The old astrologers who saw a sky full of animals were telling the truth. Look into the stroboscopic pinwheel of M51’s turquoise spiral, whose arms of bright young Population 1 blue sparklers cradle tired old yellow stars in the blanks between them. You can follow those arms for one-and-a-half turns, like a somersaulting diver. The thing’s a whopper. Slap down your darling’s urge to pin it on her lapel and look harder. Do you see the blue Portuguese man-o’-war peeling the rind off an orange? You don’t ? You must be blind. You must be tired of life.

And where there is life, there is disease. The dim red glow of Barnard’s Loop is Orion’s ringworm. Did the Rosette in Monoceros blow out, or was the gas used up by the cluster? Either way, the centre is empty. Yet that dense annulus is a bursting boil. It pumps out new stars like brilliant pus. Radio observation puts the mass of the Tarantula emission nebula (30 Doradus) at half a million suns. One hundred hot supergiant stars at the centre fester like a carbuncle. The sky has acne.

And human skin has the sky’s violence. It is no comfort to the poor adolescent whose cheeks are purple pizza — and an insult to the stricken adult who was told for so long that it would all clear up — but our idea of beauty leaves too much out. Aesthetics are abstract. Like those dedicated zoologists on television who let cockroaches crawl over them or who pose with garter snakes group-groping in their beards like Medusa’s mad older brother, we should try to take more in. Einfühling Einstein called it. The love for the objects of experience. Alas, with the electricity switched off we have only the eye, which sees so little. Emerging from my curative journey a riveder le stelle, I could show the Mole, my little dog star, nothing of the radio universe and less than I would have liked to of the optical one. All we had was our unaided orbs, which I was somewhat put out to find were more powerful in her case than in mine. She could see seven of the Pleiades against my six. That left 239 that neither of us could spot, so I told her all about them. In detail, I’m afraid. Drawing on old examination memories, imprints of all-night muggings-up, I read her the news, at least some of which must have been out of date. I told her about the flare stars, the faint red dwarfs that brighten up and die down within months. She liked the idea of faint red dwarfs. I told her, correctly as it turned out, that it was still in question whether the reflective nebulae visible around the brighter stars were continuous gaseous expulsions or the tatters of the original nebula. I told her that this and every other properly framed question must have an answer, however deeply it might lie concealed. Raffiniert ist der Herr Gott, said Einstein, aber boshaft ist er nicht. God might be tricky but He isn’t plain mean.

The Mole liked the idea of continuous gaseous expulsions. She said that they reminded her of Amanda’s friend Susie, who did a foof during her Oxford entrance interview. This revelation almost wrecked the mood of cosmic rapture but I repaired it with an eloquent evocation of what she would be able to see in the Pleiades through even the most modest telescope: wisps and streaks of nebulosity, diamonds and sapphires, all the westering weeping she could wish. When she wanted to know what that meant, I recited the lines with no, repeat no, ulterior motive.

The weeping Pleiads wester
And I lie down alone

She wasn’t impressed, so I gave her Sappho’s original. She was impressed with that: less by my Greek — which was Greek to her, and no more than a parroted recollection to me — than by my suggestion that Sappho was her poet. Hers and Penelope’s. ‘Was she pretty?’ asked the Mole.

‘Famously ugly. But beautiful within.’

I got a kiss for that, bringing my average up to one a week. At peace with myself, I was attracting luck. The lights went on and the stars went dim. She got very sleepy, so we went to bed. Together, for the first time. After so many walk-throughs the performance was surprisingly maladroit on my part, perhaps because I was drunk. I won’t go into details because I honestly can’t. I’m sure it was very nice. Since we had established long ago that I could never take possession of her, it was no conquest. A friendly match. She was patient with me and I was rewarded. As far as she was concerned, though she gave her standard squeal and even contrived to include my name, I could tell that it was nothing wonderful. I could tell from how she let me in, let me stay, let me continue. I was there on sufferance. There was no — how shall I put this? — seizure. Leaving aside the unthinkable possibility that I simply didn’t excite her, I could only conclude that although she was made for men she had no great feeling for them. Call it a lack of grip. There would be no firmness, no friction, no fighting back. She was delicate down there, mesmerically so, so I closed my eyes and concentrated on pleasure that was all subtlety, nothing but nuance. It was about time. Before I knew her well, I would have said that she was giving me nothing. Now I could tell that she had given me myself. Compared with what I had been, I was a new man. I couldn’t precisely count her eyelashes with my tongue, but with my left arm under her back and my right hand holding her left hand, I could kiss her folded fingers softly enough to tell her something about her own frailty. There was no other way to say thank you. Flesh is such an awful word in English, almost as harsh as it is in German. Fleisch. For the most fragile of all things. One summer’s day in Prague, while Kafka was working on Das Schloss, he looked at the girls in their summer dresses, the form and pressure of their living bodies. How short life must be, he thought, if something so flimsy can last a lifetime. Afterwards I retired to my own bed, where I pretended that I could not hear her crying in hers. For a while, naked except for a towel around the waist, I stood on our balcony looking at the stars. Things had quietened down up there, but it was still all happening. The Old One just went on building his maximum break. Fat Man, you shoot a great game of pool.

The next morning was our last before we flew the coop. It was like leaving home. These rooms had seen, if not my greatest, then certainly my most conscious, happiness. Luckily the Mole had already dismantled nearly all the signs of her prodigious gift for nest-building. The empty bottles of oils and unguents that she had placed strategically to sweeten the air — she would even peel the sample strips of perfume-impregnated paper from glossy magazines and stick them to the edges of shelves — had all gone into the big grey plastic sack. From the railed altar above the bathroom sink, all my favourite votive offerings had been removed, including the centrepiece, her lime-green and gold badger-bristle Super Duster blush brush. The sheets we had made love on and under were in the last laundry bag, to be picked up by Marie-Maria, whose open curiosity would at last be gratified. After doing most of the thinking and organising for both of us, the Mole turned to her personal packing, which naturally took ten times longer than mine. Out on the balcony I looked down at the beach, which was now supplementing its late afternoon appearances with a reasonable showing before noon. It was a cloudless day. On my face I could sense no breath of wind, but the waves were running high. The surfboards were out at the furthest line of breakers. The boards were triangles when the riders sat waiting, ellipses when they turned and paddled, curved slivers when they banked to either side. Back beyond them, wind-surfers were slicing sideways along the unbroken swell or jumping from it into the air. The most adept of them pointed the board vertically before flattening out. One of them did a complete back somersault, board and all. I knew it must be Jean-Louis, though he was past the limit of my ability to pick out faces. So were the people on the beach, but one by one I could deduce the presence of almost everyone I had come to know. I could tell from their saintly attributes. The reeling little boy with a rectangle at the end of one arm; the older boy throwing a disc on to the water; the pink triangles beside the girl lying face down. All the coloured shapes had attached themselves to a narrative. The abstract painting had become a drama. Its absolute music undermined by the anecdotal, the paysage was moralisé. The bourgeoisie wants art to tell a story. I stood condemned. Yet I could not feel otherwise than elated. The story was too interesting. Eventually, by hard observation without instruments, I figured out why the prone Miss Pink Flippers had too many arms and legs. She was lying on top of the supine Mr Nagoya, kissing him endlessly, as if trying to suck out the few too many teeth that made the man of her dreams less than perfect.

Continue to PART FIVE

[ ** The Mohorovičić Discontinuity is a geophysical, not astrophysical feature. Perhaps he's thinking of one of the discontinuities in the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram of stellar evolution? — SJB, 2021 ]