Books: The Remake — Part 5 |
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The Remake

PART FIVE : The Pale Gates of Sunrise

Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
     O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
     The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’ eyes!

The grey leaves cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
     Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flair!
     Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.

               Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘The Starlight Night’

We came home to a flat so empty that it echoed like an air-raid shelter. Except for the Mole’s cubby-hole, Chance’s Barbican command post had been gutted. ‘Why didn’t he tell us?’ The Mole was too shocked to weep. Lonely on the living-room floor, the olive drab Princess Line telephone extension gave its plaintive chirp.

‘Why didn’t you tell us?’ asked the Mole into it. Chance was calling from Cinecittà. I left her talking and went to the nearest bathroom, in which precisely one towel had thoughtfully been left behind. When I came back, it was my turn to listen. Chance told me to look after her, as usual. Sometimes the difference between him and Jeffrey Chaucer was purely linguistic.

‘I think I’m getting sick of this,’ I ventured, feeling that some degree of protest was in order, if only to look good in front of the Mole. Or sound good: she was out on the balcony with her back to me.

‘Only four more weeks of shooting left,’ said Chance. ‘Sorry, but I had to sell everything in a hurry. You can camp there for as long as you like. Use it as a base while you get back in touch with Cambridge. Transferring the tenancy will take an age.’

‘Have you been in touch with Cambridge?’

‘Take it easy and you can talk yourself back in.’

‘What’s happening in Rome?’

‘Chaos. Heflin brought his own writer with him. Al felt his way into the role of an Italian nobleman by exercising the droit de seigneur on both daughters of the Italian finance minister. Doug wants a crucifixion scene so he can show his wrinkled old grey armpits again. Gus is on his yacht in Monaco trying to get Steph for a walk-on part so her old man will give us the palace for a free location for the pick-ups we’re bound to need because half the cast are locked into their hotel rooms on the advice of their agents, waiting for cash in a paper bag. Go-Go’s got no credit west of Singapore. The Grapeshot boys have got the US Securities and Exchange Commission steaming into them because they estimated their training films for the Israeli Army Catering Corps at an asset value higher than Gone with the Wind. Presley and Shir are such an item I can’t get a set dressed or a word written.’

‘What about Miss Wechsel?’

‘Angelic so far. Too much of an amateur to realise how unprofessional she could be if she wanted to, thank God.’

‘You sound as if you’re having a wonderful time.’


‘What am I supposed to do with the Mole?’

‘She knows the score. I’ve got no time for her or anybody else. Help her see the bright side. She’s off the hook.’

‘I really think that’s ... ’

‘Got to go. Big party at Presley’s when we get back. Be there. Could be my swan-song.’

The Mole helped me buy supplies and then, having packed up her stuff, disappeared in a taxi to her bolt-hole in College Hall. When she made her traditional visit to me twice a week, we slept together in her stripped room, now mine. There was no music to listen to, no television to watch. All we had was each other. The nicest, easiest love affair of my life — probably because we both knew it was going nowhere — it cost me nothing except the obligation, which I fulfilled gladly enough, to hear the chapters of her long essay. (‘If I don’t get an A for this,’ she said after every second paragraph, ‘I shall be very pissed off.’) I paid her out with long avuncular lectures about her future with Ambrose. When she wasn’t there, which was most of the time, I usually wasn’t either. In a Ford Escort hired with a credit card which I was now wielding with renewed confidence, I made many a trip to Cambridge. Sometimes I dared to make the journey so late in the afternoon that I was asked to stay the night. It was autumn now. Night was starting to invade the day. When I left the M11, the Plough was already visible at the horizon, and the dishes of the interferometer were basket-work silhouettes against the pale stars. I would come off the motorway an exit too early, just to enjoy them. To my no longer jaded eye, they looked wonderfully romantic, like the radio telescopes in Deserto Rosso which the clueless Monica Vitti hadn’t known the purpose of. ‘They’re for listening to the stars,’ somebody told her. Lauren had never needed telling. We had seen that film together, in Naples, the year it came out. Every morning we had read La Stampa over coffee. Translated by Lauren, professionally illuminated and framed, an extract from an article by Primo Levi hung on the wall of my study. The azure calligraphy was uncomfortably reminiscent of the RAF’s book of the dead in St Clement Dane’s, but the exhortation thrilled me still, even in my defeat.


These messages from heaven are a challenge to our reason. It is a challenge we must accept. Our nobility as thinking creatures imposes it upon us. Perhaps the sky will no longer be part of our poetic heritage, but it will be, indeed already is, vital food for thought. It is possible that the human brain is a unicum in the universe; we don’t know, and probably never will; but we know already that it is an object more complex and difficult to describe than any star or planet. Let us not deny it nourishment, or give in to the panic of the unknown. Perhaps it will fall to them, the students of the stars, to tell us what we have not been told, or have been told badly, by the philosophers and the prophets; who we are, where we come from, where we are going.

But this was an influence which neither Lauren nor I owed to the other. We both owed it to Chance’s enthusiasm, which in those days had been unguarded. He worshipped Levi, not to mention Calvino and Montale. Long ago in Rome, on a winter’s day when the fountains of the Piazza Navona were plump with ice, all three of us were shivering at an outside table when Pasolini walked past. Chance’s efforts to stay casual made Lauren smile. She was on to him. I thought then that she loved him, and found out now that she always had.

‘Yes, you can come back if you really must,’ she said. ‘We all miss you. God knows why. Don’t hurry, though. Take your time. Get a picture of yourself. You’re a jerk, a creep and a thorough shit.’


‘But at least you’re less like a bowl of jello than when you left.’

‘I didn’t leave. You threw me out.’

‘You threw yourself out. But you have to understand this much. If that man ever calls by, I’m his for as long as he wants. I belong to him, body and soul. Have you got that straight?’

‘Explain it to me again.’

‘You were just so fucking casual about letting me know you preferred someone else to me. Because she was new. Because she was young. Because her prissy little English cunt could whistle ‘Greensleeves’. Well, this is a taste of how it feels. I prefer Chance to you. He’s a pain in the tail but I know who he is.’

‘You’re sure of that?’

‘Yes. Even if he isn’t.’

‘Did you sleep with him?’

‘One hundred thousand times.’

‘Just now?’

‘For as long as I’ve known you both. Without him I wouldn’t have been able to stomach you for five minutes. How do you like them bananas?’

It was a measure of the distance I had travelled that I was merely crushed. Large sections of my forebrain continued to function. Helping Benjamin with the Amstrad instruction book, I heard every second question, and when we went to watch Donna dancing in the school ballet I figured out what the libretto was about long before the end. The corps de ballet represented the solar system, which had acquired a few anomalous recruits in order to give everybody something to be. Into the solar system danced my daughter, tentatively co-starring as Halley’s Comet. The other co-star, more confident if less graceful, was meant to be a scientist. In a white lab coat and a horsehair fringed prosthetic bald head she was a ringer for Sir Bernard Lovell. Together they danced a pas de deux through the rings of Saturn, the moons of Jupiter, the Milky Way and the Magellanic Clouds. It transpired that Halley’s Comet had come to warn mankind against the dangers of the atom, played by five little girls dancing around each other. Some of the costumes must have cost the children’s mothers a week of work. The music, specially composed, owed much to Holst and more to Chariots of Fire. The whole thing was excruciating but my fixed smile never slipped. Afterwards one of the mothers asked when I would be back on television.

Not soon enough, was the answer. There was no series in prospect. Various offers of one-offs and guest appearances were there to be considered, but even if I accepted them all, it would not add up to a regular income; and a university post was out of the question, what with the academic world contracting faster than the universe was expanding. With Lauren’s wealth looming over us I had never really been the breadwinner, but now there was no doubt of the fact, and the fact was rubbed in by her new career. She had gone back into the biology business in a big way: not as a research scientist — she had lost too many years for that — but as an entrepreneur. Half of her time was spent out at the Science Park, where she was a director in charge of marketing of a small but already flourishing bio-technology firm: the next thing after microchips. The other half of her time was spent across the Channel, where she used her languages to open doors. I was still too dazed to grasp what it was that they were making and selling. I had vague visions of an eyeball hopping along on one foot. When and if I took up the offer to come home permanently, I would obviously have to do my share of holding the fort, even though things seemed to be dauntingly well organised already. There was a live-in housemaid, for example. She was living in my study.

So back I went down the motorway to see producers, consider my options, and cuddle up to the Mole. If my behaviour strikes you as deplorably pluralist, I can only plead indecision. To bless my dumb luck would sound like arrogance. Anyway, I didn’t see all that much of my protégée until the night of the film unit’s homecoming. I saw more of Clive James, as it happened. Coming back from Safeway one evening, I ran into him jogging, or rather he ran into me. Stopping immediately, he complained of aching hamstrings, while seeming curiously reluctant to blame these injuries on the activity he was so fruitlessly pursuing. He invited me in for a drink. Curious to see his living conditions, I acquiesced. Approached by a staircase leading down from the podium level, his two-room bachelor pit, though devoid of luxury, was crammed with interest. Apart from a few pathetic items of furniture, it was nothing more or less than a combined, and surely uniquely comprehensive, portrait gallery and archive of Australian sporting stars. Down from the otherwise undecorated walls stared the cheaply framed faces of Frank Sedgman, Margaret Court, Keith Miller, Ray Lindwall, Neil Harvey, Dawn Fraser, Murray Rose, Lorraine Crapp, Jon and Ilsa Konrads, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe, Rod Laver, Tony Roche, Jack Brabham, Kel Nagle, Greg Norman, John Landy, Hector Hogan and many more. Evidently torn from an old copy of Pix, the famous group-shot of Marjorie Jackson, Betty Cuthbert and Shirley Strickland with their arms around each other in Helsinki was crudely Sellotaped to the side of the television set. There was a bronze bust of Richie Benaud.

‘Injuries decide everything, in the end,’ said my host as he gingerly removed his past-it Pumas. ‘Pat Cash’s back could play the same role in modem Australian tennis history as Evonne Goolagong’s ankle or Tony Roche’s elbow.’

‘Are you really that fascinated with all this stuff?’ I was genuinely puzzled.

‘Too right. Also it helps pay the alimony. A thousand words on the resurgence of Australian tennis goes down well anywhere.’

‘But surely you made a fortune from the film?’

‘Nar. I’ll never see a dollar of that. A disaster, a disaster.’ He smiled with undiluted pleasure. ‘The bastard’s really screwed himself this time. Afraid you’ll have to drink this out of a mug. Did you see how they got my name wrong?’

‘That’s plenty,’ I said hastily.

‘Have you been invited to the function?’

I said yes, wondering if no might be a kinder answer.

‘Me too,’ he said, licking his lips and wiggling his bare toes. ‘Suppose I’ll have to go. Yeah, the bastard’s really done it to himself this time.’ For the next half hour he sang an uninterrupted aria on the subject of Chance’s lost integrity. The awful thing was that I found it hard to disagree. Finally I escaped, using the good excuse that my Loseley individual acacia honey and stem ginger ice-cream was melting.

If these and other haruspications and rune-castings were right about Chance’s film, there was no telling from the all-star wrap party, which took place, as advertised, at Presley Schaufenster’s modest stash in Docklands. Her palace of images turned out to be even more vast than I had thought. There was a whole extra floor which I hadn’t seen on my first visit. All done out in what looked like throwback high-tech, it could have been the final assembly shop for the Heinkel Volksjäger. Dressed to the nines among lengths of grey scaffolding made of some strangely inert substance like zerodur, the world and his wife looked out through an acre of clear glass at a square mile of smooth water whose far boundary had the outline, never completely seen from within, of the old city by night. The Piaggio seaplane in which Angélique and Jean-Louis had arrived floated prettily below. Ranged under sodium lights along the near side of the dock, the cars looked like a concours d’élégance waiting for the judges. I arrived sober and separately from our girl, but saw her shining among the crowd, the long hair — had Nikky been at it again? — hanging straight down the back of her black jersey classic with the bow bustle effect. She gazed adoringly at Chance as if nothing had happened. She waved airily to me as if nothing had happened. To stand out in a crowd like that, she had to be outstanding. In being so proud of her I was being proud of myself, of course: do you think I needed telling? And soon she would be gone.

If not precisely out of it, I felt a bit beyond it, that night. My mind was occupied with practical matters: money, work, lack of work, the possibility that my agent might be a madman, the challenge of my unanswered correspondence. But I had begun to deal with the backlog systematically. I even planned to send Gael a postcard. I was a model of conscientiousness. With one or two exceptions. Nobody here had much to do with me any more. On the other hand, they were grist to my mill. Returned to life, I was the universal observer. Nihil humani alienum puto. Limitless though finite, homogeneous and isotropic both in space and time, my field of study stretched before me until it came back to me: a labyrinth without impediment.

‘Sartre desired me,’ said Angélique. ‘We women know these things. But I could not do that to Beauvoir.’

‘She spent a lot of time telling me how the literati had lost their commitment to social justice,’ shouted Nimrod Plooey. ‘Next time I saw her was at St Moritz. She was taking a ride in the Aga Khan’s helicopter.’

‘And what were you doing at St Moritz?’

‘Writing a poem about snow.’

‘C. P. Snow?’

‘Not the stuffed shirt. The stuff.’

‘It’s what I told Polanski,’ said ‘Zoom’ Beispiel to Tim Stripling’s left knee. ‘Solve your image problem and you’ve solved your visa problem. You think he listened?’

‘In Beijing they trust me,’ said Sir Go-Go Chow, ‘because I make their plopaganda movies at good plice.’

Eric was in charge of drinks. He had his hand and his hook full. Luckily Di and Fergie were there to help. They were absolutely marvellous. I helped too, for a while, and got to hear fragments of every conversation in all directions. As I toured, the fragments made up a sonic mosaic which nobody else would ever hear. It was a kind of semantic hyperspace, through which I could find my way only at the price of becoming lost.

‘Don’t you think Martin Amis looks like a character out of one of his own novels?’ asked Samantha Copperglaze.

‘He’s in one of his own novels,’ said Monty Forbes.

‘How’s that?’


‘Is that why he did it? I should have thought he had pots by now.’

‘No, it was called that. Money.’

‘You mean Success.’

‘No, there’s another one called Money.’

‘I missed that one. Must have been while I was away.’

‘Where were you, darling?’

‘Oh, I was here. But they put me away. In this place for sick people. Until I got better.’

‘Victor and Elena I see last night in New York,’ said Gus Disting. ‘Mit dot rider Zubin Mehta. He don’t look blind to me.’

‘That’s Ved Mehta.’

‘Zubin he was called. You think I don’t know Jewish names?’

I was briefly startled, until it seemed right, to see Veronica Lilywhite sitting in a place of honour. Jean-Louis was kneeling in front of her, juggling three oranges. Suddenly it was four. I had learned enough about juggling to know that four was hard. Then he made it five. The applause was continuous.

‘For you,’ he shouted, as the oranges flew uncannily through one another’s orbits. If Gloria had been there she would have gone to sleep. The spectacle of Veronica taking all this as her due was less nauseating than I would once have liked. Glory became her, the way mourning became Electra.

‘Medawar was right,’ somebody told someone else. ‘Cambridge was bung full of clever people. But the scientists had something to be clever about.’

‘I should have thought that was pure Snow.’

‘Is that an American expression?’

‘Not the stuff. The stuffed shirt.’

‘Look, it all depends on which of the Yanks you openly ape, right? You’re either a Bellow man or a Roth man. He’s a Bellow man. I’m a Roth man.’

‘With or without filter?’

‘Stay out of this.’

‘Do you think it’s possible that Monty actually screwed Horowitz before Presley took her over?’

‘Wouldn’t put it past him. Capable of any perversion.’

‘Then he’s an Updike man.’

‘That’s not bad.’

‘I’m working on a novel right now, and let me tell you it’s got none of that stuff. It’s got a straight story. It’s got characters. The reader is definitely not invited to participate.’

‘What’s it called?’

Wuthering Heights.’

‘Didn’t somebody write that?’

‘I didn’t say I was writing it. I said I was working on it. Writing an article about it.’

‘I’d love to be there, but I have to be in Stockholm to see Ingmar.’

‘Nolan pulled off the same double for years. The Aussies thought he’d come home but actually he lived in Putney. Same principle with Raquel Welch. The Yanks thought she was big in Italy. Italians thought she was big in America.’

‘How is that the same principle?’

‘Yeah, I suppose it isn’t. Is this champagne, or does it just look, sound and taste like it?’

‘I think it’s Australian.’

‘How can you tell?’

‘It’s giving me an accent.’

It was Bollinger, actually. Having sampled some of the merchandise myself by now, I was an increasingly contented traveller. No amount of inner peace, however, could compete with the outward radiance of Presley Schaufenster and Shir Horowitz. Presley’s eyes were snowflakes tonight, her scintillating Corfu-blue get-up the result of some intense alliance between Claude Montana and a junk-yard. Shir had somehow acquired a charcoal-grey pin-stripe lounge suit which had once belonged to Pierre Laval. She had topped off her ensemble with a basin-crop haircut copied from the dominant member of the Three Stooges. As ungraceful as it was possible to be and only two-thirds the height of her companion, she yet outshone her. They were a double star, a new Antares.

‘I’d love to be there, but I have to be in Hull to see Philip.’

‘She owns her own publishing house, so she decides how much her authors get paid. She owns her own club, so she knows exactly how much they drink. When she owns her own clinic she’ll know when they’re drying out. She’s starting her own country.’

‘And every day she has lunch with Carmen.’

‘They’re starting their own world.’

‘Soon you’ll be a second-class citizen if you stand up to pee.’

‘Get it cut off now.’

‘The main reason Europe can’t produce a new Caruso is the shortage of synagogues.’

‘Caruso wasn’t Jewish, was he?’

‘No, but every time he came to a new city he’d go to the synagogue on Friday night and listen to the cantor. Especially in Poland. It was Polish Jewish cantors that taught him how to make it seem effortless.’

‘Buy anything by Raphael.’

‘Can’t afford it.’

‘Not him. Her. Sarah Raphael. Amazing.’

‘Still can’t afford it.’

‘Nobody in New York lives like this.’

‘Iris, Rupert, may I split you two up?’


‘Do I have to read Bergson to read Proust?’

‘Good God, no. Um, to give you an, um, ah, a short answer, er, it’s true that, um, Proust’s, ah, theory of duration is based on Bergson’s, but, um, Proust’s theory of duration isn’t what’s interesting about Proust. In fact, ah, it’s only when the general idea, um, crops up, ah, shows above the surface, er, that he’s ever boring or a tiny bit super, ah, superficial. The, um, specific observations, ah, are what make him so, um, so interesting psychologically. And, um, of course, er, in every other, ah, way. I mean, Heavens, um, Bergson was dated even at the, ah, time. About time. I mean, ah, his theories about time were thought pretty unscientific even then. You should read Revel. What’s his first name? Um, Jean-François. That’s it. Jean-François Revel. Tells you all about that in his little book, what’s it called? Pourquoi des philosophes? Um, not that you need to read him either, although he’s um, ah, a marvellous Proustian, by the way. But Proust, um, is the man you need to read about Proust. It’s ah, it’s all er, it’s all in there. That’s the um, short answer.’

‘Thanks, Terry. What’s this we’re eating?’

Food had appeared. Now Di and Fergie really came into their own. All Falklands factor and stiff upper smile, they were more marvellous than ever. Yet not even they could have coped unaided. The Mole had volunteered to assist, and assisting her was the legendary Amanda, an asteroid I now glimpsed at long last, as I was on the point of leaving the system of which she formed a part. New groups formed to eat, but nothing stopped the talk.

‘I’d love to be there, but I have to be in Rome to see Federico.’

‘Presley’s doing the design and I’m doing the words.’

‘What’s the subject?’

‘Mussolini. But what’s really gonna make it fantastic is Tomlinson’s music. It’s got nothing. Not even repetition. Beside Tomlinson, Philip Glass is Verdi.’

‘Who’s singing Mussolini?’

‘It’s a problem, because he has to sing his last aria hanging upside-down. Pavarotti won’t touch it.’

‘It was a real disaster when those two bores were allowed to define the terms of the argument. Snow was a mediocrity in both cultures and Leavis’s brainwave about there being only one culture should have been sufficiently discredited by having a vengeful maniac like him as its representative. There is only one culture, but science is part of it. Always has been. No, wait a second. Listen. What do you think Lucretius was up to? And you ought to read Queneau’s long poem about cosmology. Calvino translated it. Brilliant.’

‘The same Queneau as Zazie dans le métro? Come on.’

‘He’s a genius, I promise. But the point to grasp is that there is no division. Nothing so simple, nothing so comforting. Instead there’s the eternal requirement to explain, to be clear, to create understanding, before it’s too late.’

‘Before the bombs go off?’

‘Before the humanities lapse into barbarism. Pseudo-science is killing them, and it won’t go away until everyone knows what real science is.’

‘I was in Prague trying to write a novel. Rather intriguing structure with five interweaving plots. But I couldn’t meet any native Czechs. Spent the whole time talking to Roth, Bellow, Updike and Stoppard.’

‘I’d love to be there, but I have to be in Tokyo to see Akira.’

Accompanied by a surge of not-quite-random synthesised sounds which I correctly guessed to be music from the film, the general light went down and the zerodur scaffolding lit up in various colours. It must have been made of optical fibre. All those featherweight pipes were suddenly filled with homogenised light. Scattered and bunched through the multi-dimensional polychromatic grid, the stellar presences did not pause for a second in the sending of their signals. Everyone talked more loudly than ever except Heflin Dustmann and Al Massimo. Separately, in widely divided parts of the limitless expanse, the two singularities talked as quietly as was possible while still making a detectable noise. Each had his own tightly clustered audience leaning inwards, unable to escape, sucked into the near silence of the event’s enormous gravity. Talking very quietly is a Los Angeles star-status shibboleth which ought not to be valid in London, but there is a magnitude of stardom which collapses all barriers, bending light, pulling space into a curve. Out beyond the event horizon of the black hole super-stars, the hubbub became a tohu bohu, a brouhaha, a corroboree.

‘It depends whether you put more emphasis on rhythm than on content. Rhythmically, the best book title of all time is The Deerslayer.’

‘Hemingway always avoided the initial “the”. He would have called it Deerslayer. Would have been better.’


The “the” sounds like nothing. Name me one good title starting with “the”.’

The Long Voyage Home. The Mills of the Kavanaghs. The Lady’s Not for Burning. The Big Sleep.’

‘All right, name me six good titles.’

The Fountainhead.’

‘Worst book ever written.’

‘Good title, though.’

Those Without Shadows. Wonderful title.’

‘Doesn’t count if it’s in French.’

‘It’s not in French.’

‘Still sounds like French. No mistaking that translated sound.’

A Certain Smile. Wonderful title. Sounds perfectly English.’

Mine Own Executioner.’

Absalom, Absalom.’

‘No, that’s terrible. Repetitions are invariably terrible.’

Multitudes, Multitudes.’

‘No such book.’

‘Is. Book that one of the officers writes in The Caine Mutiny.’

Bhowani Junction.’

Manhattan Transfer. Ideal title. Still sounds wonderful even if you don’t know what it means. Great rhythm.’

‘What about The Sun Also Rises?’

‘Terrible title. Nobody knows where the emphasis goes. Does the sun also rise, or is it also the sun that rises?’

‘No, I meant that it starts with a “the”.’

‘It’s the Australian expatriate extravaganza style. They all write like that. Jennings, Jenolan, Huggins, Bartelski. Walter Waiter. Even that poor bastard James. Romaine Rand talks like that. So does Dave Dalziel. So does Waldo Laidlaw. They all pile it on. Kangaroococo.’

‘Oz Pizzazz. Razzmatozz.’


‘Can’t see it, myself. They might think the way Mel Gibson looks, but they talk the way John Newcombe thinks.’


‘Who’s that angry guy with the thick neck who looks like Bob Hoskins?’

‘It’s Bob Hoskins.’

‘OK, your starter for ten. Who wrote: Each man starts with his first breath/To devise shrewd means for outwitting death.’

‘James Cagney.’

‘How the Hell did you know that?’

‘I was in New York last night and I saw the same obituary you did.’

‘I’d love to be there, but I have to be in Sydney to see Sidney.’

Chance was disentangling himself from some invitation offered by Eva Brownlow. He had Imogen Wechsel standing as close to him as she could without touching. The beauty of her face was beyond words. Intersecting it above the eyes was a headache band like the belt of dust across the galaxy NGC4594 in Virgo. She smiled nicely when I told her this.

‘Good to see you back on form,’ said Chance, cutting in.

‘Is the film all done?’

‘Christ no. Pick-ups’ll take months. Heflin’s being very nice about it. If we give him the whole picture outright he’ll do the dub. How did your diary turn out?’

‘It’s practically a book.’

‘Let me see it. Week after next. Ring me on this number.’ He wrote it down on the back of my hand. While he did so, I noticed how fleshless he looked at the jaw-line. There was less of the Denis Healey effect. Stress must have slimmed him.

We drifted apart. I curved away in search of other wonders. Louis XV called Messier the Comet Ferret. The piped music of Tomlinson Kleinbottle gave way to something you could dance to without acquiring Evonne Goolagong’s ankle or Pat Cash’s back. I watched the Mole dancing with Ambrose. Although Angélique and Jean-Louis drew a bigger crowd, I preferred the two youngsters. The Mole was just drunk enough to overcome pudeur and strut her stuff. Her dancing was eloquent. One idea followed another without repetition. If she ever learned to write like that, the world would hear from her. As she bumped and ground in a tight circle with her wagging left hand held high, its thumb and forefinger formed the secret Masonic sign, intelligible only to me, which meant ‘Yes, I am wearing no knickers.’ Ambrose was the ideal foil. With his right hand held out trembling in front of him as if he were fly-fishing with an invisible rod, he just stood there looking thin, scruffy and handsome in his frayed trainers, pipe-cleaner jeans and damaged bomber jacket with the peeling painted Stars and Stripes on the back. Had that same jacket kept some previous young occupant warm as he waited, with the other survivors of his crew, in a goat-herd’s hut in Valtellina for the guide who would take them above the tree-line in the dark and through the deep snow to Switzerland? No, it had not. It had been manufactured very recently in Taiwan. Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischer Reproduzierbarkeit. The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility. Walter Benjamin really had waited for guidance across the border, despaired of its coming, and killed himself. The young men in their bomber jackets had arrived too late to save him, and now they, too, were retreating into death. Only their images flew on.

Breaking in with a proprietorial smile, I corralled the Mole alone against the window, looking out, my guardian arm around her shoulders. With her sharp eyes she could just see the angel of justice on top of the Old Bailey. I helped her to remember the Virgin shining on the rock. It was my time for the lecture about the comets. ‘ ... it’s an event, Mole. A mass extinction. The comet storm comes ripping in and kills just about every living thing. Happens every 26 million years. You can tell from the ocean that there have been eighteen of them already. Every time it happens there’s an evolutionary jump. A saltation. Or anyway, that’s what the saltationist evolutionists think. The gradualists think otherwise. They argue very well, very sanely. But they can’t argue the comets away. Because the comets have these black skins. You see, according to Hoyle and Wickramasinghe, the parent molecule for cometary radicals is an organic polymer. Interstellar dust being biological. And Shirwan Al-Mufti, by lab spectrocsop, sorry, lab spectroscopy, predicted that cosmic infra-red sources at huge distances would show the signature of micro-organisms. The first spectra of the galactic centre confirmed this. And now we know that Halley’s Comet is as black as Egypt’s night. Can’t get away from it, Mole. Black comets gave us your white skin. That’s how we got from a blob on a rock to you. A gradualist evolun, a gradualist evolutionist would die rather than admit it, but it’s ... ’

‘God almighty.’ There was a tear on her cheek. I was moved. I didn’t realise I’d been that impressive.

‘God all bloody mighty,’ she went on. ‘The way you bash my ear about your things. And when I tell you about my things you shift from one foot to the other.’

‘Hold hard,’ I said feebly. ‘I’m usually lying down.’

‘Nobody except Penelope ever really listens to me. And she doesn’t listen to me.’

‘She will. She will.’

‘Have you listened to how boring that Imogen is? Has he? None of you can hear a thing. Eyes bigger than your stomach, the lot of you. Oh, shit. Shit shit shit.’

Give me credit for finding her distress so hard to bear. I resolved to do something. The supreme sacrifice. Her head on my shoulder told me that I wasn’t really hated. Just not very much loved.

‘You got that from me,’ I said.


‘That word. Ear-bashing.’

‘Oh, you’re in my life, all right. If you want to be. But sometimes I miss her so much I think I’ll die.’

And of course we couldn’t have that. The Mole and Ambrose left not long after. People drifted away, yet somehow the party declined to thin out. Perhaps my apprehension of it was swelling to fill the gaps. But no, the general drift was towards elsewhere. As the stars in the Taurus stream move from all over the sky towards their point of convergence in the Hyades, everyone was making progress towards the door. But where was the door? I must have missed it. I was helping Di and Fergie to collect the plates and glasses. They were saving for their holiday in Val d’Isère. Last year they had gone as Supertravel chalet girls. This year they wanted to have some fun, OK? Finally they went home in their little car to Whistler’s Walk in Battersea, and I was left there with Eric. He had a cigar in his hook and much to impart about his favourite subject.

‘ ... it’s his hands, every time. He always gets into the character through the hands. What about the way he checks the magazines of his grease-gun in Hell is for Heroes, remember that bit? Two magazines taped together with gaffer tape, remember that? The way he shakes the shotgun cartridge beside his ear in The Magnificent Seven to see if it’s properly packed. Spins the chamber of his long-barrelled Colt, same picture. Checks the back-sight on his Lee-Enfield in The Sand Pebbles. Whacking that baseball into his catcher’s mitt in The Great Escape. Best scene in Bullitt isn’t the car chase — terrific though that is, mind. It’s when him and Dalgetty are going through the mystery man’s baggage. The way he riffles through the packed gear as if it was cards. Magic. And what about the real cards in The Cincinnati Kid? How he just touches them when they’re lying face down. And how he holds that coin before he tosses it against the wall. That’s why the one role he could never play was Thomas Crown. Nothing to do with his hands except fly that glider. His hands do the talking all the way up to The Getaway. Some people say Ali McGraw did him in, but you can tell from how he didn’t use his hands any more that he was sick. I can’t watch Tom Horn. Just can’t watch it. Tragic. That was how I knew it was all over. When he started hiding his hands. But up till then he was beautiful. What about Le Mans, when he had nothing showing but his eyes? Told you about that before, didn’t I? Right, wasn’t I? No wonder the girls didn’t go and see it. But I was watching his hands on that steering wheel. He was always like that, always. Right back to The War Lover. The way he pulled the throttle levers in the B-17 ... ’

As Eric droned on relentlessly towards sunrise, I gradually realised that I was in the presence of my superior. Here was a true theory of acting, based entirely on properly observed detail. God, someone had said, is in the details. The vaunted philosophical opposition between the particular and the general does not, or at any rate should not, exist in science. By that criterion, Eric was much more of a scientist than Roland Barthes had ever been. No structuralist, Eric reserved his concern for the living fact, the punctum impregnated with personality. Barthes would have seen two or three Steve McQueen movies and said something glibly arcane about capped teeth. Eric had seen everything his hero had ever done and had penetrated to the underlying truth that made the obvious significant. Barthes had been knocked down and killed by a car. Perhaps Eric had been driving it.

‘Spend much time in Paris?’ I asked casually.

‘Can’t stand the place. Only good time I ever had there was when I saw The Blob. You know he was called Steven McQueen in them days? With an “n”?’

‘No, I didn’t know that.’

Like Plato’s symposium we had been overtaken by the dawn. As the Shostakovich Piano Quintet started again on the hidden sound system — the strings and the keyboard reconciled at last, now that I had come back across the water — I looked down at Jean-Louis’s seaplane, which had rocked noticeably for several hours after he and Angélique had climbed aboard. What had he been doing to her down there, and what with? Now it was still. There was not a ripple on the water. Sunlight went past me westwards into the city. Tower Bridge was an empty frame as the sky undarkened. The pale gates of sunrise, wrote James Joyce, of all people. As I explained to Eric, this was a synopsis of what will happen when the universe ends. The sky will grow lighter as the stars are wiped out though a long morning. In a paradox that no living creature will be there to experience, when night falls on the stars it will look like dawn.

In Cambridge the following week I bumped into Penelope. Knowing that she had come up early to read under supervision or else get ploughed, I would have tracked her down soon enough, but by a nice coincidence out of Anthony Powell she came coasting down Castle Hill on her bicycle at the very moment when I exited the paper shop where I had been settling the bill so that we could go on having the Sunday Times ripped to pulp by being pushed through the front door in one piece. As the traffic lights changed and she came to a halt, I could give myself no points for recognising her. It was only surprising that Hunt, Millais and Rossetti didn’t come running down the hill after her. I jay-walked through the traffic and introduced myself. ‘Oh, hello,’ she said, barely audibly. ‘I already knew what you looked like. Saw you on that science thing.’ Seemingly depleted by the effort of saying all this, she looked at the ground on the right side of her front wheel. Her hands fiddled with her bell, brake handles and the empty bracket for a headlamp. Compared to the Mole, she was big-boned, even a touch acromegalic at the extremities. The seraphic face was on a large scale. Probably it had to be. For a nose to register as dead straight, it has to go on for a while.

‘Look,’ I said, ’I have to talk to you about Antonia.’

‘All right. Talk now.’

‘All right. God knows there’s not a lot to say. It’s simple, really. She can’t understand why she always has to write the first letter. Always has to arrange the meeting. She’s done nothing to deserve that.’

‘I know,’ murmured Penelope. Having grown tired of looking at the ground on the right side of her front wheel, she looked at the ground on the left side: a revolutionary shift of viewpoint. ‘No, you don’t know. You’ll look all your life and never find a friend as good. You’re using up the world’s resources of gold as if it was lead.’

‘I know.’ The lights changed but mercifully she did not start riding. While cars went past her, she stood there engaged on fundamental research into the trigger of her bicycle bell. The ball of her thumb checked it for texture. Yes, it was some kind of metal.

‘She misses your friendship,’ I said, scarcely daring to break the sacred hush.

‘It’s ... difficult,’ Penelope managed to articulate. ‘We were so far apart and I had all these new friends. By the time I realised how shallow they were compared with her, I’d let things slide too far. I suppose I got ... embarrassed.’ I could tell this was the biggest speech of her life. Her chest was heaving.

‘Just get in touch,’ I said, trying not to sound brisk. ‘She’ll take care of the rest. She’s a very capable girl.’

‘I know.’

It was time to let her go, but the lights changed to red again. She occupied the time by checking a brake cable between thumb and forefinger. A slow glance earthward on each side of her front wheel confirmed that the roadway was still there. Yes, there was more of it under the back wheel too. Finally, having run out of vectors in which to avoid my gaze, she looked at me. Her eyes were stunning; helpless and powerful at the same time, like those of an enchanted rabbit which could make a car dip its headlights.

‘All right?’ I said cleverly.

‘All right,’ she replied.

‘You know where she is?’

‘I know.’

Then the lights went green again and she cycled off. I watched her over the hump of Magdalene bridge. Young men whistled at her only if they were in groups. On their own, they had that stricken look.

A week after that, I reported to Albany as ordered. I had never been there before, but found it easily enough by going to Hatchard’s first and then crossing the road. Imogen Wechsel’s set of rooms, which presumably her family was paying for, had been done out by one of those interior decorators who comb through about five centuries of luxury, picking out everything that will harmonise. Vertically striped cloth covered the walls and variously framed pictures covered the cloth. A Dibbs Buckley drawing of Chance, and his portrait painted by Jeffrey Smart, were among them, as if they had been there a long time. Perhaps they had: I hadn’t noticed either of them at the Barbican, and in fact had last seen the portrait in Tuscany, the day it was completed. Chance indicated that Imogen was just about to leave. Dressed in some caped and hooded creation against the autumn chill, she looked literally divine, as if the Virgin Mary, bound for exile in Egypt, had been kitted out by Issey Miyake.

‘You be OK?’ asked Chance solicitously.

‘Yes, I can make it,’ she said, staring at him as if to commit his features to memory, in case she was kidnapped. Then, with a brave uplifting of the chin, she turned and strode out, shutting the oak door behind her.

‘Only going to Fortnum’s,’ said Chance. ‘Somewhere between forty and fifty yards. But she likes to play a scene. Got the book?’

‘It’s not actually a book,’ I said, proffering my revamped diary.

‘Should bloody well hope not. Can’t have you doing one of those straight off.’ He leafed through my manuscript, pausing occasionally to read a paragraph. ‘There’ll never be a movie of this, thank Christ.’ The bookshelves, I noticed, enshrined some of his best treasures. They couldn’t have been Imogen’s. ‘Let me keep this,’ he said. He didn’t say much else. When I asked him how the film was going, he told routinely amazing stories about Gus Disting’s use of digitalis at critical moments. For once in my life I didn’t listen to him very hard. I couldn’t believe that the film was important. Nothing he could now cause to happen was as interesting as what was happening to him. I had been the faint dwarf component, Sirius B to his Sirius A. But now, when I looked at him, he seemed to be growing faint. His jaw-line, I could now see for certain, had been neatened surgically. That explained the Swiss clinic. I was as embarrassed as if he had taken off his shirt to reveal a tightly laced corset, or expressed a wish that I should address him as Your Royal Highness. It was strange to see him stroke the angle of his jaw as he read. What did he feel?

‘Is this your official residence now?’ I asked.

‘Moggy thinks so. But I might have to move on.’

The next big move, however, was made by me. I was in Cambridge when one of my sisters phoned from Sydney to say that my mother had died suddenly. No illness, just old age: out like a light. So I flew out of the gathering English autumn into the dazzle of the Australian spring. My sisters took care of the funeral. It was my job to sell the house. There was no prospect of keeping any money. It would take a good sale just to pay the debts. The house should have been sold long ago, but she wouldn’t have understood.

When I told Chance I was going out there, he kindly gave me permission to use his flat in McMahon’s Point. The view of the city at night was stupendous. There was, however, a price tag. Chance was selling the place to raise cash for post-production. So I ended up supervising two complete sets of real-estate transactions. At least I had somewhere to live. I could never have faced moving back into my old room. All my old stuff was still in it, starting with The Modern Marvels Encyclopaedia and ending with my University Medals, which in a fit of bravado I had left behind when I sailed away to conquer the world. Now their hardwood mountings looked to me like the very confirmation of mediocrity. Every day I caught the little ferry from McMahon’s Point over to the Quay and then caught the bus out past Rushcutter’s Bay and up the hill. I could have hired a car but the trip across the water was too refreshing to miss. It could have been that at that juncture I was subconsciously inclined to renew my acquaintance with the amniotic fluid. Freud would have known. Everything he ever published was up there on the shelves among my father’s library.

‘Dr Korth?’ asked the punctilious young man from the antique book dealer’s. He must have been given a key. ‘Court. I changed the name.’

‘Oh yes. Naturally.’ He looked about him with an air of appreciation that I could tell was unfeigned. ‘Are you sure you don’t want to send the whole lot to Europe and break it up there? In Munich, say?’

‘I’m sure.’

‘Most of it will end up there anyway. No Australian public library would want to pay so much for reading copies and there aren’t many new private collectors with these interests.’

‘No. You do it all.’

‘Your father must have been a close friend of Zweig, judging from the inscriptions.’

‘An admirer. He was very young at the time.’

‘You’re aware that just those Peter Altenberg first editions would fetch high prices in Vienna?’

I was. It was very nice of him. Always shaded from the ruinous sunlight by my mother’s peachy curtains, the books looked as if they had been printed yesterday. Most of them inscribed by the author in terms of affection, every book that mattered up to the Nazi seizure of power in Germany and the Anschluss in Austria was present and perfect, the buckram lustrous, the embossed gold glittering. Paper wrappers weren’t even chipped.

‘He must have handled them like a jeweller,’ said the dealer.

‘That’s what he was, really.’

He had been, in a way. My father was the crystallographer who pioneered the artificial opal. His version wasn’t quite as convincing as the Gilson synthetic opals are now. With the Gilson, you can’t spot the fakery until you get it under a proper microscope and see that tell-tale lizard-skin effect of the polygonal cellular structure. You could rumble Dad’s opal with a magnifying glass. But few people carry magnifying glasses to parties, so his patent made him a fortune. The artificial opal was the second bright idea of his life. The first bright idea had been to get out of Europe in good time. Much older than my mother, he persuaded her to abandon first her orthodoxy and then her roots. They said goodbye to it all. Everything was left behind except the culture. The crushing culture. My sisters escaped most of that, but I, arriving last, copped the lot.

When I saw my music stand, still there in the middle of my room, my palms broke into a sweat. It reminded me of my first day at Cranbrook. I was sent there in our chauffeured Chrysler Imperial and I thought I would die of shame. For a long time I couldn’t look at that car: a great pity, because it was easily the most elegant imported American car of the late 1950s. Ours was emerald green. The egg-shaped ruby tail-lights were attached to the top of the tail fins by chromium brackets. You had to have a chauffeur, or people would break them off while the car was parked. Even in Australia, there was envy. Stendhal called envy the third force, but I can’t remember if he said what the other two were.

So you get to hear about my background at the moment of its dissolution. Honestly, I would have put it first if I’d thought it mattered. The last thing I want to perpetrate is any kind of technical trick. The same applies to Chance’s origins, which were the polar opposite of mine. But you can have polar opposites only on the same planet. He came from a long way out in the Western Suburbs: somewhere like Panania or Revesby. His family name was Janilowitz or something like that. Not Jewish: quite the contrary. His old man was a Latvian Wehrmacht draftee who managed to surrender westwards after a long walk. The first time Chance came to dinner in our house — it was my freshman year at university — he revealed these facts while drinking our wine as if it was water. My mother turned thoughtful, but I think she was just afraid he might pass out.

As far as I know, the McMahon’s Point flat was the last piece of property in Chance’s global village. By the time I had finished all the arrangements, mine and his, it was almost Christmas. Back in Cambridge, there were scenes verging on the festive. I gave my presents and even received some in return. I got a letter from the Mole, announcing her forthcoming engagement to Jeffrey Chaucer. Half-way through January, term started again and I was able to phone her in College Hall. ‘But Jeffrey is a schmuck!’ I protested. ‘This is a marriage of convenience.’

‘So it would have been with Ambrose,’ she said, as if explaining something.

‘So why are you getting married at all?’

‘Well, I’m quite ordinary really. I think Ambrose quite likes Penelope, you know. He’s such a dreamer, and she’s perfect for that. It would all work out nicely, if that happened. I don’t suppose it will.’

It didn’t, quite. The Mole and Jeffrey did get married, but Penelope and Ambrose are just friends. Not long after the Mole graduated with First Class Honours, she and Jeffrey drove up from their new house in Dorking to be our guests for dinner in Cambridge. Lauren arranged it: her firm was calling Jeffrey in as a consultant on their computerised accounting, which is very complicated when it gets down to paying for individual cells. At dinner by candlelight, the highly soignée Mole impressively carried off the behavioural challenge of having known me well but not all that well. Her good influence on Jeffrey was already apparent. Several times he stopped talking about organic computers and put on a show of being interested in what someone else said. He made about a dozen references each to Olympia and Biarritz but Lauren had no cue to look long-suffering if the Mole seemed unflustered. Not that it mattered: for Lauren, this was no question of jealousy. I had ceased to deserve it. I was jealous about Jeffrey, but shortly afterwards I met the Mole in the Barbican conservatory for the first of our now traditional quarterly jungle strolls, followed by lunch tête-à-tête at Le Mistral in Smithfield. She put my mind at rest.

‘Are you seeing Penelope?’

‘All the time. It’s marvellous. Dear sweet Jeffrey doesn’t mind a bit.’

‘Are you going to have a baby?’

‘I expect so. After I get my PhD.’

‘Are you really going to let Jeffrey be the father of your child?’

‘Well, Penelope can’t, can she? Don’t be such a stick-in-the-mud. And stop leaving all the Roquefort to last. You’re supposed to eat it with the walnuts.’

‘Are you still bossing me about?’

‘It’s my way of saying thank you.’

‘What for?’

‘For bringing her back to me. She’s a bit hopeless, you know. Fancy having to be told.’

‘Is it as good as before?’ Prurient question, but I had to know.

‘Let me think.’ She thought for a while, chewing. She swallowed. Then she closed her eyes for a few seconds before opening them wide straight at me and fluttering her eyelids with maximum histrionics, these signs of lewdness being counterpointed by a ladylike pursing of the lips. She can make me smile even when my heart hurts like a finger crushed in a car door.

And there, for the purposes of this narrative, I have to leave her: still in my life, but further from me than ever. She misses Chance terribly, I know, but if he was never the centre of her existence, imagine how much less I was, and am. I will never know what she and Penelope are really like together. I wouldn’t know even if I was there beside them. Nobody can see feeling. In my mind’s eye they flare up when they touch. They light the room. My picture of them doing so is the purest thought I have. How their passionate involvement with one another will turn out in the long term is anybody’s guess. Perhaps it’s already a back number, now that our permissive age is on the turn, and life, which had been a bad movie about men with half-shaves holding machine guns, becomes a worse movie, about the killer virus. I suppose a lot depends on how Jeffrey behaves when he’s off evaluating edible calculators in Japan, and on what Penelope’s male lovers, if she decides to take any, get up to when they aren’t bombarding her with sonnets. There are such a lot of bugs about. They’re multiplying as I write. Apart from that, I don’t see how the two girls can catch anything from each other except tenderness. I feel fear when I think of them, but it is not fear of them. It is fear for them, and the world they live in, its terrible simultaneity. At the very moment when they kiss, some girl in Chile is being violated with a cattle prod. In my imagination, the two lovers embrace to the melodic pulse of the greatest thing I know, the adagio of the Schubert String Quintet in C. Perhaps my imagination is overdoing it. But when I conjure up my mental video of their innocent heads thrown back in pleasure, I can’t shake the similarity of that image to the most oppressive emblem the real world offers, that of innocent heads thrown back in pain. I am not tempted by the resemblance into even a brief flirtation with the idea that the two things might be related. In my belief, there is no connection, no matter how deep you go. The one is the essence of benevolence, the other of evil. The difference between consent and duress is not one of degree. No militant feminist can tell me that for a man to rape a woman merely lays bare the politics of his love for her. Nor can any military sadist tell me that the same woman really wants to be outraged. Love and rape are not two points on a continuity: they are fundamentally opposed, the one the epitome of co-operation, the other of domination. The friendship between those two young ladies is an article of my religion. Nevertheless there is always a moment when a man seeks to make himself indispensable. It does him good to be dispensed with to know for certain that somewhere else, by someone else, the mystery is being attended to without him. ‘Not only queerer than we suppose,’ said J. B. S. Haldane about the universe, ‘but queerer than we can suppose.’ He was more right than he knew.

The rough cut of the film was a surprise. Chance showed it to me in a small preview theatre in Wardour Street. He left me alone in there a few minutes after the start and came back a few minutes before the end, so for most of the running time I was free to lie back in the absurdly plush armchair and be stunned. Every frame looked fabulous. Imogen Wechsel was clearly going to be the biggest sensation since Nastassia Kinski. Chance’s own performance was a testament not only to cosmetic surgery but to his love of language. The film looked like Diva, Mephisto and Carlos Saura’s Carmen all rolled into one. But that was just it. All it did was look like something. It didn’t sound like anything. Heflin Dustmann and Al Massimo could scarcely be heard. Engaged in a knock-down, drag-out competition to see who could speak more softly, they made sounds that were all amplitude, like Sylvester Stallone blowing bubbles. Except when Chance himself was talking, and not always then, the film had no voice. He had given himself away. ‘It’s tremendous,’ I said when the lights went up. ‘But you’re wasting your time.’

‘Wasn’t much of that left anyway.’ He said it abstractedly, leafing through my manuscript as he had done when I saw him last. ‘I’d like to have one last crack at a novel but I’m short of a story. Can I use yours?’

‘There’s nothing I can do with it. I’d only get thrown out again.’

‘What I hoped you’d say.’

The film got murdered when it came out a year later. Richard Toole, recently appointed editor of the tabloid he had written gossip for under a shorter version of his first name, wrote a full-page editorial blaming Chance’s self-indulgence for the current collapse of the British film industry. Toole’s grammar had been in better shape since he had risen to a position where his subordinates could be given the task of writing his signed pieces for him, but on this issue his feelings were so strong that he expressed himself personally.

The oh-so-famous Chance Jenolan (I had to ask several young things around the office befor I found his name rhyming with Marc Bolan) has finally flaunted one rule too many, it seems. Already cursed with chronic unemployment in the arts field, Mr Jenolan always was one more Aussie expatriot than Britain needed. Do we need any of them? Its been a mute point up to now, but arguably it should be hauled out of the airing cupboard into the cold light of day. If the cobbers think their dingoes are so dinkum, we’ll keep Dundee and they can have the crocodiles! No offence, sports, but that’s how a lot of us feel here in the land you once were glad enough to call home.

The young, however, took to the film as if it were The Rocky Horror Picture Show, no doubt because the news of Chance’s demise fuelled his legend. How the book will do is another question. Presumably the unabated interest in his disappearance won’t hurt it. Joni Dankworth, who has kindly agreed to be my agent, assures me that the manuscript indeed exists. She says he wrote it in a tearing hurry but with no other aim than to have a hit. He told her that he wanted to provide for his first wife and their children. When she asked him why he was talking as if his life was over, however, he just laughed.

My own guess is that he’s still laughing, but I have to admit that in the preview theatre he gave me a large hint about his plans. ‘I might have to go and join Harold,’ he said. I thought he meant Harold Pinter, and that he was going to write an enigmatic book. I was fairly sure that he didn’t mean Harold Lloyd. Harold in Italy? It didn’t occur to me that he meant Harold Holt, the Australian prime minister who left his clothes folded on the beach and disappeared, having given himself, presumably, to the sea and the sharks.

Chance left his clothes folded on a beach in Rio, or so the headlines said. It was my first reason for having doubts. Stories about the virus started immediately. Angélique had a blood test on French television but the rumours only accelerated. It was said — it is still said, and unless he comes back it will always be said — that he had gone where Liberace plays the piano. Some say that that was why he had his face fixed: he made himself perfect to meet his fate, like Gelsey Kirkland for Balanchine, or Mishima for the sword. Far from believing any of that, I could never bring myself to believe he had left us at all. His quick fade had all the signs of a coup de théâtre. Any clothes left folded on Copacabana beach would be worn five minutes later by the winner of a pitched battle between muggers. Chance hated Rio. He always called it a bad place to drown yourself, because there was no choice. The surf was such a killer that there was no prospect of swimming out in a dignified manner to meet your doom. Chance was a great one for dignity.

Recently I was riding a Ski-doo across an Antarctic snowfield in search of meteorites, which lie around down there like chocolate chips in lemon ice-cream. If my producer had had his way, I would have been shouting a piece to camera as I bounced along, but nowadays, with my duty clear, I am a bit better at saving my dignity while making sense of the script. Popular science isn’t my second string any more. It’s my calling, so I try to do it well. Having insisted on doing the words as a voice-over later on, I was free to think, lulled by the howl of the motor. Somehow I knew that Chance was still alive. He was hiding out in the only place anybody can. He hadn’t done a T. E. Shaw or a B. Traven. He had gone home. He was back there in the Western Suburbs, getting ready to start again. Like a character in Dallas he would return in the body of another actor. He would never voluntarily give up the power to make things happen.

‘For both our sakes I’ll have to fiddle with this a bit,’ he had said to me the last time I saw him, patting my manuscript as he led me from the preview theatre to the lift. ‘Might have to make her a dyke or something.’

‘And what will you make me?’ As I stepped alone into the lift I was genuinely curious. I turned to face him. He was smiling, but right past me, into the mirror behind me on the lift’s back wall.

‘Already decided that,’ he said, and chuckled. The door had started to close before he let me know my fate. ‘I’ll make you an astronomer.’

Suddenly I knew the kind of book it would be.