William Alliss

May 13, 2009

World’s End

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WORLD’S END

A novel by

WILLIAM ALLISS

© WILLIAM ALLISS

For families, lovers, humans, mathematicians, debauchees, people who can or can’t work it out, and religious maniacs, bless ‘em all.

And in memory of Maggie, who had faith.

****

FIRST PART

‘And Eros the most beautiful,
breaking gods and men;
stronger than the heart’s thoughts
than the wisdom of our dreams…’

Hesiod, The Theogony.

*****

ONE.
THE MATHEMATICS OF LOVE

What can I say about my life at that point – except that it was going wrong?
What can you do about a life that’s going wrong? What are the things you can change? The measures you can take? How do you reverse out of a blind alley in a car with no wheels? In a car with a comatose driver? In a car with no driver? How do you? Tell me that, and I’ll tell you how I came to be in this mess. I’ll tell you anyway…

***

At the time I started asking myself these questions I had painted myself into a corner. Quite literally. I was starting a new life in a new flat in World’s End, London, along the King’s Road, where it turns a corner. Just below one of my windows was this bloody great clock with hands whizzing backwards at what seemed like five hundred miles an hour. That’s anti-clockwise and fast. You wouldn’t believe that time could move so quickly in any direction; but every day when I came home I’d have to look at these hands flying past the moments I’d just used up. They undid the last hour in about five seconds. I reckoned that the whole of my life rushed by in the time it took me to walk from the bus stop to my front door. Anyway, this was the setting for my new existence, so I decided to spruce up the place. I’d painted the walls and ceilings and woodwork, and now I was doing the floor: everything in white, the way that bloke did his room in the film The Knack, which I saw when I was fourteen. (Irish bloke: Donal Donnelly.) Ever since then I’d longed for a completely white room. I wanted to feel like I was living inside a blizzard. I delayed deciding whether or not to paint the mirrors, because that was a very existential decision.
I was just finishing off the floor, listening to a lovely piece of music on my paint-speckled radio, when I got up to open the French windows behind me. I’d started painting the floor at the doorway leading from the hall and I was planning to exit via the French windows onto the balcony at the back, entering my bedroom through more French windows which also opened onto the balcony. Simple. Good plan. No. The trouble was, as I suddenly discovered, standing on the tiny remaining patch of unpainted floor, that the French windows wouldn’t open. I’d painted them the day before, and now they were stuck together with dried white gloss.
Fuck, I thought. Oh, fuck.

***

Now because this is an English story, set in England – even if the main location is World’s End in London – you’ll probably want to know what class I come from. Or even what tiny sub-class. Boring, but true. It would be a suitably claustrophobic pigeon-hole to stick me in, to provide a reason for my being so fucked-up. Well, I’m not going to tell you because it’s been done in thousands of other English novels yawn yawn since novel-writing began. (Though some of you may be wondering whether mirrors was a clue: a word used instead of looking-glasses, perhaps.) Will an English reader be comfortable understanding a character whose class he or she doesn’t know? (They can manage it in other cultures. Once a play was staged in London, acted in English one night and French the next: in English it became a play about class, in French about love.) All English stories seem to come down to class, even when they appear to be about gender because this is apparently a way of obscuring but perpetuating the same issue. And as for accents: I reckon English accents change noticeably every five miles. But that’s only on the regional, geographical level. Call it a vertical delineation. Then draw horizontal lines across these verticals to represent the class element. There’ll be so many lines going up and down and across that you’ll end up seeing nothing but a black blob. Exhausting idea.
I’ll tell you about the music I was listening to on my white-speckled radio, though some of you might relate my choice of music to class. The clock hands are whizzing back, and I’m almost there again.

***

Oh, fuck! How did I do that? It’s going to take hours to dry. Before I get out of here the clock will have ticked its way back to the birth of the dinosaurs. Tick tick tick. I could spell it backwards to use up time. Kcit kcit kcit. I’ll soon be fantasising about H. G. Wells and The Time Machine.
The music. What is it? It’s Mir ist so wunderbar from Fidelio, and it’s the loveliest sound in the world. There are hundreds of prisoners chained in the dungeons, and the four of them upstairs – Leonora and the others – are singing about love.
Love love love – wouldn’t you just die for it?

***

‘Darling, I do love you but you’re such a silly cunt.’
This is my old school-friend Valentine Summers speaking. He lives upstairs and he’s standing in the doorway, looking at me across the wet painted floor. He speaks to everyone like this: men, women, children, nuns. And most of them seem to grant him a special licence to do so. Once a psychiatrist told me that having Summers in my life meant I would never need psychiatric help. (When I passed this on to Summers, he said: ‘Do you think I should be available on the National Health?’, and I thought yes.) Occasionally in bars or at parties people are rattled by him – rugby players, for example: at one party I had to talk to a whole team of them about seven-a-sides to stop them beating the living daylights out of Summers. In fact, someone always seems to step in and save him before the first blow has been struck, while Summers looks on, amazed that anyone should have been offended by him.
‘Darling, what have you done? You’ve painted yourself into the corner. You’re a silly old wanker!’
‘It seemed like a good idea at the time,’ I reply, indicating the jammed-up French windows and the vast sea of paint between us.
Then he vanishes from the doorway, goes into my kitchen and helps himself to a couple of cans of beer from my fridge. He throws one of them at me, and I just manage to catch it in my outstretched hand before it can crash onto the painted floor.

***

Is writing a form of madness, or merely an escape from it? Or…
Is writing an escape from madness, or merely a form of it? I have pondered these things at length. Or…
I have pondered this thing at length. Sometimes I find it hard to tell whether a thing or things is or are a single issue, or several. But I have a need to talk about sex, and I have no idea whether this or these is or are a single issue or several. The hands of the clock have taken me back…

***

‘What the fuck do you want to do about them?’ she rasps at me.
Yes, she rasps. It is a rasping sound she makes. She is rasping. At me. She tells me she hates me, and she has joined the Communist Party to prove the point. Most people are leaving the Communist Party at this moment in history – the early Nineties – but she is joining it.
‘Communism is not dead,’ she has informed me, and she celebrated becoming a member of the party by having ruby and diamond ear-rings struck in the form of the hammer and sickle.
Since she hates me, I wonder if the hands of the clock could move forward, just for once?
To Gaby, my rather boy-like new young girlfriend who seems to love only me and who came half an hour later. Who comes half an hour later. She will come half an hour later. Now I’m unsure of tense because I am confused about time.

***

She stands in the doorway, all eyes. A pair of enormous, loving eyes. And a firm, shimmering body.
‘I want to cross this floor and be in your arms,’ she says. ‘I want to make love all afternoon. There, on the wet, wet paint.’
And I gaze first at this wonderful young woman, then at the shimmering white coat of stickiness between us. She takes off her shirt and sheds her short skirt, all the time staring into my eyes. I look at her mouth, her nose, her ears. I have known them all intimately. I think of her other orifices. I have entered each one, in thought and possibly deed. Her contours are shimmying, her slender fingers stroking the outline of her gorgeous breasts. Do her breasts become a single issue? Off comes the bra to reveal her jutting nipples. It seems important that there are two of them, as I give equal importance to both. She turns around and her perfect, rather boy-like bum arches, hovering a couple of feet above the paint, as she removes her knickers and moons at me while I burst. At that moment I hate the white-painted floor more than I hate the death or deaths of innocent children. ‘Mir ist so wunderbar,’ they sing on the white-speckled radio.
Wet, wet, wet. A few feet away, on the other side of my hollow bricks and mortar, the hands of a clock are spinning back towards the Stone Age. And I am trapped in the unpainted corner of a whitened room beside a door that will not open.

***

‘My name is Murphy and I’ve come to serve a writ on you.’
He appears to be deaf, and I have great trouble dissuading him from stepping onto the painted floor. So I wave at him in a kind of semaphoric way, and he stops at the edge of the paint.
‘I could take away all your chattels,’ he announces.
‘There aren’t many left to take,’ I reply, but he doesn’t hear.
He has arrived before the angry one’s visit. What is her name? What was her name? It’s so easy to forget. Yet I lived with her for years.

***

‘Why don’t you answer the phone?’ she asks, rasping.
Some people would see a clue about class in phone rather than telephone. Others wouldn’t. I wave my hand at the painted floor.
‘How could I?’
‘You never do.’ I’ll give her a name from time to time. ‘You never do,’ said Beatrice in the past tense, though what she said was and is in the present, implying both past and future.
‘I’ve so little left to say,’ I replied. ‘I’ve run out of small talk.’
It was the time of the Bosnian War, or was it the first Gulf one (which was really the second because the Iraqis and Iranians had already fought what we’d called the Gulf War)? Anyway, there was so much death in the air that I couldn’t think of anything useful to say.
‘I’ve come to see what you want me to do with the rest of your things,’ she said.
‘No, you haven’t,’ I replied ungraciously.
‘Oh yes I have.’
‘Oh no you haven’t!’
It was a grown-up relationship, ours.
‘Don’t be silly,’ said Laura. ‘I have to get on with my own plans, and you’ve been here for several days.’
‘You’ve come to see if I’m really setting up home here.’
Juliet eyed the floor with a smirk.
‘I see you’ve made an appropriate start,’ she said.
‘You’re smirking at the floor.’
‘I’m smirking at you. You’ve painted yourself into the corner and you’ll be there for hours.’ She smiled her ice smile, and I knew she was thinking about sex.

***

One day, while we were living together, I came home and found her dressed in my clothes. She looked at me with my expression on her face. The love she felt for me was so bad and guilt-laden that she had to kill me off. And so she became me.

***

‘Ah goot mornink, Mister Murphy. Take away all his chattels. I insist!’
This is Vladimir Bartok, a mish-mash of Central European races and what-not who delights in obfuscation.
‘Obfus-vot?’ he once asked me. I explained its meaning. ‘Oh, that sounds too straightforward for me,’ he said.
A political refugee, he came to London in 1976. Deciding that England must be a sunny country during that long hot summer, he cancelled his application to live in his first choice, Australia. The Communists had sensibly locked him up as a dissident threat but Amnesty, in their kindliness, got him out. Arrived in London, he lived in a South Kensington hostel full of penniless White Russian dowagers on their last legs. Then he moved to a flat near mine in Notting Hill and resumed his career as a filmmaker. His UN refugee passport was exchanged for a British one.
Bartok has never seen the need for articles – either definite or indefinite – in spoken or written English. And he has insisted on correcting the proofs of all my writing for several years. Every word I have written. Therefore we are both perverse.
‘No, no, you are more perverse!’ he will say when he reads this. Sometimes, though, he will drop an article into a spoken sentence in order to create confusion. ‘What use is article unless it is for the confusion?’
Soon after he arrived in Britain, Granada Television gave him a job directing a few episodes of Coronation Street.
‘How did it go?’ I asked him.
‘Great success. They loved me. I could not understand word they said and they could not understand me, so they treat me as genius. It was best episodes ever.’
He is standing in the doorway now, munching a huge sandwich made of ingredients stolen from my fridge. Handing another sandwich to Murphy the bailiff, Bartok settles himself down in a comfortable sofa in the hall and, looking defiantly in my direction, dangles his foot provocatively over the edge of the painted floor.
‘I have been studying my passport,’ he announces. ‘Nowhere does it say that I must be English. Therefore I have decided to be Scottish. Goot mornink.’
He uses ‘Goot mornink’ as a kind of mantra at any time of the day or night, along with another, ‘Happy Birthday!’, and through the inappropriate use of both has managed to confuse people from all over the world. Another favourite is: ‘God will repay you with many unwanted children,’ which has caused offence on many occasions and in several countries where English is considered a logical, straightforward language. He himself has been repaid – literally – many times over, thanks to his over-developed libido which may or may not have resulted from the castrating effects of political restriction.
‘Ah goot mornink, Mr Murphy,’ he declares while tearing off another piece of his sandwich. ‘Happy birthday and many, many unwanted children.’
It is lucky for Murphy that he’s deaf and cannot be confused by this.
‘Look at this fool who has painted himself into corner. Did you ever see such idiot? Please take away his chattels.’
Seated in an adjoining armchair, Murphy fancies himself a philosopher. His mouth full of what was going to be my lunch, he expounds.
‘I believe that people’s misdemeanours always catch up with them. You cannot foul up the world without paying a hefty price for your deeds.’
‘Happy birthday and och aye!’ interjects Bartok.
‘One day all the toilets of the universe will explode at precisely the same moment.’
‘Meine gōōtè,’ mumbles Bartok in no recognisable language.
‘I’m speaking metaphorically, of course,’ concludes the philosopher bailiff, shovelling the last bit of sandwich into his mouth.
And then the angry one arrives.
‘Oh la la. Many, many children,’ mutters Bartok, eyeing her with desire, though they have met dozens of times before. Now that a woman has arrived he feels it incumbent upon him, being a Central European, to betray another man, and the honour falls to me. ‘Oh shut up,’ he barks. ‘What fool you are.’
He makes for the kitchen to rob me of the last of my provisions. The angry one looks me in the eye.
‘What do you want to do about them?’ she asks. Rasping.

***

‘Drub drub blood-guttedness, drub their blood-gruntedness. Grunt their drub-bluntedness…’
It is the most ghastly sound I have ever heard and it has been authored and recited by a literary pillock called Mottram Duckworth.
‘What a load of crap,’ I opine.
‘How dare you!’ bleats its awful author. ‘This is true poetry.’
‘It’s bollocks.’
Needless to say, the conversation didn’t go quite like this, nor the verse, possibly. But I wish it had. My response might actually have been something like: ‘Very original, excellent. Would you like a cuppa splash?’ (This being my version of Alan Bennett’s dressing room mantra, ‘Marvellous, darling, marvellous,’ which he offers actor friends every time he has loathed a performance.) The trouble with Mottram Duckworth is that, despite calling himself a poet, he has no trace of poetry within him. None. He has a dreadful eye for things, and a terrible ear – two huge minuses in a would-be poet. He possesses no sensitivity to nature, nor feeling for people, in addition to which he is both linguistically rhythmless and physically gnomic. Artistically – if that is the word – he has been influenced by Tony Harrison’s Northern Anglo-Saxon version of The Oresteia. That was quite bad enough, but this is truly awful. Ironically, it was Harrison who wrote the line ‘How you became a poet’s a mystery!’
‘And so I have drubbed the Satanist weaklings,’ he continues, ‘with their feebleness and despair and their tub-thump, blood-grunt bluntedness…’
Ugh. In my unpainted corner of the room, I have turned into the tiniest ball possible, arms wrapped around my rib-cage, fingers of both hands straining to meet one another at my back. I have become the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, my fingers representing both Adam’s and God the Father’s straining to touch at their tips. On my paint-speckled radio Florestan cries from his dungeon: ‘Gott’ welch’ Dunkel hier!’ ‘God, how dark it is!’
Duckworth drones on. With a horrible intensity I reflect that he is my country’s most famous poet. ‘Drub drub blood-guttedness,’ it thrums along. ‘…feculent caryopses…glut their pitted ire…drub drub…’
For some reason I look up from my ball-like position and see that I am to be saved. Summers is standing behind Duckworth in the doorway, his expression a triumphant sneer.
‘Tub-thump…’ he mutters, unnerving Duckworth.
‘It’s an interesting poetic experiment,’ the bard bleats gnomically.
‘On your way, Fuckworth. This may be an impossible age, but one day we’ll move on to something better.’
Duckworth moves on himself, to the kitchen, where a groan goes up from Bartok at his arrival. Summers looks pleased with himself.
‘Darling, did I save you from a fate worse than death? I’d rather become a Trappist monk than speak to that man again.’ He lights up. ‘Have I shown you my Trappist routine?’
A complex mime ensues, involving a Trappist monk trying to communicate with a deaf-mute nun during a snowstorm in the middle of the night. At its climax the telephone rings in the hall behind Summers, who stares at the offending phone with its terrible ring destroying his mime show. Then he looks at me before eventually picking up the receiver and mouthing silently into it. Again he looks at me and holds the telephone towards me over the wet white floor. We stare at one another and then at the telephone, black against all this whiteness, as a voice calls out plaintively from the receiver.
‘Hello. Hello…’
‘We’re on a sinking ship,’ I say quietly to Summers, ‘but no-one’s getting into the lifeboats.’
‘Hello, are you there?’
‘Shut up Duckworth, you idiot!’ shouts Bartok from the kitchen. Then: ‘Oh, you lovely woman…many many children…let me take you in the gloaming.’ He has found a definite article for a special occasion.
‘Hello…’ wails the voice.
Summers and I continue to stare at one another across the whitened room, as once we did at school when trapped by Jesuits in their prison up North. An epic white distance separates us while deep drum beats accompany Florestan’s plaintive aria on the radio. Outside, the hands of the clock are hurtling towards the Big Bang.

*****

TWO.
THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE

‘A friend of mine, a homosexual, went to see his doctor. “Doctor,” he said, “I’m experiencing great discomfort around the entrance to my anus.” The doctor looked at him. “I don’t want to be over-medical about this,” he said, “but most of us would describe that as an exit.”’
Summers roars with laughter at his own anecdote. Dressed as a Roman centurion, his plumed helmet askew, he is sitting in a dishevelled state on the other side of the glossed-up French windows. He has nearly managed to fall drunkenly off the balcony after lowering himself onto it by rope from his flat above. Why he didn’t simply walk onto the balcony from my bedroom is a mystery only to those people who don’t know Summers. By this point he has failed to rattle the French windows free of their dried paint. The reason for the Roman costume is that he’s been preparing himself for a fancy dress party later.
‘I so wanted to get you out of there!’ he shouts through the glass. ‘I do love you. All your life you’ve been master of your own universe, whereas I’ve tried to be the mistress of mine.’
‘Friendship’s a fragile thing,’ I reply philosophically.
‘It needs water, like plants. You’re like a great garden that needs watering. I could squirt you with my hose.’
We lapse into silence for a while, since it’s a bit of a strain talking through the panes of glass. Summers even snoozes for a few moments, before speaking again.
‘Never tell your lovers about your fantasies,’ he advises me. ‘They won’t forgive you for creating a dream that’s bigger than them.’ Another silence, during which Summers stares over the balcony into the garden below. ‘With some women you have to be very direct and suggest sex straight away – oral stuff, anything. Others you must take out to dinner – candles, romance. Or lunch – get them drunk in the afternoon – very sexy. But some you have to take out to tea – you must remove sex from the situation –‘
‘Never remove sex from anything!’ proclaims a foreign voice. ‘Adolf Mucha said nothing is more important than sex.’ Bartok has materialised in the doorway. ‘Goot mornink! Will you get rid of that ghastly Mottram Duckworth and his dreadful poetry! He thinks to be artist you must have one problem only – like being gnome. It is very English idea. English think you must be just gay or divorced. But to be great Scottish artist like me, you should have many problems. Kick him out! Perhaps Mr Murphy can take him away with all your chattels.’
Bartok returns to the kitchen to shout at Duckworth while Summers staggers to his feet and prepares to ascend to his flat by rope. Balanced precariously on the balcony wall, he decides to moon at me before hoisting off. As he does it – and this is the first time I have ever been mooned at by a drunken Roman centurion – Duckworth appears in the hall doorway. Summers is outraged.
‘I do not choose to expose myself to the likes of you, Mottram Duckworth!’ he shouts, pulling down the flap of his tunic.
I have no idea what stage of human or animal history the clock hands have reached outside the flat. Even the music seems to be playing backwards, because the prisoners are only now blasting out their pitiful chorus of gratitude for a bit of light. ‘O welche lust…’ ‘What joy…’
What joy indeed to breathe fresh air. And she was coming next.

***

I cannot take my eyes off her perfect shimmying, shimmering bum. All warmth and human kindness is or are contained within that pair of boy-bum globes. Bronze against the whiteness. A breath of fresh air. The scent I breathe.
Scent is a class-bound word because most people say perfume. The English lay traps everywhere. Class invades everything, including the bedroom. Sometimes it invades by accident, disguising itself as the North-South divide. Occasionally the North-South divide masquerades as class. Once a Northern girl talked to me about the bathroom, and I misheard the consonant, rather than the vowel, thinking she might have said maths room. (We were making love in a school at the time.) Perfectly logical: history room, maths room…
Trying to clear it up, I asked: ‘Maths room or barthroom?’, and she was offended.
‘We call it bathroom,’ she complained, ‘not barthroom.’
‘No, no, it was the consonant I didn’t hear –‘
Oh, what’s the point?
Gazing at the crack between her undulating cheeks, and the rear-view of the junction of her thighs, the accumulation of her holes, I realise that I am looking at the centre of the universe, the location of heaven, the axis of the paradigm of sexual union. I’m a man obsessed, and she’s all women to me – and all boys and men too, should I ever want or need them. On the speckled radio, Leonora sings an aria to hope. ‘Komm, Hoffnung…’
She has become my best friend too, though I am surrounded by friends, even if I feel I am being eaten by some of them. As long as she and I continue to do one thing for each other, we will never mutually consume. We will be safe if we give one another pleasure and keep our orgasms generous.
As I said, a man obsessed.

***

‘Life is about levels of shame,’ announces Bartok.
It is a little earlier. Consuming my wine, he has left the angry one with Murphy and the gnomic Duckworth, whom he has failed to evict.
‘It is all about levels of shame. Nobody has escaped humiliation, so we are all dangerous. Happy birthday!’
While the prisoners sing their chorus in the background, Bartok drinks my wine.
‘O welche Lust, in freier Luft
Den atem leicht zu heben!’
‘Oh, what joy to breathe freely
In the open air!’
To a man in my predicament, it rings untrue.
‘Film is extraordinary medium,’ continues Bartok. ‘It can cheat time like nothing else can. Because it does it visually. Basic film grammar is magic. You cut from close-up to long shot and see someone pretending they did it in continuous action. Basic, but magic.’
‘Sometimes I think about all the other lives I could have led,’ I muse, ignoring him and gazing at the whiteness of the room. ‘Not just one other life, but lots of them. I think about them all the time. They live alongside the life I live, just below the surface, between the cracks – my shadow-lives. I was master of my destiny and a thousand times I made choices: tiny choices, sometimes, that seemed important. It’s easy to prostitute yourself.’
‘Oh yes,’ says Bartok, ‘most people do. Prostitutes are not the only whores.’ A definite article to maximize the effect, though his stress of it ruins the rhythm.
‘Funny to think that my whole existence came about because my father slipped and broke his leg boarding an aeroplane, so he never got where he was going and met my mother instead.’
‘And they both met you! Happy birthday.’ He drinks more wine. ‘History is like seasons. It doesn’t go away forever. Always it comes back. But on television you can change channels. Do you know, I find myself turning off people’s terrible suffering. I switch from ghastly unhappiness to adverts for fish fingers. Goot mornink!.’ He drains his glass and turns towards the kitchen. ‘By the way, you’re not allowed to call them adverts. You must say commercials or even films.’
‘And they’ve become,’ I add gloomily, ‘our greatest cultural achievement.’
Weaving, Murphy appears beside Bartok, with a full glass of wine in his hand which Bartok relieves him of.
‘How kind, Mr Murphy,’ he says, redirecting him to the kitchen.
‘I believe that drink is evil,’ intones Murphy as he goes. ‘I’ll just wet my lips a moment and then I’ll make a list of your chattels, if you don’t mind.’
‘I knew men like that in days of Communism,’ says Bartok, drinking from the new glass. ‘It’s amazing how satisfied bureaucratic mind can be made by simply writing down things. Half my family were in gas ovens, other half in SS. In Dachau you could be given fifty lashes for spilling one drop of ersatz coffee on table. Very precise. It was all written down. “One drop of coffee, fifty lashes.” Many things written down. Books with crimes and punishments written down. But if you go through books today, you find many mistakes.’
‘Perhaps that was done to protect the inmates.’
‘No, I think it was bureaucratic blindness. People who live so close to rules cannot see straight. Bureaucratic blindness welcomes any dark. To think like them is to bluff true thought.’
‘Why are you being so profound today?’
‘That is magnificent woman in kitchen. Why did she ever live with you?’ He drains the glass. ‘And I have asked her many, many times.’
He exits the exit, and I stare across the white wet landscape, my mind discovering that the clock hands must have raced past the Holocaust over half an hour ago.
I was becoming confused about time. All this hurtling about had to stop. I wanted to get out of there, and now I have. Now I am here, yet this should be told in the past, since I am no longer in the white room waiting for the paint to dry. I need the past tense. Why else would I say: ‘I was becoming confused about time.’? Why did I start this story by asking ‘What can I say about my life at that point – except that it was going wrong?”? Am I supposed to tell you about my life before it started going wrong? I couldn’t bear to. The clock has confused me. I realise now that my life was quite bad enough during the time I spent waiting for the paint to dry. Enough to say I’d made some terrible errors before moving into the flat at World’s End and deciding to paint it white.

***

‘Give film students two examples of anything,’ Bartok said to me once, holding up his right hand. ‘Tell them these are good reasons for doing job this way.’ He held up his left hand. ‘And all my experience tells me don’t do it this way. Which one do you think film students choose?’
‘The wrong one.’
‘Exactly. Happy birthday!’
Well, I’d spent years doing what the film students do, finding out for myself and getting it wrong. And so had Vladimir Bartok and everyone else I knew. I wanted to live inside a blizzard. It was a human blizzard. And that’s why I started a new life in World’s End, surrounded by whiteness, with a clock outside undoing time.
The trouble was, my past was everywhere. Any fool could have seen that. Even me.

***

My past is everywhere. The angry one – let’s call her Myra – is glaring at me from the doorway.
‘I hate you!’ she spits. A groan sounds deep within me. ‘You quarrel with everyone.’
‘I’m just making a list of your chattels,’ says Murphy passing by, writing them down.
‘What exactly is the problem with you?’ she rasps.
I imagine Gaby’s bum smiling at me, vertically. The angry one mustn’t see my hard-on, as she’ll know it’s not for her. I’ve never seen such loveliness: it’s like gazing at the sun or the moon. If she farted, I’d hear the sound of angels’ trumpets. ‘Ein Engel, Leonoren…’ sings Florestan of his angel, Leonora.
‘I said what is your problem?’
Myra Hindley.
‘If you need to ask the question…’ I begin, dicing with death.
‘You creep!’ And a biscuit hits me.
‘You’ve always got to be the victim, haven’t you?’ I ask. Or state.
‘It’s not hard.’
‘Do you really believe you know me?’ (The sensitive approach.)
‘Yes, unfortunately!’
‘You never tried to find out much.’
‘You were too opinionated. I couldn’t get a word in edgeways.’
This is called rewriting history.
‘You wouldn’t discuss anything,’ I tell her. ‘Every time I tried to talk about anything with you, you told me I was bullying you. You turned me into a stereotype. You turned yourself into a stereotype. You destroyed it.’
‘You destroyed it!’ A last word freak, as you can see.
‘You left me at the mercy of my imagination. That was a cruel thing to do.’ (I wish I could remember her name. How could I forget a thing like that?) ‘You see people as it, not you. I was really only an it to you, not a you. And the awful thing is, you made me start to think of you as an it. You destroyed your own magic, and I may never be able to forgive you for that. You were so damaged that you had to reject me before I could reject you. Every time you did, you regretted it and pretended nothing had happened, so of course we never talked about it. You never had the self-respect to play life by your own rules, only other people’s – mostly your parents’. Why be here at all if you’re not prepared to seize your own life? Anything else is a kind of whoring.’
That went down well, as you can imagine, and she glared at me across the paint. I had become truthful, but cruel. And foolhardy. I took a deep breath.
‘Prostitutes are not the only whores, you know.’
I realised that in the time it had taken me to say the last few sentences, Freud’s entire life had whizzed by on the clock.

***

‘Well?’ asked Mottram Duckworth, poet, looking like a gnome standing in the snow. I am writing about him in the past tense because I am trying to forget. I was trying to forget. ‘Well?’
‘Well what?’ I’m stalling for time. I was.
‘What do you think?’
‘About what?’ Forgetting doesn’t last long.
‘About my poem, of course.’
I suppose some people might be honoured to have their country’s most celebrated and least talented poet asking their opinion of his work.
‘Well…’
‘Yes?’
Marvellous, darling, marvellous. Not even Alan Bennett could pull off this one.
‘Er…’
‘I’m waiting.’
I look him in his gnomic eye, mustering an air of authority.
‘Are you sure you want this?’
‘Yes.’
‘I don’t think the addition of a few blood-gub-drub sounds makes it a poem.’
The tiny bard stares at me in amazement. It is the amazement of a man who has filled in application forms and won several grants, awards and bursaries, not to mention honours, since he is the bureaucrats’ dream poet – the kind of poet who can fit into any category and flutter no heart.
‘You don’t think it’s a poem?’ he says slowly.
‘No, I don’t.’
‘What would you call it, then?’
Don’t tempt me, Duckworth.
‘Er…’
‘What?’
‘Well… A very interesting experiment.’ This is only a white lie because everything in the room is white.
‘Yes…?’
Oh, what the fuck.
‘Actually, I think it’s a complete load of crap, Mottram.’
He has become a very still little gnome. All he needs now is the fishing rod.
‘I see…’
‘And I don’t really consider you much of a poet.’
‘Why is that?’
‘Because you can’t love.’
‘And what has love got to do with poetry?’
I think that Summers might have a point about this being an impossible age, but the only sound I can manage is a long groan. My chin sinks onto my chest for extra dramatic effect.
‘Explain yourself!’ shouts the most celebrated poet of our time.
Like Lazarus, I slowly raise my sunken head.
‘You’re dull. And you’re bourgeois, although your writing is designed to hide this.’
‘I’m dull and bourgeois?’
‘Yes. Petit bourgeois.’
‘I’m petit bourgeois?’
‘And you don’t resonate.’
‘I don’t resonate?’
‘No.’
His facial expression turns to one of immense pity. I have never seen him show so much emotion.
‘Have you read my sales figures?’
As a matter of fact, he has always hated me. Possibly for reasons of art, class and the North-South divide, though he doesn’t know me from a bar of soap. We are a pigeon-holing society, and he is good at the victim game. Funnily enough, around the corner from my new flat there’s a small art gallery called The Pigeon Hole, whose owner once drilled a hole in her head with a Black & Decker. She’s even stood for Parliament as the Trepanation On The National Health candidate. I might vote for her next time. I’d like to take a Black & Decker drill to Mottram Duckworth.
‘You’ve got all the answers. All the definitions. There are no question marks in your life, or in your poetry. You know exactly what your poems mean, you’re articulate about them on the radio and telly, you tell us exactly what they’re about. Why the hell do you write them, then?’
Well done, me. I’ve been meaning to say this for some time – and here, inside my blizzard, I’ve done it. All it needed was to have my identity nicked by friends, my chattels nicked by Murphy, my time nicked by Duckworth, and to sit in a white-out. I must have become a Buddhist.
When I collect my thoughts, they inform me with chilling clarity that the clock hands are travelling through one of the earth’s several ice ages. Impossible to say which.

***

‘I went to check out the gym yesterday,’ says Summers. ‘There was so much equipment I thought I’d walked into an S & M clinic.’
He’s standing in the doorway, dressed for tennis.
‘Sport is very unhealthy,’ says Bartok. ‘Are you going to tennis or party?’
‘I’m playing ten at twelve. At the club the other day I told a woman I needed to wash my headband, and she asked if I had smelly feet. When I said no, she gave me her telephone number, so I said I’d like to shampoo her all over and do you know what? Her eyes watered. Do you think she fancied me?’
‘Indubitably.’
‘Vladimir, do you like a girl with smelly armpits?’
‘No!’
‘Neither do I. Unless it’s a special feature I’ve asked for.’
‘It’s not something I would ask for.’
They turn to me.
‘Would you ask for it?’
‘No.’
‘Darling, I think your imagination runs out where mine begins, but I do love you. Do you know, Vlad, I’ve known him most of my life and he’s my dearest friend.’ He seizes a soda siphon from the hall table and brandishes it at me. ‘You must be thirsty by now. You haven’t drunk your beer. I’m going to squirt this into your mouth, so get ready!’
He takes aim.
‘Don’t!’ I shout, fearing for the paint.
‘Then say you love me.’
‘All right.’
‘Say it!’
‘I love you.’
‘And I’m your oldest friend.’
‘You’re my oldest friend.’
‘And closest.’
‘And my closest.’
‘And dearest.’
‘And dearest.’
‘Dearer than Raymond Rivers,’ (another ex-inmate of the Jesuit prison we attended up North – and several other institutions too).
‘Dearer than Raymond Rivers.’
He puts down the soda siphon.
‘I forgive you, but you’re a silly old wank.’
‘And happy birth,’ adds Bartok.
‘Time for ten at twelve.’
He exits the exit, doing a jock-strap moon as he goes. Bartok settles into an armchair.
‘Those bloody bastard television commissioning editors with their all-day lunches. They leave office at eleven-thirty and come back at four, but only on busy day – usually they take longer. I am only talking about Wednesdays because weekend lasts from Thursday till Tuesday. They would have made very good Communists during régime.’ He becomes reflective. ‘I used to make so many films. Now, because of those commissioning editors, I have to let films cook longer, like my goulash. Minimum of eight hours now I cook my goulash. I make less films, more teaching. Number of students I have breaks down into number in theory, number in practice and number in reality.’
‘I don’t understand that at all,’ I mumble, and Bartok dangles his foot provocatively over the paint, making me scowl. Thinking of Central Europe, I ask: ‘Are you going to move back?’
‘Where?’
‘Home.’
‘Scotland?’
‘Home home.’
‘Certainly not.’
‘Why?’
‘I am here too long, and I’m Scottish now. I hate it here sometimes, but I can’t live back there. My ex-exile friends all over Europe have same problem as me: they don’t like France, Germany, Switzerland – but they don’t want to go home.’
‘You were never just a political exile.’
‘One never is. Exile and politics are never entirely political. Happy birthday!’
‘You actually like it here because no-one expects you to discuss your emotions.’
‘Goot mornink! I am losing my cachet as refugee. I will have to be black one-legged lesbian next.’
‘The cachet’s moved on from them. You’ll have to find a new cliché.’
‘You say cliché, I say cachet. I think I will try to become commissioning editor and make myself completely unavailable to filmmakers, as work is very unhealthy. I will take all-day lunches and all-week weekends. No films will be made, and no adverts. Goulash will cook forever. Now I will make myself a sandwich.’
He returns to the kitchen to woo the angry one whose name I can’t recall, and to castigate Mottram Duckworth, whose name is all too well known throughout our unfortunate isle as his loathsome poems continue to record the minutiae of its fossil changes and other gripping developments which the clock hands whizzed past long ago.

*****

THREE.
THE NAKED DUKE

This is a story about Valentine Summers’ brother Jasper, a painter who also drinks heavily and attended the Jesuit prison up North, though he was already a drunk by the time he got there, aged thirteen, and a whore. It’s also about Jennifer (the older woman he visits on a regular basis), a naked young duke, and me.

***

At 2 am I was lying in bed, reading, when the telephone rang.
‘Hello. Stephen?’ says a drunken voice.
‘Yes?’
‘Stephen. It’s Jasper.’
‘How are you, Jasper?’
‘I’m very well.’
A drunken pause, which I fill with:
‘Are you at Jennifer’s or at home?’
‘The former.’ Another pause. ‘Why don’t you come over for a drink?’
‘That’s kind, but –‘
‘Oh come on!’
‘No, I was just nodding off.’
‘Come on, come on!’ wails Jasper.
‘No, no, I’ve got to read some more.’
‘But I’m going away East…’ His voice drifts from the receiver towards Jennifer. ‘Oh shut up!’ he shouts at her. ‘Oh God, Stephen, this fucking woman really buggers up my life. She’s a monster! Put on that music, you bloody old whore!’
‘Where are you going?’
‘East.’
‘Where?’
‘Turkey.’
‘I haven’t been there for years.’
‘Well, come over and talk about it!’
‘No, it’s too late.’
‘Oh don’t be so bloody fucking boring. Come on over!’
Suddenly a part of a Mendelssohn symphony blasts down the line. I raise my voice to be heard.
‘HOW LONG WILL YOU STAY IN TURKEY?’
‘Forever.’ Another drunken pause. ‘What have you been doing?’
‘With my life?’
‘Yes.’
‘Writing.’
‘Oh.’ Pause. ‘Oh, she’s shouting.’
‘Put her on.’
Her unmistakable drawl comes on the line:
‘Stephen, darling…’
‘Hello. You’re both drunk.’
‘Jasper is, I’m not.’
‘He says he’s going to Turkey forever.’
‘Two months – but he’ll probably be home by the weekend –‘ A shriek. ‘Jasper, get off! Oh, my back’s broken! I’m being suffocated! Oh! Oh, that’s better… Oh, the music – I’ll have to turn down the MendelssOhn,’ she says, stressing the O in Mendelssohn.
Jasper’s voice comes back on the line, sounding even drunker.
‘Hello…? Come over for a drink.’
‘I’ll telephone you tomorrow.’
‘I’ll be gone.’
‘I’ll call before you leave.’
‘Have a drink!’
‘I’ll ring.’
‘Come over!’
‘Tomorrow.’

***

The next afternoon I called round at Jennifer’s house, knowing that Jasper had flown East already. (When I’m in writing mode I can’t handle that level of drunkenness around me.) A divorcee of forty-four, Jennifer was a house warden at an international school in Oxford, where I was living and writing at the time. ‘A dustbin for spoilt rich foreign brats and arseholes’ was how Jasper described it, frequently to the students themselves – especially the ones he was trying to shag.
Jennifer was lying in her huge bed which filled most of her ground floor bedroom, watching tennis on the telly. French windows were open onto the garden, filling the room with the smell of wet grass from the recent rain. I leant forward to kiss her.
‘Did you know you’re not allowed to play the piahno in the music faculty?’ she said. ‘I’ve just had Jasper’s cousin on the tellyphOne and he told me. He’s a postgrad and he’s doing music and he’s not allowed to play the piahno in the music faculty common room. Now isn’t that interesting?’
‘Yes. Did Jasper get off all right?’
‘Yes, he did. Isn’t it sad?’
‘Mmm.’
‘Doesn’t the garden smell simply lovely?’
‘Lovely.’
‘Well you’re very lucky it does. Half an hour ago it smelled like a chemical works. A man came and sprayed it. Here I was, lying in my great big double bed, talking to Jasper’s cousin on the tellyphOne about how they wouldn’t let him play the piahno in the music faculty, when suddenly there was a dramatic eruption of bearded tits from the flower bed – just over there – and lo and bloody fucking behold, I saw a tiny thing with a great big tank on its back, squirting, and little legs underneath. The bursar had sent him. The greenfly’s been terrible. So’s the bursar. I think he’s trying to keep me sweet because he knows I know he likes them black and he likes them in twos…’ She stretches out in her great big double bed. ‘Do you know, he found one of his pretty Italian boys doing something unspeakable to himself in the shower the other day. The bursar told him off, and the Italian boy was furious. He’s a duke or something, from Tuscany. He went quiet for a bit, then came running out absolutely naked and terribly beautiful and wet and seventeen and olive-skinned. “Look here,” he said, “It’s mine and I’ll wash it as fast as I like!” Then he went back behind the shower curtain and continued doing unspeakable things to himself. It was a joke he’d picked up from the Australian students. Apparently the Italians joke in anger.’
‘That’s not the Italian Jasper painted last week?’
‘Well, he meant to. It should have been a six-by-four nude for a Texan millionairess.’
‘What happened?’
‘They got drunk and both ended up running naked around the studio, and Jasper never put brush to canvas. Very shaming. He’s a very naughty Italian duke. I tried telling him off afterwards, and do you know what he said?’
‘No?’
‘He said: “I know it’s wrong but I like it.” And then he made a pass at me. The bursar’s wife’s always darting out of his way. Big girl. Midwife at the John Radcliffe. But she dives out of his way.’ An intense look comes into Jennifer’s eye. ‘Now that’s a strong job. Midwifery. It’s one of the strongest jobs you can do in nursing, next to a theatre sister. Stronger, in some ways…’ Jennifer’s husband was an obstetrician who had run off with one of his patients. ‘You have to get that woman to push and push. To fight. You have to have the baby for her. Christ, you have to work. You’re absolutely finished afterwards.’ She pauses. ‘Interesting that she can’t handle the responsibility of the students. Still, she’s only twenty-five. That might come. Provided she’s not chased around by too many naked seventeen-year-old Italian dukes…’
‘Washing themselves too fast.’
‘Exactly.’
‘When does he go home?’
‘Who?’
‘The naked duke.’
‘Not for some time, I’m afraid. He’s run off to Turkey with Jasper.’
‘Oops.’
‘Isn’t it an absolutely cuntish thing to do to me, darling?’
‘Yes.’
‘It’ll be a great relief for the bursar’s wife, though. She’s hasn’t dared take a shower for days.’
‘What’ll he do in a Turkish bath?’
‘I dread to think. But the heat might slow him down.’

***

Twenty minutes later, as I walked to my car, I looked across the road to the bursar’s house. Behind the glazed window of the first floor bathroom I could see the outline of a large young woman slowly drying herself. She was singing in Italian. Swaying gently, she punctured the stillness of the Oxford afternoon with the sadness of her Tuscan lament.

***

‘Editing note from Vladimir Bartok:
This story is absolute rubbish. What is Tuscan lament? And it is not nearly perverse enough. Why are there no naked girls washing themselves too fast in shower? And why you have not written scene with me holding soap for them? Write again.
V. B.’

*****

FOUR.
SHADOW-LIVES

‘Why do you work for this ghastly idiot?’ asks Bartok of Edna, my half-blind cleaning woman who has broken the last of my possessions since I arrived at World’s End. ‘Why?’
‘It’s the references,’ says Edna, looking at me affectionately in her half-blind way across the painted floor. ‘He gives me lovely references.’
It’s true. I have recently given her a lovely reference so that she can break the vases of an antique dealer living along the King’s Road. An antique dealer wants a cleaner, so you oblige. A cleaner needs more work, so you help out. What could be simpler? The trouble is, the cleaner breaks more than she cleans, and the broken vases turn out to be fakes because the antique dealer’s a crook. This is an impossible age. Nobody can concentrate on anything for more than two seconds. Look at me: I keep raising points about class and gender, and I don’t follow through. Nobody’s expected to do anything well. You don’t have to be a Renaissance man or woman any longer. You need only one skill, but don’t develop it too highly. All Edna has to do is clean. Dust and wipe. Occasionally scrub. That’s it. Nothing else is required of her. She isn’t expected to analyse Wittgenstein or recite Koranic texts, or talk about thermo-nuclear dynamics – whatever they or that is or are. No: dust, clean, wipe, occasionally scrub, nothing more. But she can’t. What she does is break, smash, shatter. And I give her a reference so that she can do it over a larger radius, making me into a perverse post-modern reworking of the old boy network.
An impossible age, and a stupid one. I’ve adapted R. D. Laing’s theory about the wrong people being in the lunatic asylums. I believe the wrong people are in everything, and every job. Everyone is inappropriately placed. And Gaby has taught me that most people are trapped inside an inappropriate sexuality too. An impossible age. Cleaners don’t clean, poets have no poetry in them, plumbers can’t plumb, teachers can’t teach or even learn, students know nothing, doctors kill, nurses are cruel, soldiers betray, lovers hate… Leonora knows how to love and be faithful. She’s saved Florestan’s life.
‘Liebe fϋhrte mein Bestreben,
Wahre Liebe fϋhrchtet nicht…’
‘Love it is that guided me,
True love that knows no fear…’
They could be Gaby’s words. I’d like to get up and walk over to her, leaving footsteps of love in the paint. I’d like to stop making stupid calculations about how long it will take the hands of this insane clock to travel through the Black Death or anything else. ‘O welche Lust…’ Lust lust lust. I am in love. And, to answer an earlier question: yes, I would die for it. I nearly did.

***

I told you about the time I came home to find the angry one had become me. What I didn’t mention was that I had started to become her. While travelling back that day I noticed myself walking with her swinging gait. I stopped and talked to somebody and when I laughed, it was her laugh that came out. Soon an alienating element worked its way into my life. It was very Brechtian. I could observe and comment upon all that I did and thought, giving me a parallel existence running alongside the role I was playing, or living. I’ve no idea whether I was playing or living it. None. Was my life the parallel existence of the role? What the hell does a question like that mean? In the end, thoughts become rubbish, or at least some thoughts do. In World’s End.

***

I have become like Hamlet, trapped by concern. I am even holding Yorick’s skull, thrown to me from the doorway by Summers, who is trying out a Prince of Denmark costume for the party. He has a large wardrobe in his flat above. I have caught the skull by the skinlessness of its teeth, and the floor has remained intact.
‘Darling, I do love you – I just wish you’d slide out of that corner and come over here so we can try on costumes together.’
The angry one is standing next to him, smirking. Not at the floor, but at me. She can never be Ophelia, I decide, except through madness. But she is very beautiful. Summers addresses her.
‘Darling, speaking as one sexy beast to another, shall we go to the party together?’
A shattering sound from the kitchen confirms that Edna is in there.
‘Will you give Edna a cup of tea and make her sit down for two hours without doing any work at all, then pay her – please!’
Exeunt the exit.

***

I wore her clothes while she was out, I sat on the sofa like her, I read her books, I imagined making love to me. This was no camp drag act: it was a real, organic becoming. Very Stanislavskian. Funnily enough, it made me feel more masculine and appropriately placed at last, because I’ve always believed that Englishwomen do a better job of being men than the men. (Certainly they believe it, and seem perpetually bitter and cheated at having been born female.) Then I became confused, as I couldn’t tell whether I was more in love with her or myself. I longed for my own company. I missed me. I waited for me to come home, which I did when she arrived.
And who am I now? What am I in space and time? As I gaze at the skull I consider how grey it looks against the white. Shall I cross the floor, or shall I wait for the paint to dry? Do I or don’t I? Inadvertently, I have discovered the crux of Hamlet’s problem.

***

Summers has tossed me a pill, and I have taken it to speed up the waiting time – or will it slow down? At least my thoughts have altered, convincing me the skull is Hitler’s and making me want to ask him a lot of questions. Without his funny hair he looks strange, though I can just imagine the outline of his moustache if I try very hard. ‘Did you really believe all that?’ I want to say, cheating by shaking the skull in denial. Then I remember seeing on television the skeleton of a man murdered twenty-five thousand years ago. The report was a light-hearted piece whose spirit I found hard to enter into – as though time had healed the agony of his lonely death. Another time they did a story about gang-raping ducks – ‘Ducks gangbang!’ – said the announcer, smiling. The duck I saw being raped looked desperate. An actress friend once lectured me about the horror of rape, then forced her Labrador bitch to mate with a fearsome dog: it broke my heart to watch. These are the thoughts which Summers’ pill have produced. Not all thought or thoughts is or are rubbish, but most of what is spoken is. Ask Hitler.

***

‘Darling, I’d like to put your thoughts onto floppy software and play them back over the years. Then I might be able to understand your genius because I think you could disturb the sleep of the world. I’ve only managed to disturb the sleep of World’s End.’
The pill is having an odd effect, making the door look strange. ‘The truth comes in a strange door,’ said the painter Francis Bacon. At the moment its handle is being gripped by Summers.
‘You have a labyrinthine mind,’ he says.
Roll up, roll up and see my labyrinthine mind. Come in and meet the Greeks, the Gauls, the Norsemen, the horsemen of the Steppes, the Indian gods and goddesses, the plains warriors, the priests, the shamans, the cobblers, the doctors who kill, the lovers who hate, the razored charlatans of mirth… Who the hell are the razored charlatans of mirth? What is this pill?
‘If I were a policeman,’ says Summers, ‘I’d strip-search you!’
‘If you were a policeman, you’d strip-search yourself.’
‘Let’s go to the party as hand-cuffed prisoners. You can be my ball and chain and stick the key in my lock.’
I turn up the volume and the room fills with the sound of many voices.
‘Nur hier, nur hier ist Leben!’ they roar gently in Hitler’s tongue.
‘Der Kerker eine Gruft…’
‘Up here alone is life!
‘The dungeon is a tomb…’

***

‘You seem like a very interesting person,’ says Murphy the philosophical bailiff.
‘Just think of me as a human sacrifice,’ I reply, but he doesn’t hear.
‘You have some odd friends, though. I’d say that Mr Summers is hyperactive: he tells me he’s going to party all weekend.’
This bailiff who has come to steal my chattels drinks my wine and eats my food. Perhaps he’s appropriately placed after all. Maybe at last I’ve found someone in the right job.
‘Myself now, I don’t like weekends,’ he drones. ‘I enjoy my work and look forward to Monday morning. I’ve written down the details of your chattels, but I’ve lost the bit of paper. Oh, thank you very much, Mr Bartok.’ (Bartok is filling his glass again.) ‘I might have to start again. There’s not many chattels to list, and I notice several of them are broken. Have you thought of mending them?’
‘Too expensive. I’m destitute.’
‘Prostitute?’ he says excitedly, the deafness diminishing a tad.
‘Destitute! It takes away choice, like being a prostitute does, but the pay’s worse.’
‘I’ll get a piece of paper and write it down,’ he says, scurrying off.
Prostitutes are not the only bores, I tell myself as I contemplate this writing-things-down business. I never write lists, but I think them up. I make strange inventories, like how many grains of sand are there in Africa? How many paper clips in America? How many worms in Kent? How many people still awake at 4 am in Delhi? Maximum number of orgasms taking place at the same time worldwide? How many murderers asleep in Shepherd’s Bush? I’m aware of all the lives I do not lead, of my parallel existences, and think about the parallel lives of paper clips, the orgasms which fall between the cracks.

***

She appears before me now, like a hologram, mooning, while the half-blind Edna passes, dusting unrestrained, breaking things, mistaking that heavenly bum for the globe of the sun.
‘Oh, what a lovely sunny day,’ she says, smashing broken vases as she goes.
‘My greatest fear is that one day I’ll wake up and find that not one person in the world fancies me, that I’ve become repulsive to everyone on the planet. It’s more scary than reading The Tibetan Book Of The Dead, in which you experience at death every thought you’ve ever had.’
‘Don’t you worry about that,’ says Gaby, turning around.
Mottram Duckworth’s greatest fear would be failing to win an award. For Summers, not finding a girl in leather and prepared for anything. Edna, no vase to break. Murphy, no chattels to list. The angry one, no me to blame. Bartok, no people to confuse.
Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by people’s sexual generosity. Just occasionally, gods and goddesses pass this way, creating a paradise here on earth. (All seven divisions of it.) Tell them how generous they are, and they reply: ‘You’ll never know how much I enjoy doing this.’ They fool you into believing they’re mere mortals, but they’re not. Mortals would use their beauty to inspire envy, not love. Gaby, twenty, all-knowing, wise as the centuries, innocent as a child, flawed in her past, splendid in the present, smiles at me.
‘When I came to terms with the gay side of my nature,’ she informs me frankly, ‘I felt much more complete as a woman…’ (Well, you would, wouldn’t you? Would you? Christ, this pill’s still doing funny things to me. Pay attention.) ‘I stopped playing a role and dealt with people as human beings. My love for you is the love of one human being for another.’
‘Absolutely,’ I mutter, gazing at her gorgeous body and wondering what the hell this pill is. I want to cry from love.
‘Sex is wonderful between us because it’s sex.’
Sex is wonderful between us because it’s sex? Now what the fuck does that mean? But I don’t want to interrupt her flow, so I nod my head and smile encouragingly.
‘Nobody’s going to tell me what to do with my body…’ (I nod and smile again.) ‘I don’t just love you and make love to you because you’re a man…’
‘Exactly.’ Nod, smile.
‘My mother thinks we exist only to produce babies, that we’re nothing if we’re infertile or have hysterectomies, that love isn’t creative enough by itself.’ She spreads her thighs and bends over backwards. ‘There are only bisexuals and liars,’ she says across the white void of my room. ‘And the sexually dull.’
‘Bravo!’
‘Absolute heterosexuality and homosexuality are both extremes and therefore suspect, maybe pathological conditions, not natural.’
‘They sound like diseases.’
She stands up straight again.
‘How long till this paint dries?’
The pill encourages me to believe that we could probably make love from opposite ends of the room.
‘My mother believes she’s become worthless since she had a hysterectomy. Any man would value her life more than she does. She’s volunteered to be in chains. It’s a bit primitive.’
I wonder where the clock hands are. Which came first, man or woman? When was the first hysterectomy carried out? How many have been performed worldwide since? And mastectomies, castrations, vasectomies?
‘I suppose democracy wasn’t thought up by everyone. It was probably imposed on the masses by a few.’
‘Cruel to be kind,’ I murmur.
‘Life can’t be about everyone having to do the same thing. If someone wants to be in love with a walrus, that’s up to them.’
‘Perhaps we’ve come full cycle and we’re turning into Plato’s unisexual being.’
‘Or is it double-sexed?’
Oh, there’s a thought. It’s so easy to forget, to become muddled.
‘I wonder what’s waiting for us out there,’ I ruminate. ‘Probably some bloody great horror that we can’t begin to imagine. Do you think anyone predicted the Black Death before it happened, or the Great War, or the Holocaust? There might be something extra-special just for us.’ (I’m aware that this could sound a little gloomy and discouraging to the young.)
‘The Buddhists say we’re heading for a period of great peace.’
‘I think they’ve got that wrong.’
Perhaps we could just watch the horror on holograms. I could move back in time and make a hologram of the angry one before she became angry. Keep her with me all the time, and she’d be perpetually happy. She’d be Gaby. I loved her so much. And that’s what it is, of course. That’s why I can’t remember her name. She’s my Gaby, before she became me. Where are the clock hands now? Which came first – the lover or the beloved?

***

I said that I nearly died of love. That I have nearly died of love. One thing is certain. Love precedes the murder of love, unless time is moving backwards, in which case the murder of love precedes love. Another thing is uncertain, in either of these cases. The lover may die as a result.
When I looked at her in the mirror (looking glass?), whom did I see? Whom were we really trying to kill, each other or ourselves, or the unacceptable face of love? Did I know where I ended and she began? Am I rewriting history? Was it purer than that? Were we like Layla and Majnun, who never killed their love, however much the world attacked it? Did I wander in the desert, dressed in rags, my legs adorned by sores? Did we rid ourselves of sex? Could I say, as the story’s Persian author, Nizami, did: ‘My love is purified from the darkness of my lust, my longing purged of low desire, my mind freed from shame. I have broken up the teeming bazaar of the senses of my body. Love is the essence of my being. Love is fire and I am wood burned by the flame. Love has moved in and adorned the house, my self has tied its bundle and left. You imagine that you see me, but I no longer exist: what remains is the beloved…’ ? Could I say that about myself, or her, or the situation? Was I purged? Am I purged? Shall I wear my trousers purged? Like a patient etherised upon a table? I like to shag upon a table, because it reminds me of food. I love it when she spreads herself across a chequered table-cloth, upwards or downwards, and writhes with desire, scrutable. Nothing moves me more than the human hip in motion, the motional loin.

***

‘I used to wank into a sock every night,’ says Summers.
‘Oh, please.’
‘That fooled the Jesuits. Then I’d go to Communion next morning.’
He’s reminiscing about our schooldays, spent in the Jesuit prison in the North of England during the Sixties, far from anywhere. Bartok interjects.
‘I also was taught by Jesuits, even though I was half-Jewish. It made me very wily for Communists because I had to outwit Jesuits at age of fourteen.’
‘I outwitted them too,’ says Summers, ‘because I didn’t go to Confession first, like all the other boys. Everybody thought I was very holy.’
‘I didn’t.’
He frowns at me.
‘Darling, are you going to stay there forever?’
‘Until it dries.’
‘You might starve.’
‘Ich hab’ auf Gott und Recht Vertrauen…’ sings Leonora. ‘I put my faith in God and justice…’
‘Wouldn’t you like me to throw you some food?’
‘No, thanks.’
He’s still dressed for tennis, and his energy levels are high, since his partner never showed up. ‘I could have sworn we said ten at twelve.’ He drinks my beer and moons at me again.
‘My God!’ shrieks Bartok at the sight, running back to the kitchen for more of my wine.
The telephone rings, and Summers hurls the portable receiver at me across the room. The bodily movement required to catch it makes me look like the hands of the demented clock for a moment.

***

‘I was giving this girl a portion on the front room floor…’ (Front room, sitting room, drawing room, living room – or lounge room, as the Aussies say.) ‘I was giving this girl a portion on the front room floor with a bloody Mary Poppins video playing because that was all I had to mask the noise…’ This is Gary speaking, through the portable telephone, from Brixton, where he lives. He likes to update me on his sexual exploits with nineteen-year-old black girls. Only fairly recently – a couple of years ago – has he stopped being a nineteen-year-old black boy, and is now practically a man. Sitting hunched in my corner, I am grateful for his call. ‘…when suddenly she freezes underneath me and goes all rigid, like a board. Her tits jut into the air and she wallops me on the shoulder, her big eyes bulging. “What’s up, mate?” I ask her with my bum sticking up bollock-naked in the air and my dick ten inches inside her. Suddenly I think she’s dead, then realise she’s staring at something behind me, and it ain’t my fucking bum. Do you know what it is? It’s my mum standing in the doorway, in her nursing sister’s uniform, with her hands on her hips. She’s glaring, right?’ He launches into his impression of his mother’s high-pitched Jamaican voice: ‘“What the hell’s going on here, for the sake of poor Baby Jesus!? You disgusting dirty beasts, get out of my house!” And she boots her out of the house stark naked, with all the neighbours lined up outside, watching and clapping. Then my mum starts posting her clothes through the letterbox, starting with the ear-rings and the high-heeled shoes. I was trying to put my clothes on, but it was difficult because I had a carpet burn on my left knee, and she was calling me “Filthy scoundrel!” I don’t know where she got that from. I grabbed all my records because I didn’t want her playing frisbee with them, and we ran laps around the coffee table. She was chasing me with the vase Dad brought back from Kuwait. “You’re just like your father!” she yells at me. “Dirty filthy child! No respect for women!” “I do have respect for women,” I shout back. “I’m not like Dad. We’ve been going out for years.” I met her last week. Poor girl’s had to change her uni course and leave the borough. My mum’s had the house re-blessed and made me wash all the walls down with lemon. She’s changed the carpet and made me pay for it. She didn’t go to Cheap Carpets of Brixton: we’re talking Allied here. I had to go to church and sit at the back like It. Everybody said: “I heard about your bit of trouble.” My haircut didn’t go down a treat, either. I’ve been trying out a flat-top. It was the vase that shocked me. She was really getting round the coffee table, and I never knew she could move like that. Or lift things. When I go shopping with her, she’ll usually make me carry the two cans of Lilt.’
Writing is like talking, listening, having therapy, making love. More than anything, it’s like dreaming. It takes the tritest elements of the day and gives them significance. It can be frightening. It lends beauty like a pawnbroker. It speaks of loneliness like a priest, a victim. It ties up loose ends with threads of varying thickness. I have the distinct impression he’s wanking down the telephone.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Nothing.’
‘Why are you breathing funny?’
‘I was just bending down to water the plant.’
‘Oh yes?’
‘Sort of. I was bending over your photograph.’
‘Really?’
‘Really.’
‘Susan Sontag called photography a sort of soft murder.’
‘There’s nothing soft here.’
‘Which way were you bending?’
‘Over.’
Now that’s what I call a hidden agenda.

***

Some writing is a comfort because it makes you feel a part of your society. The Americans understand it well, because it gives them a warm glow, like the one they get from listening to Bing Crosby sing. Then there’s writing which makes you feel part of the human race, however strange you are, and it invites in all the other strangers too, offering a very different sort of comfort. French meals versus hamburgers.
‘She can’t work you out at all, my mum. She calls you the hecksecutive. “How come you mixing with these hecksecutives?” she says. “He ain’t no executive, mum,” I say to her. “It’s the church upbringing puts you in touch with all kinds of people,” she says. “All right, mum,” I tell her.’
Mum’s the word. A famous writer – French, I think – once said that no mother ever understands her son, however much she thinks she does. ‘I know my son well,’ she may say. ‘He is not gay.’ Oh, yes, you think, then why did he ask me to go to bed with him last night, when I was minding my own business?

***

‘With a grenade in one hand,’ said Sir Roger Casement, ‘and in the other, the cock of a Belfast boy…’ No wonder some of his own side were pleased to see him hanged by the British.
Is sex about escaping the persona? Or… Do we have a sexual persona? If so, is it different from our other persona? Or personas? What persona would be on offer from someone holding the cock of a Belfast boy? Or a hand grenade? Do we come closer to ourselves through sexual union, or travel away? Do we attain union through sex? Denial is everything. Once, I was crossing the Severn Bridge with the angry one whose name I’ve forgotten and she said something to irritate me, so I turned furiously to her, rasping: ‘What did you say?’ We were driving at sixty miles an hour, and the wind was blowing both the bridge and the car as we glared at one another over the gorge. Or is it a gap? She smiled innocently at me and said quietly: ‘I never said that.’
Denial is all. Gary once told me that a pretty friend of his said: ‘I wouldn’t let no batty man bugger my arse for a million quid, man.’ Half an hour later he’d come down to ten thousand. Somewhere in the universe one day a country will introduce compulsory homosexuality. Nothing to do with human rights, of course, the reason will be entirely financial: bonking a member of your own sex will be declared the most effective form of birth control. Already actors are being replaced by holograms and computer images, so before long humanity could be represented entirely by non-humans. With computers designing the problems they face, who’s to say this is worse than leaving Mottram Duckworth to write poems? Losing sight of the human soul is like being inside my room. White-out. Blizzard.
I’m glad I left the mirrors unpainted, although from this angle they reflect only more white.

*****

FIVE.
THE TWILIGHT ZONE

Red, red, red. Everything was red in every direction, even the bloody kangaroos. I was in The Red Centre of Australia, working as a penniless cook in the travelling circus, because I’d been let down back in England and gone broke out there in Oz, unable to reach home. The Red Centre. The centre of what, I’d like to know? It’s in the middle of nowhere and it’s all red. The earth, the sky, the air I breathed, the water I drank and the fire I’d like to have torched it with. I met a girl there. ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Scarlett.’ Oh, for fuck’s sake. Nevil Shute might have found something to write about it, but I can’t. ‘Welcome to the twilight zone,’ said the tent boys when I arrived. ‘It’s not like the real world in here.’ And it wasn’t. It was like a red prison in which people come and go: one of them even talked of Michelangelo. The bush children giggled with delight at the fornicating lions. But I loved the life, however hard the work, and for a very short time it was home.
‘May I ask why you started painting at this end of the room,’ asks Murphy, interrupting my reminiscences, ’and finished, or didn’t quite finish, over there?’
‘It seemed like a good idea at the time!’ I shout, in order to be heard.
‘Oh.’
‘But now I realise that my life would be far better if I’d done it the other way round!’
‘Myself now,’ he mumbles drunkenly, ‘I would have done it the other way round.’
‘I’m sure.’
‘I would have started over there and finished here.’
‘Yes.’
‘I’d have worked it out on paper first.’
‘Of course.’
Suddenly Mottram Duckworth storms into the hall from the kitchen, holding aloft a soggy notebook and glowering in the doorway, outraged.
‘Look what your cleaner has done!’ he shrieks. ‘She threw it in the dustbin!’ (And showed more sense than all the leading critics of the day.) ‘It’s ruined!’
‘Oh dear.’
‘They’d have paid a fortune for this in Austen!’
‘Perhaps Oxford could buy it cheap.’
‘Is that a chattel I haven’t listed?’ asks Murphy, seizing the soggy pulp.
‘No!’ roar Duckworth and I simultaneously, agreeing on something for the first time ever.
‘Wie kalt ist es in diesem unterirdischen Gewölbe!’ shouts Leonora. ‘How cold it is in this underground vault!’
‘Das ist natürlich,es ist ja so tief,’ replies the gaoler, Rocco, ‘Of course it is; it’s so deep down.’
They stuck Casement in a basement, as I recall, before they hanged him.
‘Never mind,’ declares Duckworth, attempting an air of triumph, ‘I shall do what Carlyle did when his maid burned the manuscript of his History Of The French Revolution. I shall start again and make it even better.’
‘Oh God,’ I moan.
‘I shall apply for a grant to finance it.’
Groan.
‘I’ll make it twice as long.’
‘Aagh!’ (Well, that’s how they spell it in boys’ comics.)
‘I’ll buy a computer and put it on disk.’
Sob. (Boys don’t sob.)
Hitherto, one of Duckworth’s affectations has been to abhor the new technology. Once he’s computerised, we’ll never be able to lose his stuff, unless I can introduce a virus. But it’s no good: his poems are everywhere, translated into dozens of cheapened languages. Civilisation mourns the lost plays of Sophocles, so why the hell can’t we lose the poems of Mottram Duckworth? We must lose them, because beings might arrive from another planet one day and discover them. We could all be judged by the poems of Mottram Duckworth, and our development compared with that of the inhabitants of other galaxies. They’ll wage war on us…

***

‘Darling, if I develop Alzheimer’s, please knock me on the head with a mallet. I may have my faults, but I’m not the vegetable type.’ He’s eating what must be very nearly the last of my food, and drinking my beer. ‘We’re a lost civilisation. Everything’s breaking down. All our toys are breaking.’ He is dressed as Bluebeard. ‘Every major theory that I grew up believing has been disproved or overturned – every single one. It’s very dispiriting, and hard to know what to believe.’ Beer and philosophy have slowed him down, making him almost slur his words. ‘Did you know that in the Fifteenth Century the world’s largest city wasn’t even heard of by people in Europe? They didn’t know it was there. It was in South America, and we only discovered it after it was gone. Think about that – you’re living in the biggest bloody city on earth, and nobody else knows you’re there. Or…’ He takes another gulp of beer. ‘You’re living in London and you think you’re living in the biggest bloody city on earth, but you’re not. It makes you think, doesn’t it?’
I can’t stop thinking about the lost plays of Sophocles. They’re like lost lives. Parallel lives. Parallel plays. The plays between the cracks. Like acoustic shadows, which are the lost sounds of battle from certain perspectives. And the lost plays of Aeschylus and Euripides, the lost and found plays of Menander. It makes you wonder.
‘Of course, most murderers are the least dangerous members of society,’ continues Summers, stroking his false beard, ‘because people usually murder someone they’ve loved. Once they’ve done it, all their passion’s spent and they’re no longer a threat.’
‘They’ve had their royal moment,’ says Bartok behind him. ‘Goot mornink.’ He drains his glass. ‘I knew one in prison. He was very serene.’
How many murderers live on this planet? What percentage know they’ve committed murder? The Shona people of Zimbabwe have no word for murder. Or is it the Ndebele? How many murders have I been a party to?
‘…party to?’ echoes Summers, making me nervous that he can read my mind, until I work out that he is saying ‘…party too?’ to Bartok. ‘Why don’t you come to the party too?’ he has asked.
‘O Gott! Wech ein Augenblich!’ sings Leonora. ‘God, what happiness!’ ‘O unaussprechlich süβes Glück!’ adds Florestan. ’Oh, inexpressible joy!’
‘Perhaps I’ll go as Hitler,’ announces Summers. ‘Sometimes he wore a big leather overcoat, though it looked like PVC. Do you think your lovely ex would like to come along as Eva Braun? I’ll go and ask her.’
Staring at the props he has thrown me – the unopened can of beer, the telephone, the skull – again I ask myself: Do I or don’t I? It would be so easy to cross the floor, smear the paint, and start again. Or would it? I don’t think it would be at all easy.
‘Would you like me to wheel television into doorway?’ asks Bartok.
‘Why?’
‘You could watch news.’
‘No. It changes too fast.’
Suddenly the entryphone buzzes beside him. Which is odd, because everyone so far has wandered in from the street without buzzing anything. Bartok picks up the receiver and speaks into it.
‘Hello and goot mornink! And happy birthday! Oh…’ He looks at me. ‘It is Jehovah’s Witness. She is asking if I think world is in state of crisis. What do you think?’
‘Say yes.’
‘Yes.’ A long pause while he listens to the response. ‘She asks what we should do about it.’
‘Tell her I’m having a think.’
‘We are thinking about it. And many, many children! What? No, no, that is just expression – why be so literal? Goot mornink!’ He replaces the entryphone receiver. ‘She was going to become very technical. All that talking.’
All that talking… I imagine the white walls covered in words. The human mind swamped by language, creating a blizzard. All that confusion. Like the inside of a skull covered in graffiti.
‘Talking gets you in and it gets you out,’ says Bartok.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘It’s like war. You reach point where you owe it to your dead to go on. If you ruin relationship through talking, try to heal it same way.’
‘I’m not at all sure that’s a good idea.’
‘After all, love is disease.’
‘Maybe only when diseased people fall in love.’
At which point Mottram Duckworth enters the exit, announcing: ‘I am thinking great thoughts.’
‘Don’t forget to share them with Edna.’
‘I don’t know why you employ her, as it’s difficult to see what purpose she serves.’
And he heads for the lavatory, leaving me to wonder why societies value the people who dirty lavatories more than those who clean them. And why a useless human is more valued than animals. If a man points a rifle at the last member of a threatened species, should we kill the man and save the animal? At that moment is the human life devalued, and the animal’s more sacred?
‘Bestrafet sei der Bösewicht,’ sing or sings the chorus.
‘Der Unschuld unterdrückt.’
‘Let Nemesis fall on the villain
‘Who oppressed the innocent.’
‘Gerechtigkeit hält zum Gericht
‘Der Rache Schwert gezücht…’
‘Let justice draw her avenging sword
‘In retribution…’

***

How many paving stones are there in Manhattan, how many bricks in Europe? How many window panes in the world, how many doors in India? How many lions in the South of France? How many men were killed by sharks during World War Two? How many erections are currently being experienced in the western hemisphere? How many skeletons are there in the British Isles?
‘England is funny place,’ announces Bartok. ‘I will never really understand why Romans came here. I’m surprised they considered it fit for human habitation. I would have expected it to be used as prison island for criminally insane.’
‘The right place for you then,’ I say ungraciously. ‘I used to think that immigration and the blending of races might jig it up a bit, but people seem to become miserable as soon as they get here. Or do miserable people choose to come to England? Do jollier people go to France and Italy?’
‘No.’
‘Are the skies above Heathrow full with planeloads of miserable people waiting to land here, knowing they can find true unhappiness in England?’
‘Human goulash. English hospitality is curious thing. English people often surround themselves with chairs which they never ask you to sit on. And parties are designed to make you feel uncomfortable and awkward, like victim of three-camera set-up. Subtext of their thoughts can be very boring – often more boring than text. Life they find demeaning. And sex is so upsetting for them, age of consent should be raised to eighty.’
‘The North is more civilised,’ I insist.
‘Not when it produces Mottram Duckworth.’
‘And the Moors Murderers.’
‘And Duckworth. But I won’t hear one word against Scotland. Happy birthday!’

***

‘I think Mum’s been getting a portion,’ says Gary, who has rung back. ‘I was going through her holiday snaps – you know she went to Jamaica with Les from down the road? – well, I’m looking at this picture and she’s in the water, smiling at the camera, all alone, right? There’s no Uncle Maurice, Aunt Bibs, Auntie Lucille: just Mum, smiling. “That’s a nice bikini you’ve got on, Mum,” I tell her. ‘That isn’t a bikini, it’s a swim-suit!” and the final syllable soars up towards the Caribbean sky. “Well it looks like a bikini to me, Mum. And where’s Les?” “He’s taking the pho-toh!” “Where’s all the family then, Mum?” “They were all busy that day!” “All the family here, and everyone from the church, they’re thinking ‘allo, it’s a bit odd, because Les’s wife didn’t go with them, you see…’
‘Why not?’
‘She said she didn’t want to travel all the way to the West Indies but she made it to the Seychelles last year, didn’t she?’
‘Is Les white?’
‘Yes. It gets worse. The three of them used to go shopping together. Now it’s just Mum and Les.’
‘And he carries the Lilt?’
‘He carries the Lilt. Tropical sunshine taste.’
Human goulash, I wonder, or human blizzard?
How many goulashes have been cooked since the discovery of fire? How many blizzards have blown since the last Ice Age? When will the next one blow past the clock outside, and will it become impossible to see which way the hands are hurtling? Will they still hurtle?

***

‘”Friendship’s full of dregs,” said Apemantus in Timon Of Athens.’ I’m addressing Summers who’s dressed as Hitler in PVC.
‘That’s only because we’ve drunk from your fountain.’
‘You’ve drunk from my fridge.’
‘And you shall drink from ours.’ A pause. ‘Who’s Apemantus?’
‘A churlish, misanthropic philosopher.’
A flushing sound heralds Duckworth’s emergence from the lavatory.
‘I now know how I’ll make my poem better,’ he announces.
‘You’ll write it in invisible ink,’ says Summers, almost collapsing at his own joke. Duckworth scowls at the laughing Führer but is distracted by Murphy waving a piece of paper.
‘I’m ready to serve a writ on you now,’ he informs me.
‘No, stay where you are!’ I shout as he is about to step onto the painted floor. I’ve become semaphoric again, waving my arms frantically.
‘Ah, thank you,’ says Bartok, taking the writ and replacing it with a glass of wine.’
A crash sounds from the kitchen, and the angry one appears holding aloft another broken vase.
‘One fewer for you, Mr Murphy,’ I say philosophically.
‘Darling,’ says Hitler, ‘how long are you going to stay there?’
‘As long as it takes.’
‘You may need to write letters.’
‘I won’t.’
‘I‘ll write them for you, then fold them into darts and throw them over. You could stamp them.’ He starts banging out a stamping rhythm on his PVC overcoat. ‘That must be how music got invented!’ He whips off his trousers and moons at everyone through the crack in the overcoat.
If the hands of the clock would stop in the 1920s or 30s I could photograph him now and ruin Hitler’s chances of taking over the world. One soft murder to prevent all the hard ones to come.
‘Fuck you, Adolf,’ I mutter.
‘Der Unmensch wollt’ in dieser Stunde,’ sings the gaoler, Rocco.
‘Vollziehn an Florestan den Mord…’
‘This monster at this very moment
‘Intended Florestan’s murder…’
At which point the mooning Hitler farts loudly into the room.
‘”He that will have peace, God gives him war,”’ I say, quoting George Herbert.
But nobody hears me, because Summers has whipped them into a frenzy and the din is too loud to let them hear. However, I notice Bartok returning the writ to Murphy’s paper-filled pocket and think about what the cynical Apemantus said in Timon:
‘What a coil’s here!
Serving of becks and jutting-out of bums!
I doubt whether their legs be worth the sums
That are given for ‘em. Friendship’s full of dregs:
Methinks false hearts should never have sound legs.
Thus honest fools lay out their wealth on curtsies…’
And that might not even have been written by Shakespeare. It’s part of the lost and found of literature.

*****

SIX.
SEVEN SIDES OF A TRIANGLE

I’m serving, Arabella’s receiving. The first ball crashes into the net. Arabella stares straight ahead. On my second service I strike the ball more forcefully. It hops cleanly into the box and sails past Arabella who makes no attempt whatever to return it. She remains rooted to the same spot centre court to receive my next delivery. Again it flies past her unchallenged. Soon the score has reached 40-love. I call out.
‘It’s okay to hit it back, Arabella!’
‘Yes, I know that, Stephen – but I don’t want to!’
It was obviously time for her appointment at the Warneford, Oxford’s celebrated loony bin.

***

Arabella had suffered many breakdowns over the years and had a weekly meeting with a psychiatrist at the Warneford. (As a child I had a horror of Oxford University because all the undergraduates my family knew took their degrees from the Warneford, which had a reputation for getting more Firsts than any of the colleges. In fact, it was known as ‘Oxford’s best college’.)
‘What’s the quickest way?’ I ask, starting my car.
She directs me onto the by-pass and is soon talking about her late husband, the poet Nevil Hunt.
‘He wasn’t quite gay, Stephen, but very nearly. He got awfully passionate about people. He was wild about the poems of that bloody Rufus Locke. Do you know, he had me in tears the day before yesterday on the telephone…’
‘Rufus Locke?’
‘Yes. Now I’m planning my own poem about a violent murder, and the victim seems to be a mixture of Nevil and Rufus Locke.’
She gives me some complicated instructions which take us onto many side roads, and before long we seem to be travelling on the by-pass again, back in the opposite direction.
‘Lately I’ve started to feel very high again. Higher than I’ve felt since my last breakdown. I can’t blame it on that bloody Locke, unfortunately. It started a week before I talked to him.’
More complicated instructions follow, which seem to be taking us further and further from the Warneford, but I don’t want to interrupt her.
‘Do you know, I’m taking on Nevil’s personality and trying to kill him at the same time. I’m trying to get some of his poems published posthumously and I don’t even like them. That’s what I had the row about with Locke.’
I look at the mileometer and see that we’ve travelled twenty-eight miles already, trying to get from one side of Oxford to the other. Eventually, several miles later, we arrive at the hospital.
‘This seems a very roundabout route, Arabella. Circuitous. We’ve done about seven sides of a triangle.’
‘Well, it’s the way I always come.’
That’s why you’re coming here once a week, I thought.

***

When she comes back to the car after her session with the psychiatrist, Arabella looks crestfallen.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘She says I’ve got to cut down to half a bottle of wine a day.’
‘Oh.’
A long, thoughtful pause.
‘But half bottles are so difficult to buy nowadays!’
She falls silent as I start the car and decide to drive back to Summertown straight through the centre of the city, avoiding even the Marston Ferry Road.
‘So many decisions to make about things, Stephen. Nevil used to control my reading, you know.’ (She had a First in English from Oxford.) ‘He never let me see much theatre. Once we went to a couple of short Pinters. One was about a woman sitting in her kitchen, and I can’t remember anything at all about the other. After his death I started going a bit more. Not long ago I saw Children Of A Lesser God.’ (This was the Eighties.) ‘I hated it. My sister took me, and we had a row about it. I told her that if the girl in the play had behaved like that in a mental hospital, they’d have given her five hundred milligrammes of chlorpromazine and that would have shut her up.’
We drive down Morrell Avenue towards London Place and St Clement’s.
‘How did your session go?’ I ask her.
‘Do you know, this is my tenth psychiatrist. They’ve given me a woman now because I kept falling in love with all the others. Well, not all…’ A dark look comes into her eye. ‘There was one I hated.’ She brightens a little. ‘Now I write to this woman before the session, outlining the things I’d like to discuss. I used to write to Number Nine too – I was madly in love with him – suggesting we run away together and sort out British psychiatry. He declined and passed me onto this woman. Number Eight went a bit funny himself.’
‘What happened?’
‘Well, we had similar experiences. I’d been going through a massive dive and was just coming up again when I read in the paper that the Belgrano and the Sheffield had been sunk. I didn’t know anything about the Falklands War. I hadn’t heard it was on. Nobody told me. So I decided I wasn’t getting better and had a relapse.’
‘Christ!’
‘Now psychiatrist Number Eight had just finished a hard day’s shift at the Warneford – it was my appointment day – and he went home and watched the news on television. The Russians had shot down a Korean aeroplane and killed two hundred people. He switched off the telly and never saw the news again for two years…’
‘And…?’
‘One evening he put it on and saw that the Sikhs had blown up an Air India Jumbo and killed four hundred.’
‘Good God.’
We’re driving along the High Street.
‘Next day he had to go to Cork to deliver a paper on Humour In Psychotherapy…’
‘Yes…?’
‘And they brought all the bodies ashore there – right into Cork City.’
‘That must have finished him off.’
‘Not at all! He had such a good time at the symposium and at Jury’s Hotel that he never even knew it was happening. They look very wounded in Ireland if you say no to anything less than triples. He’d switched off the telly before they showed the bodies being brought in – and nobody mentioned it in the bar.’
We drive on in silence along the Banbury Road until I draw up outside Arabella’s house. A man is sitting in a car parked in front of her front door.
‘Oh look,’ says Arabella, ‘there’s the medical insurance man! I went to see him about a job, but I was absolutely sure I wouldn’t pass the medical. I refused to even tell him my doctor’s name. He’s been begging me to take the job ever since. Selling medical insurance. I think he wants to spend the working day discussing Eng Lit. Do you play squash?’
‘No,’ I lie.
‘Oh, by the way… Those poems of yours you gave me to read…’
I’d been waiting for this.
‘Yes?’
‘I hated them. Drop it. Not your medium. They were awful. Especially the one about death.’
‘That was mostly by Shakespeare. I just played about with it a bit.’
‘Well, you shouldn’t have. Hated it. Very depressing. I threw it away. I know what you should do…’
‘What?’
‘Turn my murder poem into a film script when I’ve finished it.’
‘Yes, Arabella.’
‘Okay, Stephen, thanks for everything. Hope we didn’t use up too much petrol. Now I must go and see what this man wants to discuss with me. Bye.’
‘Goodbye, Arabella.’
She slams the passenger door and sticks her head in through the open window.
‘Badminton?’
‘No!’

***

The following week, as a result of the discussion topic Arabella proposed in her letter, the Warneford gave her psychiatrist Number Eleven. A man.
And the medical insurance man, a keen motorist who knows most of Oxfordshire’s lanes and by-passes by now, drives her up there every Wednesday, their half-day at work. All afternoon he discusses the finer points of Augustan poetry with a defrocked Christian Brother who’s convinced that Dr Johnson would have made a really good neurologist if only he’d stayed in Lichfield in 1737.
I gave up racquet sports and sold my car.

*****

SEVEN.
ACOUSTIC SHADOWS

Once I was nearly hacked to death for using the word fucking as an adjective. Murphy has evoked this memory.
‘I’m shocked by the use of swear words,’ he informs me. ‘I’ve noticed that much swearing takes place in this flat.’ Which is interesting, considering that he’s supposed to be deaf. I predict his next sentence. ‘I always say that swearing is the result of a poor and unimaginative vocabulary.’
‘No it fucking well isn’t.’
My nearly being hacked to death happened in the North of Thailand. ‘I’ve missed my appointment at the Indian Consulate because you took so long to fill in that fucking form,’ I told a tour operator in Chiang Mai, stressing the noun. Next moment he’s brandishing a machete in my face. ‘Don’t you tell me fucking!’ he screams through glittering teeth. Now, I’ve always considered myself rather calm in a crisis, finding the nine-to-five things in life make me panic the most. ‘It’s my language and I’ll use it as I like,’ I replied, looking at the whites of my eyes in his fifteen-inch blade.
As I say, I’m calm in a crisis. At school once, Summers accidentally shot me in the face with an air-pistol, and nobody was aware of it because I was so insouciant. Another time, Raymond Rivers dropped a one-ton swing-bridge onto my foot, crushing the bones of my big toe audibly. (I heard them crunch.) I merely said in a chillingly calm voice: ‘Would you mind raising the bridge, please?’ Now, in that travel office in Chiang Mai I was looking at myself in the shiny steel of a fifteen-inch machete blade wielded by a furious safari entrepreneur. Ten seconds earlier he’d been perfectly placid, and his wife had just used the machete to cut a mango, offering me a slice. And the question I found myself asking was, Whose language is it anyway? I say it’s mine, but is it his too? Do foreigners who distort it for the tourist trade have a valid share? How many Englishes are there? Does everyone who uses Shakespeare’s tongue as a lingua franca own a piece of it? Why do people who can hardly speak English at all get so upset about a word like fuck?
I hold two contrary views simultaneously. Firstly, I don’t believe in the existence of swear words as something morally unacceptable. (Therefore nothing is wrong about using fucking as an adjective or a verb.) Secondly, I believe we need hard words like fuck for special occasions, to add crunch. (These are especially handy for men and women of letters.)
Noël Coward and Ken Tynan knew a thing or two about language. One evening in New York, after Tynan had given the Master a bad review, they ran into one another at Sardi’s. Coward said simply: ‘You are a cunt,’ before sitting down and regaling him for hours with his enormous theatrical knowledge. One crunching swear word was all it took: anything else would have been excessive. At this moment in history, as the world embarks on a series of wars, the word cunt is unacceptable to many people. (‘Mostly pricks talking balls,’ says Summers.) Yet the Wife of Bath has never been blamed for talking about her queynte.
‘If Michelangelo had been a bus driver,’ claims Summers, ‘the traffic would have flowed much more beautifully. Some people make the word fuck sound very beautiful.’
My Gaby makes the act very beautiful.

***

As I gaze into the whiteness of the paint, I can almost see the machete blade again. I’ll write about this later, I told myself as I looked into my eyeballs. The pen is mightier than the sword, and the writer always has the last word. Knowing this teaches him or her patience. ‘Writers are always most dangerous when silent,’ said the writer Charles Causley. ‘The last full-stop’s yours,’ an Australian woman told me once in Kathmandu. But that question comes back: how many Englishes are there? A lot, I think, and I’ve encountered several of them on my travels: Indian English, Irish English, American, Caribbean, Australian, African, Binglish, Hinglish, Pinglish, Singlish… And tourism English. Once I arrived at a shop in Khartoum, only to find it closed, which I thought mildly irritating. ‘Oh, how rotten,’ I said casually. ‘It is not rotten!’ a neighbouring shopkeeper screamed at me. ‘Why you say it is rotten? It is not! Don’t you say is rotten! It is you – you are rotten!’ Lucky I hadn’t said ‘fucking rotten’.
Murphy would never have understood Brendan Behan’s mother. On the day of his funeral, people complained she was drunk. ‘Sure, you can sing your sorrow as well as speak it,’ she said. A wise woman. Perhaps she was the one mother who understood her son.

***

When I was six and seven I was in love with the number two. Being stuck in this corner has made me remember the past, and all sorts of things are flooding back. I am a child again, thinking about the mathematics of love.
Everything had to be in twos. One had to be two. Everything. I didn’t like any other number: if I had to answer a question with another number, secretly I would say two to myself. Maybe it meant I was gay or I’d lost a twin nobody had told me about. Then I became obsessed with three and seven and I began to hate two. Soon I couldn’t bear the sound of the word. Twoooo. It made me shudder. It was like a horrible white-out, and I couldn’t bear to say it. I would mutter one or three in order to bypass it. Three was my number. Threeee. Everything had to be three, and sometimes seven which rhymed with heaven. Eeeee versus Ooooo. Odd versus even. Two was a pair of parallel lines, but you could make a triangle out of three. Perhaps I was bisexual and wanted one of each. Or perhaps I was heterosexual and wanted two women, yet I couldn’t want that because I didn’t want two of anything. Maybe I wanted three of them. But what did I want seven of? Perhaps I was monosexual and greedy. Or polysexual. Or the sole survivor of septuplets.
(If I am a child again, why am I having such pornographic visions of Gaby doing wonderful things to me, and my doing wonderful things to her? I see the jutting-out of bums.)
That was my introduction to the mathematics of love, and I didn’t know that it, or they, would lead me into such paroxysms of passion. Paroxysms which could and would never add up. I flirted with other numbers, but never with the same intensity. They hardly counted.

***

What is it about human beings that makes us fall in love with them? Why do some of them seem so complete? What are the minute subliminal calculations we make about them? Tell me that… Why do we sometimes feel so satisfied when looking at two halves of the same face? Is this mirroring effect, this looking-glass effect, part of the appeal? Why did I find one lover so much more beautiful when I looked at her in the mirror? Do we fall in love with the parts or the whole? Which parts, and what is the whole? Why do I memorise faces like I used to memorise my times tables?
Generally speaking, we fall in love with people who possess the following: two eyebrows, made up of many individual components; dozens of eyelashes, always a plus; two eyes, though once I had a very beautiful lover who had been blinded in one of them at the age of fourteen; one chin, though this can multiply with the increasing number of years; two ears, though frequently these have been mutilated by fashion or custom and can contain multiples of holes; one nose, which usually looks like the number four in profile if you’re looking from the right side; one mouth, capable of any number of things; two lips, able to form a zero but rarely scoring one. That is, or those are, the mathematics of the human face.
Two legs, two arms, elbows, knees, hands, wrists, etc. These need not all be present but a full house gives you more to hang onto while working out the sexual equation: two feet comprising ten toes, though when I broke my big one some years ago, thanks to Raymond Rivers dropping the bridge on it, my lovemaking was seriously affected as I had underestimated the importance of one decimal digit; two thumbs and eight fingers which can divide other parts of the body for closer inspection. I am inspecting her now: she is the sun and the moon. The mathematics of the body.
Two tits, though mastectomised women can be hugely attractive, and having one never inhibited the Amazons (ditto hysterectomised people, whatever Gaby’s mother thinks); two balls, though once I handled a plastic implant, and one plus one still comes out two (the mathematics of castration and vasectomies is or are harder to calculate); two buttocks: I have never been to bed with anybody who was minus one; one cunt, which at first looks like a vertical minus sign but seldom is; one cock, though these can be mutilated: plus or minus foreskin, or ringed. A boy from Bolton once told me: ‘Me boyfriend’s got an earring through his willēh.’ ‘Isn’t that rather uncomfortable for you?’ I asked, trying to sound considerate and imagining the perils of earring-rubbing buggery. ‘Oh no,’ he said, ‘he takes it off before he does that to mēh.’ For him this was clearly a plus as the divide was not North-South but the East and West of his buttock cheeks. Which leads me onto the next item (for an item it certainly is). One arsehole: depending on your proclivities, as Summers’ friend learned from his doctor, this can be defined as an entrance or an exit – one way, two ways, a sort of sexual cat-flap.
In fact, the number of holes varies, depending on how you want to categorise them. If you’ve got imagination, there are many vaults in which to deposit the millions which make up an average male emission, and there is or are an infinite number of erogenous nerve endings for both sexes. This is, or these are, what we call the mathematics of the in-between.
I want to be in between her now, between the East and West of her South.
Then there is or are the number of lovers we have had, made up or denied, and the number of lies we have told: the number of lovers in a night, the number of orgasms within a twenty-four hour period, the number of hours, minutes or seconds each intercourse has lasted, the number of other people’s spouses shagged, the number of closet encounters which supposedly straight people have had, and the amount of shame their joy has brought them. The mathematics of betrayal.
Yes, the numbers game. Nobody ever tells the full sexual truth. Not one hundred per cent. Never. This or these is or are known as the mathematics of mathematics.
The mathematics of love is or are as simple as one, two, three – yet I feel that somewhere out there is a hidden number waiting to be discovered. A completely new number which could make us feel complete. A super bingo number, a mega-twinning number which would be like several towns twinning at the same time and attaining unity, or plurality. Like sides of the human face twinning and winning and making us fall in love with them, or it. A sublime sexual calculus: a number that can be added up, subtracted from, multiplied, divided, caressed and loved. A number that’s pansexual: one that will help us to survive, make us feel whole, and truly satisfy the mathematician within us.
In my case it is the number which unites Gaby with me and alters the sum of our parts. A number to die for.

***

Summers once told me that I should be more understanding about sado-masochism. He said it was all about trust and therefore emotionally moving. I said this was a load of crap and that it was the thin end of the wedge of fascism.
‘Oh darling,’ he said, ‘you shouldn’t be so against it. After all, I only took it up because you bullied me at school.’
‘When did I bully you at school?’
‘You stuck your finger in my eye in the swimming pool and called me a poof. You and Raymond Rivers.’
‘You shot me in the face!’
‘Did I? I don’t remember that.’ (I couldn’t show him the scar because it had vanished years earlier.) ‘I think you seriously affected my development.’
‘There were other reasons.’
‘You were trying to show me up.’
‘I don’t think I was.’
‘You made me what I am.’
‘I did not.’
‘You did, but I’ll forgive you if you promise to be more understanding about dominance.’
I believe that the goal of a relationship should be equality, but I didn’t bother to tell him. Nor did I quote the Greek adage buzzing inside my head: ‘A bitter end awaits pleasure that lies beyond what is right.’ Who of sense would bother to predict anything in this confused, impossible age of ours? Prophecy has become ridiculous.
Once I sailed up Lake Tanganyika to Burundi and was nearly murdered on the way, but that’s not the point. The important thing is that on my arrival a Verona Father told me about a recent massacre while we sat in a dainty Belgian patisserie. The population was made up of two tribes: a short fat one and a tall thin one. The short fat people were said to be stupid and numerous, while the tall thin ones were clever but outnumbered, so they’d wisely gained control of the army. But just before I got there, a number of them had been butchered by the short fat ones. Reprisals followed, of course, and each side repeatedly avenged the murders of their people. Back and forth went a sense of outrage, as did the moral high ground, until one day the charred remains of fifty children were found by a roadside. And no-one could tell whether they’d been short fat stupid children or tall thin clever ones.
I can see them now, the burnt bones charred from white. We are truly strangers to ourselves at times… But Gaby has taught me to see new parts of myself. ‘You cannot give faces to all people who are oppressed,’ Bartok told me once, ‘or you would be overcome.’
When will this paint ever dry? I have to get out of here: perhaps I could touch it and see… I lightly dab my finger on the floor, and it comes up whitened. Maybe it will never dry.
The scientific achievements are becoming greater, the literary awards larger, but I could swear our intellectual life is diminishing. I’m sure I can see it growing smaller in front of me.

***

‘Darling, couldn’t we get rid of that ghastly Mottram Duckworth? Let me throw him out.’
‘What’s he doing?’
‘He’s holding forth but he doesn’t know anything. He’s full of fear and that’s why he needs answers to everything. Fear is the enemy of experimentation.’
‘And answers kill art!’ shouts Bartok, who has appeared beside him. ‘I have confession to make.’
‘What?’
‘I have been asked to make commercial.’
‘Can I be in it?’ asks Summers.
‘But I can’t make adverts. I am not prostitute. I am major Scottish artist.’
‘What will you do?’ I ask.
‘I will be in studio at seven-fifteen tomorrow morning.’

***

This is an age in which students who have never read Brecht are taught Brecht on Shakespeare by lecturers who have never read Shakespeare. You’d be lucky to find two people in England sharing the same culture. Here is the text of an academic proposal I was sent once:
‘The module will provide a selective study of the formative encounter between Cultural Studies and Media Studies, outlining the theoretical frameworks (phenomenological, psychoanalytic, structuralist, post-structuralist, post-modernist) developed to examine and explain media practices in their historical, cultural and ideological specificity. The module will focus on the foregrounding of media institutions as key sites in the production of consciousness, investigating the problematic of the relationship between media texts and media users. It will interrogate the processes governing the generation of meaning, paying particular attention to formulations of readership and reception. The module will be concerned to question the extent to which media practices are reflective and/or constitutive of power relations and ideological formations, centring on representations of gender, race, sexuality and class. It will be taught through a sustained, elaborated case-study (eg: “Britain and Britishness”; “HIV and the Body Politic”) which introduces critical theories in the context of empirical investigation…’
‘Language is emotion,’ Gaby once told me.
‘It’s a barrier, a wall, a fort, an attack,’ I countered, showing her the proposal. (The thing that really scared me was that I had understood it.)
‘Language is emotion,’ she said, stroking my hair.

*****

EIGHT.
PROSTITUTES ARE NOT THE ONLY WHORES

‘They’re building a house!’
‘Boo!’
‘A public house!’
‘Whey!’
‘It’s only got one bar!’
‘Boo!’
‘Eighty feet long!’
‘Whey!’
‘There are no barmen in the pub!’
‘Boo!’
‘Only barmaids!’
‘Whey!’
‘They haven’t got any glasses!’
‘Boo!’
‘Only buckets!’
‘Whey!’
‘There’s a hole in each bucket!’
‘Boo!’
‘At the top!’
‘Whey!’
‘They’re not selling any beer!’
‘Boo!’
‘They’re giving it away!
‘Whey!’
This is the refrain of Gary’s mates as they ride the bus to watch their team play. It has been reclaimed from the Sixties, when it was in the domain of moto-cross enthusiasts in Cowley, among others. ‘Sometimes I’d mix it up a bit about the barmen and the barmaids,’ he told me once, ‘but they’d still Boo! and Whey! in the same order. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?’ It was on one of these coach journeys that his pretty friend lowered his price again and said he ‘wouldn’t do it with no batty man for fifty quid, man.’ Boo! ‘A fiver.’ Boo! All right, he’s giving it away! I really know my son, thinks his Trinidadian mum. He wouldn’t have sex with no-one.
Oh yes he would.

***

In my unpainted corner I’m visited by visions.
‘One day I was lying on a beach in the South of Thailand, a bit stoned, gazing at the water which had a brilliant light playing on it, dazzling my eyes, nearly white…’
‘Spume,’ adds Summers helpfully.
‘When I saw this woman emerging from the sea.’
Whey!
‘Her slender hips caught the sunlight.’
‘Oh la la.’ Bartok has joined us.
‘Still she comes, step by step…’
Whey!
‘Wonderful breasts.’
Whey!
‘Then I see she’s got a dick hanging between her legs.’
Boo!
‘She’s a Lady Boy.’
Boo! Whey!
‘Have I told you about my homosexual friend who went to the doctor?’
‘Yes! Was it really your brother Jasper?’
‘Don’t mention that name in my presence!’
I imagine Gaby naked in front of me. Whey! Her bum is jutting out. Whey! The paint won’t dry. Boo! Leonora sings to Florestan:
‘Liebend ist es mir gelungen,
‘Dich aus Ketten zu befrein…’
‘Love it was that gave me strength
‘To free you from your chains…’
Whey!

***

‘Sometimes prostitution has nothing to do with whoring,’ says Summers.
‘What A pity,’ says Bartok.
‘Accepting payment alleviates guilt.’
‘Even for the poor?’
‘Denial is everything,’ I add.
‘Fear of consequences.’
‘A bitter end awaits pleasure that lies beyond what is right.’
‘Oh dear.’
The angry one could never express her passion in words: it all came through the body. Very powerfully. The rest was denial. ‘I never said that,’ she said. In bed her passion knew no bounds, and I never knew greater happiness. Later she’d scream ‘I don’t love you!’ and go into paroxysms of remorse about her family, her ex-boyfriend or Catholicism or Protestantism or something. I can’t remember which. It was something that shut me out. But having shut me out, she’d try and pull me back in. Confusing. And damaging.
And so she killed me and became me instead, making everything my fault. Saying ‘I never said that’ does not unsay a thing, and some things must be unsaid if there is to be any hope. Denial is not enough. Saying it with the body isn’t quite enough, and lying through the body is too much.
And now I have Gaby who is the angry one in the first flush of love, without guilt or remorse or hate. She has not tried to become me.
‘And yet my love is eternal,’ the poet wrote, ‘if I can fight off disillusion.’
By the time I left Thailand I was convinced that all women were really boys. More than once I was fooled by Lady Boys, including the one who told me she had a car which turned out to be a cock.

***

‘Some people can express passion only through the body,’ says Gary down the telephone. ‘They’re incapable of doing it in words because they’re terrified. Fear of intimacy. It’s an illness, and they’re in hospital. Nil by mouth, they think to themselves, unless they’re taking in a portion of the body.’
‘Rude boy.’
‘Now the human erection’s an interesting thing. Big difference there between boys and girls, men and women.’
‘It has an absolute certainty about it.’
‘Some men’s eyes see an absolute beauty in violence. They try to make love with guns and knives.’
‘The battle of sex. How many sexes are there?’
‘God knows, mate. My uncle tried to beat up my cousin the other day.’
‘Why?’
‘For being gay. And only a few days earlier I’d spotted my uncle coming out of a gay bar himself.’
‘Oops.’
‘I tried to comfort my cousin – I was being the liberal, you see – “You seem very sympathetic,” he said. I think he wanted a portion. He told my family how understanding I’d been, and they all said to me, “Why you being so friendly to him?”’
‘Do we owe it to our dead to go on fighting the war? Should we send more young men over the top?’
‘And young women.’
The absolute beauty of sex, and the absolute panic it causes. And the absolute violence of the bitter end that awaits us…

***

My chattels are going West. Murphy is arranging them for an easy evacuation when the time comes because a time is coming, though most of time is going – and in this place, going fast. And backwards. But with time hurrying backwards, the sun is travelling East. And if my chattels are going West, then I am heading East with the sun.
We used to make love to the sound of Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter. ‘Let’s do it…’ she sang. ‘I love the North, South, East and the West of you…’ And she did. She wrote it down in a letter to me. The most romantic letter I’ve ever had.
I’m staring at her. Gaby. At the South of her. Naked. Heaven. Heaven on earth.
‘Liebend sei es hoch besungen:’ sings Leonora,
‘Florestan ist wieder mein.’
‘Lovingly let it be sung:
‘Florestan is mine again.’
When I came home from Thailand and kissed her, I was afraid she’d turn out to be a boy. I was still confused. She kisses like a woman, I thought. That’s a woman’s tongue. It feels like a woman’s breast, without a hard silicone bullet for a nipple. There’s no Adam’s apple protruding from her long beautiful neck. Still, you never know, I told myself, they have all sorts of tricks. I was clinically mad by this point, my mind warped by the angry one and the Lady Boys of Thailand. Nip and tuck. Her clothes fell to the floor, and I looked at her South.
‘I feel a panic attack coming,’ I tell Bartok.
‘Don’t worry. It’s all in your mind.’
‘The worst place for it,’ says Summers.
‘Do you think it would be better if it was in my foot?’
‘At least you have foot,’ says Bartok.
‘He has a marvellous foot, and a wonderful mind.’
North by North-West. What part of the room am I in? I am confused about space now, as I was about time. ‘Let’s do it, let’s fall in love…’ The entire cast of Fidelio sing a rousing chorus.
‘Nie wird es zu hoch besungen,
Retterin des Gatten sein.’
‘Never can we overpraise
‘A wife who saves her husband.’
And so the broadcast ends, having travelled from the East of Europe to London via satellite. Beneath the satellite’s beam and blinded by blizzards within their whitened landscape, no doubt, Letts are doing it.

*****

SECOND PART

‘Every positive value has its price in negative terms… The genius of Einstein leads to Hiroshima.’

Pablo Picasso.

*****

NINE.
HUNKY-BUNKY

This is a story about Raymond Rivers, another ex-inmate of the Jesuit prison up North (and several other institutions too, as I said earlier). Raymond loved the Jesuit prison because he was so unhappy at home, also up North. When I met him, at thirteen, he’d already been there for six years, and it was the place where he’d weathered his parents’ mucky divorce earlier. By the time I arrived, his Greek mother was only on the second of her seven husbands. Later in life she would tell Raymond that his father wasn’t actually his father – and that he was really the son of the Ecuadorian Military Attaché following a one-night stand at the Midland Hotel in Manchester in the early Fifties. When a shaken Raymond confided this to me, his mother was outraged: ‘Raymond, how could you!’ she screamed. ‘What will people think of me?’ Raymond had to stop talking about his big Greek nose and refer to his big Inca nose instead. (He was never good at geography.)
One of his mother’s mantras, uttered until the day she died, was: ‘I never let any of my husbands see me naked.’
Raymond’s chief mantra was: ‘I’m a man trapped in a man’s body.’ He’d been captain of the school rugby team, having taken up the game to make himself popular with the other boys – a thing he succeeded in doing very well as long as he didn’t borrow money from any of them.
He lent me his car once. I was run off the road and into a ditch by another vehicle, driven by one of his creditors.
‘Sorry,’ she said when I pulled myself out through the sunshine roof. ‘I thought you were Raymond Rivers.’ Then she drove off.

***

‘I can’t do it!’ yells Raymond. ‘I’ve lied to my dog!’
The car screeches to a halt on the Oxford by-pass and Raymond, checking his watch, realises that he has just enough time to make amends. He spins the steering wheel; the car bumps over the central reservation and pulls out into the stream of oncoming traffic: horns blare, fists shake, an ambulance driver gives a V-sign. Oxford drivers, thinks Raymond, shocked. (He moved to Oxford as soon as he graduated from the Jesuit prison.) He speeds towards Oliver’s house, where he’s left his Labrador Archie playing with Oliver’s Boxer, Barnaby. I can get right inside the character of a lie, he thinks, cruising at eighty, as long as it’s a good one.
He’s off to Majorca, needing to vanish for a while. He has recently pissed off a magistrates’ clerk in Warrington by making him look a fool after wangling seven adjournments through the invented deaths of five relations, including killing off the same grandmother twice. The clerk wants revenge, and there is almost certainly a warrant out for Raymond’s arrest for perjury, among other things. Bruised Northern pride is hurtling Southwards, so it’s only a matter of time before the police find out his real address – providing they visit the nine pretend ones first.
The car pulls up outside Oliver’s house.
‘I can’t leave Archie here after all,’ says Raymond. Archie is tearing around the garden with Barnaby. Raymond grabs him. ‘He’s got to have the best.’
Heads on one side, Oliver and Barnaby stand at the gateway, bemused, as the car speeds off again, Archie barking from the back seat at the cloud of dust behind.
‘This is the best,’ Oliver calls meekly after the vanishing car.
Barnaby looks up at him and wags his tail.

***

‘Forty pounds a week?’ Raymond says in disbelief to the owner of the kennels. (This is the Eighties.) He winces. ‘Will you take a cheque?’
The car roars off as the kennel owner discovers next year’s date on the cheque. Archie looks at her knowingly.

***

Late afternoon in Palma. Raymond steps off the plane. All his fellow passengers look just like Les Dawson, he thinks. Even the children. He books into a hotel (having established that Eurocheques are welcome), takes a shower, and heads for the lights. Rounding a corner, he bumps into a North African boy.
‘Hey mister what is your name, you want hunky-bunky?’
‘No I do not, thank you very much.’
‘You want hunky-bunky with my sister?’
‘No I don’t.’
‘You don’t want hunky-bunky up the clotoris?’
‘Certainly not!’
‘You want it with my cousin?’
‘No!’
‘What’s the matter with you? Who you want it with?’
‘No one. I’m going for a drink.’
‘You want it with my brother?’
‘No I do not!’
‘You want it with me?’ The boy starts to unzip his trousers.
‘Stop it!’
‘You want donkey?’
‘Will you let me pass?’
‘Dog?’
‘No, I bloody well don’t want a dog, a goat, a horse, your father, your grandmother or anything! Will you move!’
‘Watermelon?’
Raymond is exhausted.
‘Look, what’s the matter with you? This is no way for a good Moslem to behave, offering me his sister and his dog and everything…’
‘I’m a Catholic,’ says the boy. ‘I went Jesuit school.’
Raymond is shocked. He decides to flee, turning and running back the way he has come. After a hundred yards he shoots into the open doorway of a bar packed with drunk Les Dawsons.
‘Bloody hell!’ he says a little too loudly.
‘Ee, you’re one of us,’ says a cheerful Les Dawson. ‘Where are you from?’ He calls the barman. ‘Uno beer for my amigo please, Pedro!’
‘Liverpool,’ says Raymond, instantly regretting saying it. ‘But I’ve lived in Oxford for years.’
The barman shoves a glass of frothy beer into his hand.
‘Liverpool!’ shouts the cheerful Les Dawson. ‘He’s a scouser!’ But everyone’s too drunk to hear him. ‘We’re all from Warrington. Do you know it?’
‘Well, I’ve been there…’ Raymond knocks back his beer and orders two more.
‘I’ve been spending my holidays in this bar for the last seventeen years,’ says Les Dawson. ‘Never missed a year.’
Raymond gulps down his second beer as the Catholic North African boy appears in the doorway.
‘It’s Aloysius!’ shouts Les Dawson. ‘Come in, Aloysius. I’d like you to meet a friend of mine. Now…’ he says, grabbing Raymond’s hand, ‘what’s your name?’
‘Arnold,’ lies Raymond.
‘This is Aloysius M’Zara. Shake hands. Otros beers, por favor, Pedro!’
Raymond jumps as Aloysius tickles his palm with a desire-filled finger. They all drink.
‘Aloysius’ll see us all right for crumpet and things, won’t you, Ali?’
‘Yeah mister, very good no prob.’ He turns to Raymond. ‘And what for you, my friend?’
‘Cervesas, please, Pedro!’ says Raymond.
And so they drink away the next hour. Les Dawson goes into a stupor. Aloysius continues to be ruttish and attentive to his new client Raymond, frequently offering to lead him to the gents. He produces photographs of his family members and one or two pets – and one of his Jesuit confessor.
Of course Raymond has known a good many Jesuits in his time. Some saintly (like dear old Father Miller who used to hear Confessions from the same queue of boys every morning), others devilish. Some ‘of the other parish’ as our Sienese friend Angelo used to put it. Angelo was one of the regulars in the queue for Confession, building up a powerful intelligence picture of the other boys’ morality. He was never fooled by Summers, though, and knew all about him wanking into a sock every night as he occupied the next cubicle in the dorm.
Suddenly there’s a terrific commotion outside, before a group of painted Geordie women burst through the doorway.
‘You pillock!’ screams one of them, a deeply bronzed six-footer in her early twenties, with gleaming teeth and a low-cut black tee-shirt.
Though shocked at her vulgar outburst, Raymond can’t help noticing that she has the most beautifully moulded cleavage he’s ever seen. Perfect, in fact.
‘That fucking Rick the Prick, man!’ she bellows. (As she’s a Geordie, though, it comes out as something like ‘Thut fookin Ricktheprick, mun!’)
She stumbles towards the bar, leaving her gaudy painted friends to be chatted up by a dozen beer-swilling Les Dawsons. A sheepish Majorcine man appears at the door.
‘Ugh!’ she groans, moving closer to Raymond, who watches transfixed as her perfect cleavage hovers over the beer towels on the bar. ‘Beer! And make it quick, man!’ she shouts at the barman. Soon she’s gulping down a tall glass of frothy beer.
Aloysius beams at her.
‘Hello my friend, pretty lady.’
‘Piss off! Another beer, barman!’
‘What can I git you, missis darlin’?’
‘You can get fucked!’ She turns to the door, where the sheepish Majorcine is skulking. ‘You stay there, you fucking creep!’ Then she notices Raymond and mistakes his look of yearning for one of serenity and is impressed. ‘Hello,’ she says.
‘Hello.’
‘What’ll you have, man?’
‘Well, I’ve drunk rather a lot already…’
‘You’ll have to go a little further than that, man. Two beers, barman man!

***

Six beers later, they’re standing very close to one another, the Geordie’s hand travelling down the inside of Raymond’s trousers at the front. He imagines her throwing him around his hotel room and half drowning him in the jetstream of his shower. Anything she wants, in fact. ‘You can do anything you want with this body,’ he’ll murmur in her ear later.
Straightforward relationships have never been easy for Raymond. At least not since he was a boy of fifteen, when he got into bed with his brother’s girlfriend and bit her on the buttock, imagining she’d think him suave. She punched him. Ever since then he’s sought tough women for sex but frigid ones in relationships, and has never once in his life experienced any kind of sexual balance. At this moment he thinks he’s going to burst inside his trousers as the Geordie’s gaudy rings are rubbing against his delicate flesh.
‘Give us a kiss, man!’ she commands, swigging more beer and mistaking his idiotic grin for a look of virility.
Their lips lock, then he jumps back with surprise as a jet of frothy beer gushes from her mouth and hits the back of his throat. Bloody hell, must stay cool, he thinks. The shock has broken the suction clamp of their lips, causing beer to trickle down his chin, which she licks off with her long muscular tongue. Her hand tightens its grip inside his trousers. Raymond is a happy man.
‘This reminds me of me truncheon, man!’ she shouts down his throat.
‘Really? Have you got one?’
‘Yes, I have!’ Her tongue lunges around inside his mouth.
‘Why’s…that…then?’
‘I…a…o…ee…oo…a…man…man!’
‘Wha…ttt?’
‘I’m…a…pol…ice…wo…man…man!’
Raymond freezes, and the Geordie’s gleaming teeth bang against his. He likes a bit of punishment – eleven years spent living with the Jesuits has or have even convinced him that it improves him spiritually. But going to gaol is something else, and shagging a policewoman when there’s a warrant or two out for him is going to get him there fast. His head is swimming. The policewoman’s eyes blaze.
‘What the fuck’s happened to me truncheon, man?’
‘Sorry…’
‘Sorry? You feeble prick! What’s the matter with you, man? Are you a poof or what?’
‘Sorry. I’d better go to the gents.’
Aloysius’s eyes light up. He’s been keeping his distance since the Geordie showed up.
‘Very good Arnold mister, we go, I show you…’
Raymond stumbles to the back of the bar and almost falls into the gents, where he grips the urinal while Aloysius stands beside him, exposing himself.
‘Look, do you mind…’ he says, aware that this is a feeble response to rather a challenging situation. But Raymond has spent too much of his life in rugby changing rooms to be excited by the male form any longer. No. He needs a woman. Virile or frigid. Since Aloysius is now actually wanking over the next urinal, Raymond uses the moment to make his escape. Aloysius’s groans and gasps ricochet off the filthy tiles as several drunk Les Dawsons enter the gents.
‘Have you caught yourself in your zip again, Ali?’ asks one of them before urinating into the sink.

***

Raymond enters a long dark alley filled with rubbish. At the other end a thudding base note repeats itself again and again. He steps over abandoned hypodermics and approaches a large shape ahead which turns out to be two boys kissing, illuminated by a neon Exit sign over a door. Suddenly one of them breaks off to vomit into the shadows. Raymond opens the door and is overwhelmed by darkness and the pounding music. He grows nostalgic for his Liverpudlian puberty when the music of the mid-Sixties was changing the world. Something brushes against his face: a plastic skeleton. He passes more of them and a roomful of dead-eyed humans smoking, drinking, nodding, shouting… On a grubby dance-floor a few people gyrate slowly, slumped against one another in the hope that they won’t fall down.
The bar offers a little more light. A voluptuous Spanish girl with a thick mane of hair is seated on a stool, drinking through a straw. Looking at Raymond out of the corner of her eye, she pulls her full sensuous lips away from the straw to form a momentary sneer. Charming, thinks Raymond, studying the sunset-coloured drink in her glass which gives him a warm glow despite her disdain.
‘One of those, por favor,’ he says to the fierce-looking barman. Then he turns back to the sneering girl. ‘Buenos noces,’ he says with a flaccid smile.
Her sensuous lips open and she bares her fine white teeth before clamping them against the straw once more. Her huge dark eyes never leave Raymond’s. The sunset-coloured drink vanishes from her glass.
‘Would you like another?’ he asks.
Her eyes remain fixed on his. Then another pair of eyes appear or appears just beside them: her boyfriend’s. They are full of hatred. A glass of sunset-coloured liquid bangs down on the counter in front of Raymond.
‘How much?’ he asks.
‘No hablo Inglés,’ spits the barman.
‘Cuánto?’
Furiously, the barman holds up two fingers. There are times when you don’t need language, thinks Raymond. At this moment he hears a huge commotion at the entrance, and he turns to see bearing down on him the Geordie policewoman, her gaudy companions, a full compliment of Les Dawsons and, meekly bringing up the rear, so to speak, Aloysius M’Zara. Hovering in the doorway is Rick the Prick. A fist bangs on the counter: the angry barman wants his money. Hurriedly Raymond pulls a wad of notes from his pocket. Alas, his hotel key is entangled with the notes and flies into the sneering girl’s lap.
Oh God, how do I say ‘Could you move your leg?’
‘Perdonome,’ he aske, ‘puede abri las piernas?’
An explosion from behind her lovely sneering head, and Raymond just catches a glimpse of her furious boyfriend hurtling towards him, his fist flying at Raymond’s face. As Raymond instinctively ducks, he hears a dull thud above and behind him. He looks up to see the boyfriend removing his aching hand from the jaw of a large Les Dawson who has been caught in the line of fire. The Geordie’s outraged voice rends the stale air:
‘You fucking prick, man!’ She flies at the boyfriend, catching him full in the face with her right fist while dragging Raymond off the floor with her left. ‘We thought you’d been killed in the alley, man…’
As the painted Geordies and Les Dawsons fight with the friends of the unconscious boyfriend, Aloysius picks his way cautiously through the battlefield. Spotting him, Raymond gets down on the floor again and crawls through the debris towards the entrance, over the fallen skeletons, the broken glass, the abandoned joints, the scattered food…
He staggers past Rick the Prick as the breezy night air begins to swell with the sound of police sirens.

***

After losing his way for some time in the back streets, Raymond eventually arrives at his hotel. All is in darkness. He pushes open the front door and crosses the deserted hall to the lift, unaware that the receptionist is asleep behind the desk. When he reaches his room on the top floor, he suddenly realises that he never retrieved his keys from the sneering girl’s lap. Bugger, he thinks, I’ll have to climb down onto my balcony from the roof. So he runs up the internal fire escape to the roof and scurries over the tiles underneath the bright Mediterranean stars, forgetting in his drunkenness that he’s terrified of heights. He doesn’t look at the ground six storeys below – nor, unfortunately, at the tiles just beneath him, which is or are his undoing. A poorly fixed imbrex (hurriedly shoved in place at the start of the tourist season, no doubt) slides out from under his foot as he steps on it, and Raymond becomes airborne.
He crashes down onto the roof, banging his back and head and breaking another twenty tiles. He slips towards the guttering and falls over the edge of the roof, just managing to spin round and grip the outside of the guttering with his fingers before crashing down onto the balcony below. Thank God he left the French windows unlocked before going out earlier. He enters the room and is alarmed to hear grunting and groaning from the bathroom. Cautiously he approaches the open door and sees, through a wall of steam, a pair of wet white buttocks gyrating under the powerful shower. They or it belong or belongs to the sneering girl, and she is grinding her impressive loins into another pair of white buttocks belonging to none other than Aloysius M’Zara, who looks tired but delirious. His and her soaking hair have fallen over his face which is pressed into the tiled wall of the shower. The girl grinds and thrusts her pelvis rhythmically from behind, bites his neck, slaps his buttocks, pulls his cock.
‘Aaaaagghhhh!’ he squeals ecstatically.
Slap, bite, pull, groan, gasp, thrust. Raymond is appalled. But he’s also mesmerised by the whiteness of the girl’s fabulous buttocks, luminous against the brownness of her rippling thighs. Aloysius spots him.
‘Hello Arnold mister…aaagh…come make hunky-bunky…O-o-o-o-hhhh…’
The girl fixes Raymond with her dark sensuous eyes, grabs Aloysius’s hair, twists it around her fist and bangs his head against the tiles.
‘Yeah, come on,’ she says. ‘You want me to abri las piernas – to open my legs? Make sex behind!’
‘Front clotoris, back clotoris…’ moans Aloysius.
But it’s all too much for Raymond. He wants her but he also wants to say ‘Stop this at once!’ Instead he stares into the grey bidet and thinks about the state of his life. He wonders what Archie would think. The doorbell rings.
‘I don’t think you should do that,’ he mutters to the two of them. ‘This is a three-star hotel.’
‘Open the fucking door, man!’ booms a familiar voice from the corridor.
Cautiously, Raymond lets the Geordie policewoman in.
‘Stay there, Rick the Prick!’ she yells as she strides into the room.
‘Weren’t you all arrested?’ asks Raymond.
‘Good God no, man – we know all the local boys. We held our convention here last year.’ She sees what’s going on in the bathroom. ‘Get the fuck out of there!’ she booms.
Aloysius and the girl flee – exhausted, panting, dripping wet, naked and erubescent – into the corridor. The Geordie kicks the door shut, making the whole top floor shudder.
‘Now I want me truncheon, man. I want it firm and I want it plenty…’ She twists the rings on her fingers. ‘I’ll be giving the Warrington lads a report on your performance. You’ll want it to be a good one. One of them recognised you from the only appearance you actually made at court there. He was on court duty that day. Says you’re quite a celebrity in absentia, man. They’re all prison warders, by the way.’
Raymond is astonished. A prison full of Les Dawsons.
‘If I give you a good report, I’d say they’ll let you have an easy time of it…’
Raymond thinks about Aloysius and the girl in the shower. A certain amount of iron has entered his soul. I can do better than that, he tells himself. He looks at her perfect cleavage.
‘Let’s take a shower,’ he says suavely, bracing himself for the performance of his life.
Whatever happens when I get home, thinks Raymond, Archie’s going to be proud of his fugitive master.

*****

TEN.
YOU’RE NOT LORD BYRON, ARE YOU?

What we learn of history is dependent upon the prejudices of the historian. A Jesuit taught me that at school, but he didn’t last long in the order. Now he teaches philosophy at Cambridge and carries an atheist’s ticket.
The whiteness of the floor is beginning to ripple, like the sea. No, a lake. It’s Lac Leman, and I’m at the Castle of Chillon, years ago, with Summers. In the dungeon is a celebrated graffito by Lord Byron. I read about his graffito in the guide book. It actually boasted about it: ‘Lord Byron wrote his name on a column in the dungeon in 18 dot dot…’ The castle was proud to have his signature. On a column, in the dungeon. Lord Byron or George Byron or Byron – I forget which. Anyway, it was there and the castle authorities were so proud of this signature that they’d stuck a little frame around it. A framed graffito, making it stand out from the others, which is helpful because the walls and columns are covered in graffiti. And unless you read them all, this frame is the only clue to where Lord Byron’s signature is. (You can almost hear the bureaucrat ordering it at the ministry: ‘One graffito-frame, for the framing of Scottish milord’s sig.’) It’s an important tourist item, this Lord Byron graffito: it makes money.
He put it there because he wanted to add his signature to that of François de Bonivard who’d been held prisoner in the castle a few centuries earlier. Lord Byron, a celebrated graffitist, comes along, wallops his name on the column and moves on: it’s a matter of respect. Next century the authorities stick a frame around it. What could be simpler?
The thing is, though, what do you do yourself when you visit? Perfectly normal, it seemed to me, to add my own signature – in a humble way, of course. I didn’t know much about Bonivard but I’d been a fan of Byron’s since the age of fourteen, when the Jesuit told me he died of the clap in Greece.
My task was clear. With Summers’ help I found an empty patch of column at the bottom and round the back. I felt good about it, that it was the right thing to do: history demanded that I got involved and kept the cogs oiled. You have to know how to enter a historical moment, and the way to sieve its intensity. I took out my knife.
I’d had a healthy respect for graffiti ever since I saw the Emperor Septimius Severus’s name gouged into one of the two Colossi of Memnon in 1982, the one that Mohammed the donkey boy had tried to get me to bugger him up against the same night. ‘Why not?’ he reasoned. ‘All the Germans do.’ I beat a hasty retreat and didn’t really get a decent enough look at Septimius Severus’s handwriting. But I digress…
There I was, humbly adding my name to the throng in Chillon, when I was distracted by an extraordinary tutting sound. ‘Tuttttttt!’ it went. You wouldn’t believe it was possible to get the sound of so many ts into one syllable, and without a trace of a vowel except the one before them. ‘Tuttttttttttt!’ The force of it made me turn round. It echoed through the dungeon and flew about like a bat. ‘Tutttttttttttttt’
A middle-aged couple were standing in the shadows, scowling at me. Half-lit as they were, I felt they could have been from anywhere in Europe, disapproval personified. One of them had made the sound: impossible to say which, as a sound like that knew no gender. But it had a cosmopolitan ring to it which said you and Summers are vandals. Summers rose to the challenge.
‘It’s all right,’ he said charmingly. ‘Lord Byron did it.’
One of them replied, I forget which, in a North of England voice:
‘Well you’re not Lord Byron, are you?’
This had a terrific logic to it, and I wondered if Lord Byron had experienced the same thing when he’d gouged his name on the column. Perhaps a passing Walloon had gone ‘Tuttttttt!’ at him.
‘It’s all right,’ Lord Byron would have said. ‘François de Bonivard did it.’
‘Well you’re not François de Bonivard, are you?’
Perhaps it even happened to Bonivard as he lay there in chains, scraping his name onto the column. He probably outraged a fellow prisoner who was due for the chop next day. Maybe someone even had a go at the Emperor Septimius Severus, or perhaps Mohammed the donkey boy’s ancestor tried to get him to bugger him up against the Colossus, saying, ‘Go on, all the Phoenicians do.’
History’s a curious thing. I don’t know much about it. What I do know is that without it, and people like Lord Byron, that Swiss bureaucrat would never have had to put in a request for a graffito-frame. It was probably the most exciting event of his career. And I, who have spent a lifetime chasing after the memory or memories of emperors and poets, would have had far less to think about on my travels while dodging people like Mohammed the donkey boy with varying degrees of success.

***

I have become lyrical, and the waves have rippled away, leaving behind the painted floor. The air waves have altered too since the ending of Fidelio. I have re-tuned the speckled radio and picked up the shipping forecast for much of Northern and Western Europe. Crouched in my corner, I feel like an abandoned lighthouse as a soothing voice wafts around the room: its vocal beam.
‘There are warnings of gales in all areas. Finisterre, Rockall, Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire: gale force eight to storm ten. Boulmer, Cape Wrath, Mumbles, Stornaway, Lerwick, Wick Automatic: occasionally violent, storm ten at first. Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger: backing South-Easterly, increasing storm ten later…’

***

How did I get into this mess? How the hell did I get into this mess? How the bloody fucking hell did I get into this awful fucking mess? Tell me…
‘Your thinking is very muddled,’ a great Indian thinker once told me after I had failed to agree with him about something. He had just announced that the solution to the Indo-Pak problem was to remove all Indian Moslems to Pakistan, thereby tripling the population. ‘Otherwise,’ he said, ‘both will live in a constant state of war.’
Another idea was that no Oriental will ever reveal him or herself fully to an Occidental. ‘Kipling was right: “East is East…”’
‘If they’re both outcasts, like gays or deaf people,’ I said, ‘they’ll soon find common ground.’
‘Homosexuality is a symptom of a society coming to its end. Look at the last days of Rome. Lord Acton said, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I say absolute loss of power disillusions absolutely. I give Europe no more than two hundred years.’
And I wondered if he was being unduly optimistic.

***

I am facing North by North-West. I’m convinced of it. Sirens invade my hearing space. Occasionally broken vases crash to the floor as Murphy lines them up or Edna dusts them down. I assume that everyone is drunk by now, and I smell the scent of weed while watching a trickle of smoke waft through the doorway. Soon it is lost in the haze of whiteness, white against white. It is probably drifting past the existential mirrors, but no one is in the right place to witness its voyage, so it must drift on unobserved like the rest of us.
‘Dover, Wight, Portland, Plymouth, Trafalgar, Butt of Lewis Lighthouse: Western, backing Southerly. Humber, Thames, Channel Light-vessel Automatic, Portsmouth, Scilly Automatic: squally showers, moderate or poor. Perhaps severe gale nine in Portsmouth…’
In the near future you will ring up your cooker from the office and it will start boiling the vegetables so that you can eat them when you get home – as long as you don’t get held up in a traffic jam, in which case the water will run dry and the house will burn down. Music will play in each room as you enter. Human beings will act as sensors, triggering the playing of Bach. Even tone deaf people will be able to trigger it. We have come a long way from the amoeba-like state of our origins. Even my beautiful Gaby’s remotest ancestor was an amoeba, and so was the Indian thinker’s.

***

When I joined the circus I saw a huge truck with grilles and trapdoors which, I believed, contained a highly dangerous beast. I heard deep growling and noticed that the tent boys steered well clear of it. For hours I speculated on what kind of beast could be inside, until I learned that it wasn’t an animal at all. The outside of the truck was the bottom of the stage, and the grilles and trapdoors were part of the magic act built into it. The growling had come from the mangy old lions in their cages behind, calling out for food or sex.
‘Fair Isle, Faeroes: rain, then showers – moderate or poor, becoming good. Biscay, Fastnet, Irish Sea: falling very rapidly. Malin, Hebrides, Bailey: rain later – good, becoming moderate…’

***

‘Gandhi was an idiot! I will kick him!’ Dressed in a dhoti and shouting, the Indian thinker is kicking the air with his little brown foot.
I am remembering the last time I sat with him in his house in Hampstead, where we are talking about the ruination of empires and the creation of new worlds. He was no fan of Gandhi and inclined more towards the Bengali Fascist Subhas Chandra Bose, though he is full of admiration for empires, especially the British. Much of what he says shocks me, since he claims his own thinking is so unmuddled, but being with him is like sitting on top of the Himalayas, looking across distant peaks and valleys as though they are the span of history. It’s like being with Rousseau or Voltaire, and perhaps the opposite of being with Chekhov. Yet he is the warmest Indian I have ever known – perhaps as warm as Chekhov. He’s tiny: next to him, Gandhi would have looked like a thug. Indoors, he wears the dhoti and listens to Vaughan-Williams through a pair of enormous headphones, while outside he carries a stick and dons a Sherlock Holmes hat. Many Indians who have not read his works loathe him, and he is blissfully unaware that he would not be welcome back in India because he would make people think too much.
‘The Americans say, “From the many, one.” I say: from one, many.’ He is utterly certain that his is the only true voice in a sea of false ones.
‘People seem to want answers, not questions,’ I suggest.
But he is not listening and has already moved onto another of his certainties: ‘Only a defeated man takes employment.’ (This makes me, jobless as I am, a great victor.) ‘When you get married, a tiger follows you from the church…’
Even when you’re unmarried, it follows you everywhere. Families are cannibals, I want to tell him, but we are moving in different directions. Shortly he will be listening to Elgar, and I shall play ghazals sung by Ghulam Ali and Begum Akhtar.

***

‘Ibsen was mountain,’ says Bartok, ‘Strindberg was hysteric and Chekhov, I’m sure, was very good doctor.’
Foolish man. What can I say about him? He is stuck inside certain ideas, a conformer sometimes unable to conform. At other times a nonconformist all too ready to conform. A happy exile free of sludge, an unhappy exile unprepared to risk returning home in spite of the Velvet Revolution. A guest unwilling to express gratitude in case it makes him feel guilty about home: in case it commits him to the new domicile he is committed to, though jealous of. Occasionally he is a miasma, and sometimes not. Determined to appear unsurprised by all new information, he likes to give the impression that he has possessed the answers all along. A friend nevertheless.
‘I have been thinking about the new Europe,’ he informs me, ‘and therefore I have decided to become Irish. Happy birthday and top of mornink to you!’
He is travelling West.

***

And what of Summers? Always in need of certainties? Certainties which are helped or hindered by S & M? Is he venturing into new territory, or steering clear of it? For all his praises, he wants to place me inside a tiny box. He stands before me now, dressed as Superman.
‘I am a very weak man. I know that, and I’m happy with my limitations.’ Now he’s drunk, but on the few occasions when he’s sober he becomes quiet and unrelaxed, and tries to repair his relationship with the Jesuits by attending Mass at Farm Street, where he frequently takes Communion. ‘Religious people can be very unspiritual,’ he informs me unhelpfully. The entry-phone buzzes next to him. ‘It’s a Jehovah’s Witness. Says she called earlier and wants to talk about the future. She’s asking what I think about it.’
‘Tell her to speak to a wise guru in Hampstead.’
He ignores me and asks instead:
‘What sort of handcuffs do you like?’
A lengthy chat ensues.

***

Indulging in too much good taste seems to me the most vulgar thing in the world as it can only cause suffering to others. The same is true of art. In creating a decent work of art you have to go way beyond your own sense of good taste. But not your morality. Even an atheist needs to create a Voice of God inside his or her work: better to be dead than a cynic. Already believing this when quite young, I’d never planned a lengthy stay on this planet. After all, until I was in my twenties I assumed we’d all go up in a mushroom cloud, so didn’t plan ahead. We’d all been sold a ticket to an unrehearsed show and wouldn’t be in our seats for long. Is that what made us afraid to love, or are there hundreds of reasons? Or hundreds of excuses?
Nowadays nothing is mourned properly because the sleep of the world has been disturbed. If you fail to laugh at Hitler you’ll never sleep again, and if you don’t fear him you won’t sleep safe. Some people don’t know that, don’t know they’re damaged, that we’re in danger, that there’s a war on. ‘It’s hard to treat people who won’t admit they’re sick,’ said Gaby once. ‘They’ll tell you the floor’s the ceiling.’ I am looking at the skull as I remember her words. It’s almost impossible to save people who won’t get into the lifeboats.
The soothing voice wafts round the room, creating a picture of a troubled, muddled sea: ‘Valentia: a thousand and six, falling quickly. South-East Iceland: a thousand and fourteen, falling slowly. Tiree: rain later – bad, becoming severe…’

*****

ELEVEN.
THE VICTIM

I’m travelling back again, to a former life. To a time when I held a commission in the Army. Don’t ask me why. It’s just a bit of the biographical jigsaw, and we all have pieces we can’t understand. No odder than being a cook in the circus.
Bannion was a squaddie under my command, and he was in a mess: he had a black eye and a cut on his face, and one of his teeth was loose. A pathetic sight, made all the more pathetic because he was so small and helpless-looking. (You can tell I wasn’t in the Guards.) He was weedy at the best of times, but now he was a full-on victim. A battered young man, and a disgrace to the Army.
That was Bannion’s appearance two months earlier, at the time of the incident. Today he was going to court and didn’t look much better, though the injuries had healed. But he was still a pathetic sight.
‘Thank you for coming to court with me, sir,’ he mumbles in his unattractive Limerick brogue. ‘I’m sorry to take you away from whatever you were doing.’
‘I have to go with you, Bannion, because I’m your platoon commander. I have no choice.’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘It’s a pity you didn’t show a little more discipline when you got into this mess.’
‘It wasn’t my fault, sir. He’s the one on trial, sir. He just attacked me for no reason.’
‘That’s right, sir,’ says his fellow squaddie, a cocky South Londoner called Jackson, who was coming along with us as another witness.
‘Well, let’s try and find our way through this seething mass of criminal flotsam,’ I say, looking at the unsavoury group of misfits lurking outside the magistrates’ courts and all smoking, of course. Needless to say, Bannion and Jackson haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, so I lead the way up the steps and into the dingy hall, with the two of them straggling behind.
‘Oh, do get on!’ I bark at them, before addressing the woman at the reception desk: ‘Lieutenant Harper. We’re here for the case of Lin Fu.’
‘Lin F. U.,’ smirks Jackson, trying to make Bannion laugh.
‘Quiet, Jackson!’
‘Yes sir.’
‘These are Privates Bannion and Jackson, witnesses for the prosecution.’
The woman at the desk scowls at Bannion and points us in the direction of Court Number Seven. Two interminable hours later I enter the courtroom with a deeply nervous Bannion who has so far made five trips to the gents. God help me if I ever have to go into battle with him. Frankly, my aunts Julia and Diana would be a far more terrifying force to let loose on any enemy. In fact, there are times when they both impress me more than Sergeant-Major Forrest, and that’s saying something. At a dog show held on Aunt Diana’s estate, Wetheby (estate, property, land – class clue), a villager said she was going to faint after a dog bit her. ‘Oh really,’ said Aunt Diana witheringly, ‘I do think it’s so middle-class to faint.’

***

It’s pathetic, the material we get joining the Army these days – or at least then, in those days. Do you know, they had to give up putting boy soldiers straight into leather boots some time ago because their sixteen-year-old feet couldn’t manage the leather. These kids had worn trainers all their lives but never played an organised game of football once, or done any kind of proper sport. As soon as their feet went inside leather Army boots they started to fall apart, and at the end of parade you’d see a whole company of weeping teenagers. So the Army introduced regulation khaki trainers for them to march in, courtesy of the M. O. D. Pathetic.
The head magistrate wore a large hat and a lot of lipstick, some of which had smeared across the top of her upper lip. Army-friendly, I guessed, until I saw her blanching at the sight of Bannion. She actually groaned when he failed for the third time to read the oath, and made the usher lead him through it word by word. For his part, the usher looked like he was dying to get down to the pub.
‘Now just tell us in your own time,’ says the prosecutor, as the magistrate groans again, ‘what happened at the Pak Wook Chinese restaurant on the night of the 22nd of March.’
‘Well…’
An agonising pause, during which I nearly groan myself.
‘Yes, Private Bannion, go on.’
‘Well…’
For ten minutes Bannion struggles through the four or five sentences making up the core of his evidence. He and Jackson had been eating a meal with two other men from my platoon. Sweet and sour pork, chicken with cashew nuts, beef chop suey, prawn crackers: all their favourites. They were having a really good time when, for no reason, the waiter Lin Fu had charged up to their table and thumped Bannion in the face.
Looking around the courtroom I notice that the shorthand writer, hardly pressed by Bannion’s tortoise-like delivery, is secretly reading the Daily Telegraph. The usher has nodded off and the custody officer appears to be in a sort of trance, gazing into a corner of the ceiling. A ghastly-looking cub reporter, who may or may not be drunk even at this time of the morning, is filling in a crossword. His lack of interest is at least a blessing, and with any luck he’s waiting for a more exciting case to come up. It wouldn’t be good for the Army to have any mention of Bannion in the local rag.
I find myself staring at this Lin Fu character who was sitting very still in the dock. Dignified: sad and serene at the same time. A bit like a statue of the Buddha: one of the thin Indian ones, not the fat Chinese sort, Bodai. He was miles away, gazing into the desk in front of him or beyond it into the abyss, the old existential void. Who knows? Anyway, I wished he’d pleaded guilty and spared us all having to be here today, with the whole thing hanging over us for the previous two months while some dickhead solicitor looked up obscure reasons for holding Bannion up to public scrutiny (as an exemplar of military awfulness, no doubt). Besides that, I’d had to change the dates of my leave.
Next it’s the turn of the defence’s cross-examination. Smarmy little git he is. A bit hunch-shouldered, pair of glasses, a superior look. I don’t rate Bannion’s chances.
‘Now then, Private Bannion,’ he smarms, ‘you say this was an unprovoked attack?’
‘Yes, sir,’ mumbles Bannion.
‘Would you like to tell the court exactly what you had been saying to the defendant just before this unprovoked assault on you took place?’
‘I don’t really remember.’ He looks more pathetic than ever.
‘Well, let me help you. Did you ask Mr Fu if he had a sister?’
Bannion shifts uneasily in the witness stand.
‘I may have done. I’m not sure.’
‘Then let me help you again. Did you say to the defendant, “Hey, Chinkie, have you got a sister out in the kitchen? Would she like to come in here and pick up the five-pound note I’ve just nailed to the floor?”’
Bannion attempts a pathetic grin to placate the head magistrate who groans and adjusts her hat. It’s the kind of ghastly smile a dog gives when it realises you’ve just watched it eat the family lunch. The oik of a cub reporter’s scribbling away in his notebook now, all fired up, and it’s going to turn into a bad day for the Army: ‘Army racist thug insults serene Chinese Buddhist with sister sex scandal slur over chop suey and bamboo shoots in Pak Wook punch-up.’ Just the sort of thing the Army’s trying to avoid. And all that without even mentioning the five-pound note.
I won’t bother you with Jackson’s evidence. Suffice it to say that one of the other two magistrates liked him even less than Bannion. Cocky little London cunt was almost certainly running through his head. Anyway, I felt like the captain of a doomed ship – and I’d had to postpone a fortnight’s sailing off the coast of Turkey for this.
Time for the defence case, in which a stream of fellow diners and waiters attest to the appalling behaviour of Bannion and Jackson. Thank God my other two men weren’t there: one had gone AWOL with a transvestite mechanic two weeks earlier and the ringleader was in the military clink at Colchester. To all these witnesses I was part of Bannion’s world, so I was low and they hated me: in fact, I was probably King Rat because his awfulness had filtered down from me, the officer.
The pitiful thing was that Bannion had been happy that night. Dinner at the Pak Wook with three ghastly friends was the high point of his month, even his year. Bannion the wet little misfit whose ragged parents had dragged him over to England from Limerick after the age he’d managed his first wank. This Bannion, against all the odds, had enjoyed a night out in a third rate Chinese restaurant in a provincial garrison town. He’d shown off to curry favour with Jackson and the other two brutes. He would have mumbled something about it to his parents when he spoke to them on the telephone next day: ‘Lovely night out with the lads. Great crack…’ And not a clue about what the evening meant to Lin Fu.
The magistrate adjusts her hat and moves her scarlet lips before offering the defendant a bright red smile.
‘Mr Fu, would you like to give your evidence now?’
He’s dignity itself. Under careful guidance from the smarmy solicitor we learn that respect for sisters is essential in Chinese culture. This comes as news to me because I’d served in Hong Kong where I’d been offered a sister or two. (But I was a brutal soldier in those days, don’t forget – not the sensitive artist I’ve become since.) We’re informed that there’s no greater crime known to humanity than insulting someone’s sister. The three magistrates scowl at Bannion and Jackson in unison before retiring to consider their verdict for all of two minutes, disturbing the usher’s sleep in the process.
On their return they glare first at Bannion, then at Jackson, and finally at me. I’m the heart of darkness in this courtroom. All evil is perpetrated through me.
‘Mr Fu,’ says the head magistrate who has added more lipstick during the two-minute recess, ‘you were clearly subjected to the most appalling and excessive amount of provocation on the night of the 22nd of March, and though we are bound to find you guilty of the charge, we intend to impose the most lenient sentence allowed us. We’re giving you an absolute discharge and send you from this court with no stain whatever against your admirable and unblemished character, as well as the bench’s very best wishes. You are free to go.’
Lin Fu bows and leaves the dock with great dignity. The custody officer smiles and shakes his hand, the usher wakes up again, the cub reporter grins to himself as he completes his notes, and the shorthand writer starts reading the Daily Telegraph again. I look down and fiddle with the badge on my cap when Bannion tries his awful guilty dog smile on me, then I shoot him a filthy look.
‘Come on Bannion, Jackson. Let’s get out of here before we’re lynched.’
‘Nice to see justice done, eh, sir?’ chirps Jackson. ‘Quite right the beaks found him guilty, sir. Disgracefully lenient sentence, though.’
‘Shut up, Jackson.’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘What’s an absolute discharge, sir?’ mumbles Bannion.
Jackson is about to say something crude, so I stop him with:
‘I don’t know what happened here today, Bannion, but I’d say the Army was found very guilty indeed.’
‘Then I’d call it fucking unjust, sir,’ says Jackson. ‘Pardon my Swahili.’
‘Oh shut up, Jackson. And do get on, Bannion. I’ve got things to do back at the depot.’
We push our way through the dregs of humanity still waiting for their cases to come up and coughing in their own smoke.
‘I suppose we haven’t got time for a quick curry before we leave, sir?’
‘No, Jackson.’ Suddenly an idea hits me and I stop on the steps, feeling inside my tunic for my wallet. ‘Look, I’ll tell you what, Jackson. You take this fiver and catch a cab back. Go straight there, mind you – no stopping for curry! I’m just going to do one or two things in the town.’ They eye me mistrustfully. ‘And here’s a tenner for a drink tonight…’
‘Thank you very much, sir.’
‘Very good of you, sir.’
After watching them amble off, I scurry round to the car park. Throwing my cap in the Land Rover, I pull on a long civvy street raincoat which I button to the neck, hiding my uniform. Sunglasses and a hat, and the soldier is fully camouflaged. There is a spring in my step as I head for the Pak Wook for a little late lunch.
Two years in Hong Kong have given me a tremendous taste for Chinese waitresses.

***

‘Editing note from Vladimir Bartok:
I think you should end this with:
“And if you believe yarn like that, you’ll believe anything. I’m in there, but I’m not lieutenant.”
Just to add little obfuscation and make you more perverse. (Perhaps you should be ghastly drunk reporter cub.)
V. B.’

*****

TWELVE.
THE BOY WITH A SKIP IN HIS STEP

‘I HATE YOU I WISH YOU WERE DEAD WHY CAN’T YOU JUST DIE I DON’T LOVE YOU I LOATHE YOU… YOU SHOULD BE DEAD JUST DIE WHY DON’T YOU WHY CAN’T YOU JUST DIE I HATE YOU I DETEST YOU… YOU SHOULD BE DEAD PLEASE JUST DIE I NEVER WANT TO SEE YOU AGAIN COULDN’T YOU JUST DIE PLEASE DIE PLEASE PLEASE JUST DIE!’
My love affair had gone wrong by the banks of the Seine on the eve of Spring. In the Eighties. From time to time it had gone right there, on romantic holidays spent in cheap but understanding hotels, but this wasn’t one of those times. We were staying in a cheap but understanding hotel all right, but the angry one whose name I can’t remember had thrown one of her tantrums as we walked beside the river just before dawn, there in the city of love.
Slowly I walked back alone to our hotel in Le Marais.
A sleepy Algerian gets up from his bedding on the sofa beside the desk and lets me in with a sympathetic look. I take my key and enter the tiny doorless lift which she always called a vertical coffin. Inside the room is no trace of her belongings, as though she’s never been here. Drained, I lie down on the bed where we have cavorted for the last three days and nights and stare at the gloomy wallpaper, as Oscar Wilde stared at his before he decided to die. I close my tired red eyes, until I’m woken a little while later by a bus pulling away noisily from the stop four floors beneath my window.
In the shower I shut my eyes as the water bounces off my weary body, and remember making love to her under this cascade on the first day. It feels like ten years ago. When I’ve dressed I leave the room and enter the tiny lift again, recalling how two days ago passion made us accidentally press the stop button, and I thought the journey would last forever, like the boat ride at the end of Love in the Time of Cholera. Today I hope my scarf catches on the lift’s exposed mechanism and strangles me as Isadora Duncan’s did.
The sleepy Algerian smiles as I leave the key on the desk and venture out towards the Café Pamplona. Now this is the ideal place for suicide because its tables sit on the pavement at a point where several roads converge, all of them full of cars driven by madmen. The table-cloths are bright red, just in case. I choose the most dangerous of all the tables and gaze into my cup of black coffee as I think about her.
She’s so unreasonable, always accusing me of things I’m not. Even my love of life she sees as a threat, as though I don’t love her enough. I love life so much because I love her. Why can’t she see that? When I tell her how much I love her, she accuses me of being possessive. When I don’t, she tells me I don’t love her. If I love her body, it means I don’t love her mind. And worst of all – she claims I’ll stop loving her as she gets older. I’ll love her more. I love her so much that I have no need of religion, but I’m not telling her that. And so, with a young lover’s insecurity, she killed our love. Murdered it. Threw it into the river, just before the dawn. On the eve of Spring.
The March breeze has made me cold so I pay the bill and leave. Anxious to escape the noise of traffic, I explore the back streets. Around one corner, a stream of water from a gushing hydrant pours down the road towards me, the sunlight turning its ripples a glorious silver which one fat pigeon bathes itself in. Further on, a flock of pigeons swoop or swoops into the cobbled courtyard of the Picasso Museum at the Hôtel Salé, nearly making me stumble as I enter.

***

Inside, I find myself staring into the unassailable old wall-eye of La Celestina. There has to be a bit of a battle between sex and art, I find myself thinking. To some extent the artist has to sacrifice one for the other as there will inevitably be a smaller audience for his or her orgasms, fewer cognoscenti. Perhaps, though, people are more curious about artists’ orgasms than their art. La Celestina’s unassailable wall-eye is giving nothing away.
It’s not surprising that Picasso triggers thoughts like these: people are fascinated by his sexual power and look into his sexual mind through keyholes in the canvas. If they’re lucky they see him looking back, holding a mirror towards them. Oh, to see the world as Picasso saw it. But the artistic giants are leaving us now, and we must stagger on as simple men and women, fighting to produce something from time to time, some simple work or other. Something half decent. (In the Thirties George Orwell was already saying in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, ‘Shall we ever again get a writer worth reading?…And if we did get a writer worth reading, should we know him when we saw him, so choked as we are with trash?’)
The image of an owl is looking down at me from the archway of the door, and children’s voices ring through the museum vaults. Upstairs I find them spread across the floor, chattering and full of joy as their young teacher gets them to look into the brooding eyes of a self-portrait. Picasso seems to be alive.
After the children have moved on to the next room, I think about my life in London, realising that lately I have become a repository for the ranting of friends. Day and night I find myself listening to an endless catalogue of distress and misery, madness, impotence and neurosis which make up their lives. (Later I will come to know the smugness of Mottram Duckworth.) Some of it I recycle in my writing; other parts, like old cigarette butts, I stick behind my ear for later. We must go on giantless for the time-being, I reflect, but one day the giants may return and even breed.
The children are seated in two rows in front of Femmes à Leur Toilette which covers the whole of the far wall. They’re all about five years old and busy chattering while they point at parts of the picture. Somehow I feel this couldn’t quite happen in England, but pray that it will. Another teacher calls two of them to the front and they shyly point to bits of the painting: flowing hair, a mouth, a pair of unbalanced eyes. The teacher gently helps them to discover more faces and I can see the children growing bolder as they search.
Brushing her hair, putting on her lipstick, smiling at me in the mirror as I gaze at her trying to hide the tiny scar on her temple – an imperfection which makes her even more beautiful to me. Femmes à leur toilette.
The little girl sticks her hand into the back of her tracksuit trousers and her tiny buttocks pop out. The little boy next to her leans over to inspect, and the girl smiles at him. Then it’s time for the children to file out, chattering away as they go, and I am left alone with the huge picture. I gaze at the image of a looking-glass. One of the great secrets is knowing when an object must become the artistic subject, when to move from the person to the item. Picasso knew. Shakespeare knew, of course: Hamlet with Yorick’s skull, Macbeth imagining the dagger, Desdemona’s handkerchief, Mark Antony’s letter. Max Ophuls knew: his camera following the arrival of the diamond necklace which brought about the destruction of Madame de… Then I see a bit of cheap wallpaper in the picture, but it’s so beautiful that I have to turn away – and discover the simplest piece of sculpture I have ever seen, something which conjures up the presence of a bull’s head from deep within the unconscious: its head, a bicycle seat, points downwards and a pair of handlebars point or points upwards as the horns.
Outside in the courtyard I sit on a bench and spread my tired feet across the cobbles, as pigeons swoop down on abandoned cigarette butts. Next to me are two bespectacled schoolmistresses eating sandwiches and writing postcards and being teased by their teenage pupils. One pretends to be angry, but it’s clear that she and the pupils love each other and while the kids appear to aim their cameras at each other, they’re really snapping the teachers.
The walls and cobblestones ring with the screams and chatter of the five-year-olds as they pour out of the front door. A photographer has been waiting in the shade to take their picture. First he goes round shooting them relaxed and gossiping or kicking a Perspex lamp cover cemented into the cobbles which makes a wonderful popping sound. The little girl with the exposed bum kicks it too many times, getting huge satisfaction from the pops, until she is scolded and sent to sit on the steps, where she sulks and sucks her thumb until she joins the others chasing the pigeons around the courtyard. When they can’t reach the birds, they chase their shadows. Then it’s time for the group photo and before I know it, I’m alone with the self-conscious teenagers and their loving, loved teachers.

***

Hungry, I leave the Picasso Museum and stroll through the back streets again until I can no longer walk along the pavement because it’s blocked by tables and chairs. I sit down and order calmars and chilled Gamay. The passers-by step into the gutter and apologise for disturbing me. What a civilised country, I think as I observe the characters walking down this particular street in Le Marais in March.
First, a stocky boy waddling. Squeezing past my table he sniffs, as though this might make him thinner. Or greedier. His broad flank makes the table shudder, rippling my Gamay at the lip of the glass. Next, a man in a Black Watch bonnet, taking short steps, and clearly imagining his own meal waiting for him at home – a meal which will contain much meat. As the calmars arrive, a wise-looking old Vietnamese man wafts by: thin, almost shadow-like, with a distinguished air about him. Perhaps he’s a famous author, the last of the giants. Soon he’s lost in the crowd at the end of the street.
At the next table a young woman flirts with me (because you can’t not flirt in civilised countries) as she spoon-feeds her small son.
‘Dites “Bonjour, monsieur,”.’
‘Bonjour, monsieur,’ says the small boy every time I raise a forkful of calmars to my lips.
’Bonjour, monsieur,’ I reply each time his mother spoon-feeds him, and we are bonded, probably forever.
Being in Le Marais makes me happy, and I have no need of the Seine for the moment. I am even free of her for now, so I sit back and raise the glass of Gamay to my mouth.
‘Bonjour, monsieur.’
‘Bonjour, monsieur.’
Over the road a hidden rotary saw eats into a plank of wood inside a shop which is being converted into a café. Above this noise I can hear loud voices raised to counter it, and I look across to see two boys of about eighteen shouting and laughing, one of them gripping the other’s shoulder. I realise with deep jealousy that they’re in love. Only yesterday we were like that. Ablaze. I get up and pay my bill.
‘Au revoir, monsieur.’
‘Au revoir, monsieur. Au revoir, madame.’
Crossing the road I can easily see that the boy nearest me is dark-haired and beautiful. He laughs loudly at the story the other boy is telling him. She laughed like that at my stories, her eyes ablaze. I pretend to look in a shop window.
‘Au revoir, monsieur,’ calls the small boy from the other side of the street.
‘Au revoir, monsieur.’
Reflected in the shop window I see the teenage boy’s lovely mouth and eyes, dark like Picasso’s, and I see hers in them. How could she ever have believed I’d leave her? The boy grips his friend’s shoulder again. They’re still shouting, oblivious of the rotary saw, the traffic, the passers-by. Oblivious of the world. Oblivious of my jealousy. In fact, I can’t even hear the sound of the saw any more myself. Nor the traffic: I’m nearly run over by a truck when I step off the kerb.
It’s time for the boys to part. The beautiful one checks his reflection in a shop window before walking away slowly. Then he does something which will make his image stay with me for the rest of my life, and it’s the reason why I can still see him so clearly now, even within the whiteness of my room in World’s End. As he walks along the pavement he skips. It’s just a little skip, but it defines him. He’s a boy with a skip in his step. And it makes him unassailable. He’s in love and unassailable. He’s the boy with a skip in his step. A bus halts just outside my hotel, and he hops on, beaming at the driver.
‘Excusez-moi,’ says a young woman politely as she squeezes past me on the tiny pavement. I think she’s noticed a bit of unassailability in me. The French are good at detecting unassailability in others.
The bus passes. The boy is standing at the front, chatting to the driver and as unassailable as the figurehead of a proud ship.
The hotel is bathed in the gold light of early evening, and I dread the ride I will have to take in its gloomy coffin of a lift. Suddenly something crashes onto the pavement by my feet, and I look down to see that it’s the key to my room. I scan the rows of glistening shutters above me and eventually, four floors up, I see her lovely face at our window, just beneath the golden rays of sunset. My heart somersaults.
‘Get in that coffin and hurry up! I love you and I’ve missed you and I’ve waited by the Seine all day for you. Please hurry. Please, please just hurry!’
I gaze up at her.
‘I’m unassailable,’ I shout, ‘by anything but you! I really love this town!’

***

‘The genius of Einstein leads to Hiroshima,’ said Picasso.
The murder of an actor in a pub brawl at Thame in Oxfordshire might have led to the genius of Shakespeare. (By the time the Queen’s Men reached Warwickshire they were a man short.)
A centre for agricultural research led to Auschwitz. (That’s how Himmler and Rudolf Hoess saw it originally, being farmers both.)
The defeat of Hitler has led to…?

*****

THIRTEEN.
SCREAMING QUEENS

‘If there’s one thing I cannot abide, it’s bogosity! Your family are completely bogus, and all this religion’s driven everybody mad! Do you know, I came to stay the weekend and I’ve been here for…’
This is another voice from my past, and it belongs to a man called Roger Fennell, who lived in my Aunt Julia’s house in Oxford. I’d been listening to the same diatribe since I was a kid, and the only thing that changed was the length of time he’d lived there. ‘I came to stay the weekend and I’ve been here for two years!’ ‘…seven years,,, eleven years… fourteen years… eighteen years… twenty-one years… twenty-seven years!…’ I watched my life slipping away as I listened to Roger telling of his misfortune at Aunt Julia’s hands after she’d plucked him from trouble once.
‘I crashed a car,’ said Roger.
‘He bounced a cheque,’ said Aunt Julia.
His life fell apart after he had a serious back operation and couldn’t work for a long time. It seemed that he might not walk either but he was a driven man, Roger, so he did. A curious walk it turned out to be, though, as he swung his legs in front of him like an electrified flower-pot man. And so he ended up in trouble: possibly the car he crashed was one he’d paid for with a bounced cheque.
Besides being a widowed writer, Aunt Julia was a prison visitor, so she took him in for the weekend before his trial. He slept in the bedroom by her front door and remained there for twenty-seven years until her death, frequently behaving like the drunken porter in the Scottish play, though he looked very English: as time wore on, he became a toothless parody of Denis Price and made increasingly more futile attempts to keep abreast of the housework he was expected to do in lieu of rent.
‘I’m not saying that your aunt’s not a wonderful woman in many ways, because she is, but I must be me!’ was another of his mantras.
During their twenty-seven years of co-dependency they never once discussed Roger’s homosexuality. However, on a few occasions she evicted naked young men he had brought home from the pub.
‘The physical thing never meant much to me, Stephen,’ he used to tell me. ‘I liked the chase more.’
Once Aunt Julia read me a poem by Walt Whitman called Farewell, My Fancy, about the death of a loved one.
‘Isn’t that lovely?’ she said afterwards.
‘Yes.’
‘Well it’s a pity it doesn’t mean anything because he wrote it about a man.’
‘The trouble with your family,’ Roger told me regularly, ‘is that there’s no love in them.’

***

‘The thing is, I’m not a home person, I’m a pub person,’ was another of his refrains. ‘My mother died when I was four. I was devoted to my father, but he married a ghastly old cow, and I couldn’t wait to get away. I had to be me. And great fun I had being me too. I had a wonderful life in London. All pubs are gay bars, you know, in a sort of way. Then, of course, I led the most marvellous life in East Africa, selling office furniture. Oh, some of those Sikh boys… Ranjit Singh aged seventeen: when he took off his turban his hair flowed down to his beautiful arse!’
I would hear these stories in various pubs around Oxford. It depended on which one Roger favoured currently, and sometimes which one favoured him as he was often banned for some frightful indiscretion.
‘They understand me here, my dear,’ he would say. One thing infuriated him, however: overt campness. ‘If there’s one thing I cannot stand,’ he’d roar at me, ‘it’s screaming queens giving homosexuality a bad name! They bring it into disrepute!’

***

Her sacerdotalism being somewhat qualified, Aunt Julia liked priests to agree with her. Therefore she didn’t have much truck with the Jesuits. The Dominicans were out too, since a cousin of ours was one. Generally considered one of the great intellects of the Catholic Church, he was even thought by some people to be a saint. But he maintained that gay relationships were as valid as straight ones, so Aunt Julia never allowed him in the house. ‘I always thought he was a bit of a Norman Hartnoll,’ she told me.
The parish priest, Father Tucker, was popular with her and, as he was a convert, she expected him to be more right-wing than other priests. (Liberal Catholics always have to bear the burden of converts turning up on a regular basis and putting the enlightenment clock back, since they have to prove themselves more Catholic than anybody else.) I don’t know if she ever discovered that he wasn’t remotely right-wing, or that he did a great line in Ian Paisley and the Pope impersonations. During one of Aunt Julia’s dinner parties he hardly batted an eyelid when Roger came in from the pub rolling drunk and greeted him jovially as ‘Father Tucker, mother fucker.’
Popular too were the Oratorians, especially since the time Aunt Julia stayed with an extremely grand cousin whose house in the Westcountry was at least a quarter of a mile long. A door off the library led onto a balcony overlooking the church into which the Catholic villagers were allowed to file once a week for Mass. When Aunt Julia and her hostess went down the private staircase to the Communion rail, the Oratorian saying Mass, a weekend guest at the house, broke off from the rest of the congregation to give them Communion. Aunt Julia thoroughly approved of the feudal core inside English Catholicism.
Most popular of all with her, though, were the Benedictines. Whatever their personal beliefs, they generously allowed Aunt Julia to regale them with hers. The only time she was upset by one of them was when Cardinal Hume went on telly saying something politically correct and sending her into a fury.
‘I’ve never heard such rot!’ she roared.
Making a mock Sign of the Cross, Roger moaned from downstairs: ‘It’s all this bloody North, South, East and Holy Ghost!’

***

Although Aunt Julia and Roger weren’t prepared to discuss his homosexuality, she was intrigued by it.
‘Do queers have smaller bits down below?’ she’d ask Raymond or me in her drawing room on the first floor. (Roger had taken a fancy to Raymond when he moved to Oxford at eighteen and became a barman in one of Roger’s favourite haunts: ‘I used to tell him there was a five-pound note lying on the floor.’)
‘Fucking stupid cow!’ Roger would boom from outside his lair in the hall. ‘Complete bogosity! Does she think the Sikhs have smaller bits down below?’
In those days he made sure that Aunt Julia never heard his outbursts, but on one occasion she did, after he’d returned from the pub even more drunk than usual. He called her a bloody old cow. Furious, she said she was going to throw him out of the house, and soon they both realised they were checkmated.
‘I shouldn’t have called her a bloody old cow,’ he told me dejectedly.
‘There’s no gratitude in criminal circles,’ said Aunt Julia who started a new short story that afternoon, The Ungrateful Crook.
Using great diplomacy I somehow managed to patch up their tattered relationship. Aunt Julia changed the title of her story to The Repentant Queer, and Roger rewarded me with lunch at The Horse And Jockey.
‘They also wait who stand and serve,’ he boomed when the pretty barman brought our meal to the table. ‘As a matter of fact, they understand me particularly well here.’ Then he was back on the subject of Aunt Julia. ‘Your aunt’s always been very good to me. It’s just that I can’t stand families.’
Many years later Roger regularly called her a bloody old cow to her face, but that was after she’d become ill and couldn’t tell day from night. Then she’d wander into his bedroom at all hours and take away his sleep. He had to wash her, change her clothes, care for her.
‘I never thought I’d end my days dressing and undressing a woman!’ he’d roar at me.

***

‘Have I ever told you about the time I had an affair with a bandsman in the Coldstream Guards?’
I could feel my ancestors turning in their graves as the Coldstream was or were the family regiment (not that I made it into it or them). Roger was reminiscing about his East African days.
‘It was in Sixty-two. He was a drummer. Nineteen. And his battalion had been sent out to play some concerts…’
Roger had been quiet for some time and was still in mourning for Aunt Julia who had died six weeks earlier. He was now living in a flat for the elderly and had just sifted through a box of old letters and photographs. Images of boy lovers mingled with those of Aunt Julia on his table. He looked a bit drawn, though less tired than he had during the last days Aunt Julia spent at home, before she went into the care of kind nuns off the Cowley Road. Recalling the heady, sexy times in East Africa made him brighten up.
‘We were asked to entertain the troops.’
‘Did they understand you in East Africa?’
‘Very well indeed. You see, I had to be me!’
‘Did it ever go wrong?’
‘Once. I made a mistake about a Scottish boy. I used to work with his father. Very dour.’ He became quiet again. ‘Then there was Robert, of course…’ This was another story I had known for many years. ‘He couldn’t stay out of trouble. Terrible weakness for young boys. He was beautiful himself, but on a suicide course. Went to prison. That’s why I returned to East Africa. Those were the days when all the queers went around saying “Are you musical?”’ This part of the story was always accompanied by a camp, mocking voice. ‘”Are you myoosical?”’
He looked wistfully at the pile of letters and photographs. A young Sikh gazed out at us, his flowing hair hidden beneath his turban. A handsome bandsman beamed from under a solar topee.
‘My drummer boy was bloody musical, but he wasn’t camp.’ Tears were forming in his old eyes. ‘It’s just something they pass through, unless they’re Robert. You can’t hold them – but, of course, I never wanted to. I couldn’t have lived with any of them. I couldn’t have been me that way. I needed the chase. Boys turn into men and marry, even if they’re queer as coots. And the others become screaming queens, giving the whole thing a bad name. They bring it into disrepute!’
His eyes rested on a photograph of Aunt Julia. I remembered him following her coffin like a weeping, electrified flower-pot man.
‘Do they understand you here?’ I asked.
‘I should think not! I’ve been here for six weeks and two days, and they don’t know a bloody thing about me. And they’re not going to! I shall continue to be me within the confines of this flat… I’m too old for any of that anyway.’ His eyes were still gazing at the photograph of Aunt Julia. ‘Well, you’d better be getting along…’
We arranged to have lunch at The Plasterer’s Arms the following week: either Roger or The Horse And Jockey was out of favour now. As I walked away from his flat, I thought: Roger, you might just be giving homosexuality rather a good name and bringing it into repute – however bogus he would think me for saying so.
He was dead within the year. Raymond Rivers and I made the arrangements for his funeral as we couldn’t trace a single member of his long lost family.

*****

FOURTEEN.
THE LONG, LONG SILENCE

I don’t believe that empires are possible without the collusion of their subjects. But this statement is impossible to agree with in an age of victimhood (a word we must invent, apparently, as it’s not in any dictionary of mine), when everything is always somebody else’s fault: not even God’s, since we’ve got rid of Him; but never ours, never ever mine. (God, like morality, was or is a human construct.)
I refuse to believe the British Empire was remotely viable without the active participation of its subjugated peoples. How could one hundred thousand Brits rule over three hundred and fifty million Indians without their consent? Now isn’t that an irritating question, begging a certain reading of history? How can men dominate women without their active participation – even if it’s a participation in passivity? How could the Prods successfully ill-treat Catholics in this country for four hundred years? Because for most of that time they had laws in place to persecute them, that’s how. Oh, how easy it is to be in tune with one’s own victimhood, and not other people’s. To feel how badly treated I am, but not you.
In spite of this, and because of it too, my conclusion is that people choose their chains, that they volunteer to sacrifice their rights to others. That they become voluntary eunuchs. Have I turned logic on its head by coming to this conclusion following the previous two paragraphs?
What is it to be a man, a woman, a human being? What does it mean? To be complete? Isn’t it far more manly to sleep with another man than to hide your desires, far more womanly to feel no sense of barrenness in the arms of another woman? Shame makes us so dangerous: it’s in the front line of the psychosis war, and turns us into killers.
‘Men use sex as a weapon,’ says Gaby, ‘as a means of control, a way of mastering women, of repeatedly stabbing their bodies with sex. And women concur. They agree to play the game, and turn themselves into suicides. Manly men and womanly women refuse.’
She’s very bright, and she’s taught me lots. She’s the least ashamed person I know. Before I found her, there was only what William Golding called the long, long silence.

***

‘Vowels are the flowing river,’ said Constantin Stanislavski, ‘and the consonants are its banks.’ Nowadays many people seem to have abandoned consonants altogether, while Mottram Duckworth appears to use nothing else – other than the flat uh sound in his gub-dub-drub rubbish. In trying to create his hark-back poetry and his rob-poetry-of-its-poetry poetry, he’s denying modernity in a very frightened way. Conservatism in art claims to know all the answers and, as Summers said, fear is the enemy of experimentation. It turns art into sport, creating an art of success or failure, demanding a result: an award here, a prize there…
Edna breaks another broken vase, and I consider her contribution more important than Duckworth’s.
‘I’m ready to serve a writ on you now,’ says Murphy, clearly drunk and weaving beside the painted border.
Within me is a hidden world, I reflect: an armchair traveller, a real traveller, a craven man, a hope, an almost-anything type of man whom no friend discovers. Can you say that, Murphy the philosopher bailiff? It’s far easier to change the world by talking a load of crap than by saying anything sensible.

***

Funnily, enough, my first crisis over language was caused by the word language. When I was very little I wanted to know if the charwoman was more than just English like me, but I had no word for nationality, so I asked her:
‘What language are you?’
Blimey. What a reaction I got to that. I only wondered whether she was English and Scottish like me, or Irish like Nellie my nanny, maybe even Welsh like Dorothy the cook who’d just ended up in the loony bin. Or perhaps plain English like Monica my sisters’ governess who became an artist’s nude model after she’d irritated my mother by correcting her French in a rather snooty way. At least I knew the char wasn’t Austrian like Sieglinde the au pair. (I can’t believe that all these people were around at the same time, or surely we would have run out of space. That’s childhood memories for you, or those are childhood memories for you.)
Anyway, I liked to be sure about these things, because I considered myself both a Brit and a bit of an internationalist: my toy soldier collection contained troops from all over the world. (Winston Churchill’s, on the other hand, consisted of ten thousand British soldiers and nothing else, but being half American he might have felt he had a point to prove about his patriotism.) At prep school my best friend Laurent was French, and in our street it was Tommy, an American. The previous year I’d had an English best friend, Luke, whose father was a famous Communist QC. One day my parents came home and found me running down the street in my Davy Crockett hat, waving a hammer and sickle flag. Though a little shocked, they took it well. I thought it was a brilliant red, this flag, and it fluttered wonderfully as I charged about the well-off neighbourhood with it, not quite bringing the Revolution with me.
Luke soon left, and Tommy’s family moved into their house, inheriting the gnarled old mulberry tree at the bottom of the garden. That tree became our ship, our castle and our stage – our artistic centre. (Years later, in Delhi, I met a Sikh actor who derived all his artistic strength and inspiration from a great bodhi tree in the middle of his outdoor stage.) Tommy and I sang ‘There is nothing like a dame!’ from the branches of the mulberry tree.
Tommy’s mother was the first naked woman I saw, and an unnerving sight it was for a small boy. One day she stepped out of her bath to hand me a birthday present, a toy car, and I thought she was a man because she seemed to have so much hair on her body. Perhaps only American women were that hairy. Perhaps they were all men, like the Lady Boys I would meet later. This incident made me reflective for an hour or so, or probably a lifetime. The family went in for nakedness. Tommy often took off his clothes during our games: there was no hair on his body, though, and precious little on his head because he had a crew-cut.
‘What language are you?’ I asked the char. I was soon to find out.

***

Conceived in Java, I was born in England, having flown across the world in the womb. While I lay in my cot, my mother was thrown from a horse in Oxfordshire. Her foot caught in the stirrup and she was dragged for a mile along the road, her head banging on the tarmac as the horse continued to gallop. Afterwards she could place her fist inside the wound on her forehead. She had to move the parting to hide the scar which ran from her eyebrow to somewhere under her hair.
I grew up with the idea that I’d been removed from the place of my conception before I was ready: a world of sea and forests my parents had inhabited – not necessarily happily, but quite exotically. Life in London, which followed Oxfordshire and Warwickshire while I was still an infant, was not the Far East. I’ve never really lost the idea that I’m usually in the wrong place at all times. I probably felt this in the womb too, because two other babies had died there and left it haunted.
When I was six I flew back with my parents’ car from Boulogne to Lydd in Kent. The aeroplane swallowed our grey Austin like a huge toad taking in a fly. For months afterwards I used to tell people, ‘That car can fly, you know – it’s been up in the sky.’ This flight was exciting, but it was only the start, since I had relations scattered across the world. People said I could go to any country and find members of my family there: Bengali cousins in Kerala and Assam, and Welsh ones in Peru; they were in America, Canada, Australia and Germany, and Italian ones were here. A great aunt who died that year had been married to a Prussian prince. In their hey-day they owned six palaces, but by the time I knew her she was living in a bed-sit in South Kensington and holding court at the Rembrandt Hotel. My cousin Rupert was having tea with her one day in the lobby as a timid nineteen-year-old able seaman doing his National Service. Sitting at the next table was the Admiral of the Fleet. My great aunt called him over: ‘You’re both sailors,’ she said. ‘so you must have lots in common. Talk about the Navy.’ Later Rupert told me that the Admiral of the Fleet looked even more frightened than he did.
That Christmas my great aunt provoked my second crisis over language. She turned up with a pair of catfish for my sister Georgie who asked what they ate. ‘Cats,’ said my father, so I fled upstairs to hide my cat Bedsocks from these murdering fish by shoving him in a wardrobe and nearly suffocating him.
‘What language are you?’ I asked the charwoman, Molly, thinking about the geography of the British isles. The house exploded.
‘Just because I don’t talk like you doesn’t mean I’m not as good as you and your bloody family!’ she yelled.
I couldn’t work out adults at all. They talked such nonsense. Once, when I thought my imagination was getting the better of me and I wasn’t hearing things right, I decided to really concentrate hard on what they were saying. Unfortunately, the next conversation I heard was between my mother and a nun who told her about a saint who emerged unscathed from a torture of boiling oil and fire and then made himself a cup of tea. At which point I wondered if perhaps I was mad.
Language, meaning nationality, was a very tricky business. People were obviously a bit prickly about it. Perhaps this was what had driven Dorothy the Welsh cook into the loony bin. Maybe Molly the char was Welsh too and couldn’t handle it. I felt relieved that I wasn’t Welsh.

***

‘Oi was just showing him some details,’ said Linda Privet, daughter of my uncle’s gardener Mister Privet, appropriately named since my uncle’s garden consisted almost entirely of topiary. And what details they were: very different from Tommy’s and his mother’s. We’d just emerged from an old chicken shed by the moat, and someone asked what we’d been up to. The full biffter, I thought. My God, some people are unshy about their nakedness, and not just Americans: you couldn’t get more rural English than Linda Privet. ‘…just showing him some details…’ Linda Privet’s details offered to me on a feudal plate, for detailed inspection. ‘’Ere, you just touch this…’ She asked nothing in return. I didn’t go round offering up my details for inspection: I didn’t even inspect them that closely myself. I wondered if this was what the gardening classes did. But Tommy wasn’t a gardener’s son. Maybe life didn’t have anything to do with class, race or gender: it was more about outlook, and everyone else’s seemed different from mine.
‘What language are you?’ I asked Linda Privet as we walked beside the moat.
‘Oi’m English.’
‘Oh…’

***

I knew we were poor because I’d been told so. Whenever an electricity bill arrived, my father went all over our large rented London house turning out the lights. ‘We’ll all end up in the workhouse,’ he used to say, unaware it no longer existed. It didn’t stop him keeping a hunter or two and going hunting twice a week. ‘You wait till your father gets back from hunting,’ said Nellie my nanny after I’d gouged a hole in the nursery wall. I waited. Then he was standing in the doorway, dressed in his riding boots and black coat and top hat, whip in hand. I don’t remember any anger that day, so the hunting must have been good. Besides, he didn’t understand about houses.
My father was a curious man. He adored the fox as a species, cared about its welfare, and loved hunting it. Shooting and wounding a fox was a heinous crime to him, a belief incomprehensible to opponents of fox-hunting, no doubt. (This is an argument I refuse to get involved in: we sit on the edge of the abyss while in this country all we get worked up about is or are hunting and gay vicars or bishops, and occasionally women ones. Sad, in my view, and rather missing the point of life.)
But he didn’t understand about houses, my father, leaving my mother to do the DIY. She painted and wallpapered and changed all the plugs: in her basement workshop she built us wooden farms and villages and forts to play with. My father understood none of it. He believed you should never own property – only stocks and shares. And horses. He rented houses and refused to buy one until late in life, and then only a small one.
All domestic matters were a mystery to him, since he had always been looked after materially – not emotionally – especially in the Far East. Once we were staying in a castle in the Midlands owned by some impoverished relations. ‘Come with me,’ said my father, leading me up a winding staircase to his bedroom. ‘Now show me how to make a bed, will you?’
He told me two strange stories about houses in the Far East. Once he entered a large hut after a volcano had erupted. A dozen people were seated around the walls, looking tired and ignoring his questions (he was an acting unpaid honorary consul at the time, during which stint he greeted Amy Johnson shortly before she vanished). After a while he realised that the tired-looking people ignoring him were all dead from asphyxiation. On another occasion he looked at a house to rent, and while the bearer showed him round, my father noticed some stains on the study ceiling. ‘What’s that?’ he asked. ‘Oh, those are the brains of the previous occupant,’ said the bearer. ‘He shot himself.’ My father didn’t take the house.
At about that time he was due to fly somewhere in the South China Sea. Arriving late at the airport, he missed the flight. Half an hour later the plane crashed, killing everyone on board. On another journey he lost a birthday because he travelled through the international dateline.

***

My best friend at prep school, Laurent, had six sisters, five of them older than him. I manoeuvred the sixth, Sophie, into proposing to me (she was six, I was seven). I’d already had two proposals at my previous school, a convent, and now I wanted a hat-trick. ‘Have you ever been proposed to?’ I asked her repeatedly. ‘I have – twice.’ I made it clear that I was good gene pool stuff and that she didn’t want to miss out on the nuptial stakes. Eventually she burst out in a shy and beaming Gallic way: ‘Will you marry me?’ ‘Yes, all right.’ (You learn to play it cool at an early age.)
Previously a pretty blonde girl at my convent had been my favourite. I fantasised about whizzing around with her on a flying carpet, but secretly feared she wouldn’t be happy to travel beyond the Home Counties. Another girl, an American I think, I found sitting on the loo one day. I thought her a bit shameless because she didn’t seem to mind that I was standing in the doorway staring at her while she gave me what I took to be a come in look. I can’t remember if these were the first two girls who proposed to me: perhaps Linda Privet did. I only remember Sophie’s proposal, which I had engineered. Years later, when I was sixteen and she was fifteen, our photograph appeared in a New York society page under the caption The Spider and the Fly. Guess which I was.
French women always attracted me. When I was thirteen I was given extra coaching by Marie-Thérèse de Verneuil who was eighteen. I was completely in love with her. She used to point to parts of my body and hers, and mouth their names in French. ‘La jambe… le nez… la bouche…’ I’d fall asleep at night mouthing the French for parts of her body. Over the years, many famous men came to know them well.

***

Every morning Nellie and the French cook sat in the kitchen for hours, peeling beans and talking in their respective languages. They never drew breath and neither understood a word the other was saying, but they got on like a house on fire. My family had taken a house just outside Le Touquet for the summer. Aged six, I decided I was French, and my parents’ Christmas card for that year showed me in a Foreign Legion hat, lying in a dune beside my two sisters, masked by tall seaside grass like you find in the desert: later in life I strolled through many deserts in search of it, forgetting that it was really in Le Touquet.
Nellie was a great shopper. (In future years she’d go on pensioners’ charabanc outings, though she called her fellow pensioners the old dears: having reached places like Bournemouth, she’d check out the local Woolworth’s and Marks & Sparks to see how they compared with London.) At Le Touquet she made me go round the shops with her asking ‘Combien?’ every time she saw something she wanted. It was the first French word to enter my unconscious. Later, when I met Marie-Thérèse de Verneuil, it would be replaced by ‘Je t’adore…’ One day, on our way to the shops in Le Touquet, I turned around and saw a grass snake slithering after us. That night it entered my dreams, and forever after I believed France to be a wild, exotic land. But I knew then that however much I loved its language, I must never learn to speak it or any other too well: I feared this would lessen my hold on English which, despite its native speakers, I was growing to love more than anything on earth.

*****

FIFTEEN.
WHAT LANGUAGE ARE YOU?

The first language my sister Charlotte spoke was Malay, learned from her ayah. When my family returned to England (with me in our mother’s womb), she forgot Malay altogether, and it became a lost language. I also had my own language, but was forced to lose it. When I was four and five nobody could understand a word I said, except my second sister Georgie, who was a pragmatist and my interpreter. The nearest I came to speaking English was saying my name, usually lopping off the consonants and producing a mish-mash of vowels. A photograph from that time shows me sitting on the steps of a caravan (my mother’s response to my father’s refusal to buy houses), looking shy and apparently trying to create distance between myself and the lens, hoping to ward off the taking of the picture. A long walking stick projects from my hand, another line of defence, and at my side is a proud Pekingese, Lila, posing confidently.
In our night nursery we waited for our mother to come and say goodnight: Charlotte, the eldest, playing with her dolls; I with my soldiers; Georgie, the middle one, carefully counting her money. I’d make some incomprehensible sound, probably my idea of the lost language of Sumatra, which Georgie would translate for my mother: ‘He’s saying goodnight.’
One day Georgie decided she’d had enough of family life and ran away. At the end of the road she worked out that it wasn’t financially viable to go it alone, so she turned back. After that she was even more careful with her money. I was sent to elocution classes and forced to imitate the sound of air escaping from a balloon because it came out like an S. I was no longer Even Arper. I was Seeven Arper.

***

The taste of freedom was a hot curry. On the last day of term at my prep school, my mother would always come and take me to lunch at an Indian restaurant in South Kensington. On the walls were huge black and white photographs of the Taj Mahal and a fierce-looking Bengali tiger, which glared at me from its forest hiding place. I wolfed down Chicken Madras until my forehead itched – and then I knew I was free again.
Afterwards we’d drive home to St John’s Wood or picnic in Hyde Park. When I was eight I found another little boy shouting at a little girl in the park. I was outraged and told him to shut up. At which point he started chasing me. (He was a rough-looking kid.) For ages we ran all over the park, then outside it along the Bayswater road, and back into the park, padding alongside Rotten Row. Past the lake, over the bridge, through the café. He was Achilles and I was Hector, running around the walls of Troy. Eventually I made an interesting discovery. He obviously didn’t want to catch me. Early in life I’d learned about bluster.
Freedom’s a funny thing. My idea of it while I served my time at the Jesuit prison up North was to go and visit a huge mental hospital nearby. (Shades of Dorothy the cook?) I got to know a fantastic man called Bill who suffered from cerebral palsy. He’d been shoved in the place at seventeen because everyone thought he was a loony. After several years a nurse noticed that he could communicate, so he made him a board which Bill could point at with his toe: a b c, yes, no… At last, well into his twenties, he had a voice. Then he learned to type with his foot and wrote his autobiography, which I would read out loud to him before a newspaper even serialised it.
He adored opera, which he played much of the time on a record player in his room. We used to sit together by his window, gazing out at the files of grey figures walking in the drizzle outside, listening to Fidelio. Later, when I read about Van Gogh or Antonin Artaud sitting by their asylum windows, I would think back to those days. Bill’s room was a creative place.

***

When I was ten I saw a television programme about the invasion of Czechoslovakia which told the story of a forced march from some village in the Sudetenland. During the march a tired little boy tripped, and a German soldier smashed his face against a stone wall. My life changed, and for years I believed I’d been there on the march with that boy whom I hadn’t managed to save. I’ve felt brotherless ever since.
We were the first people in our street to have a telly, getting it when I was six. I grew up with Andy Pandy, Rin Tin Tin and Bill And Ben The Flower-Pot Men. I thought Andy Pandy rather wet, but I was deeply envious of the kid in Rin Tin Tin, becoming him in many of my fantasies. He was a child living a man’s life with a wonderful loyal dog which understood everything he said. I couldn’t even make people understand what I said.
I came to have a personal interest in Bill And Ben. At the age of seven I smuggled a revolver by train from Germany into Belgium, an event which made me a gun runner. It was more a starting-pistol really, with a metal bar over the barrel to stop the bullets flying out, but it still caused an international incident. We were returning from a large family skiing holiday in Bavaria, where I had insisted on skiing backwards because it gave me more of a thrill. Various rowdy cousins and friends made up the party. One of the friends was a strange and beautiful youth of sixteen, Jamie, whom the girls used to peep at through the window over the bathroom door whenever he took a bath. Another was a crazy young man of seventeen, George, who bought the gun and whose mother was a big noise at one of the leading auction houses in London. The spirit of adventure incarnate, I agreed to smuggle the gun across the border in my satchel. It worked: I wasn’t searched. Once we reached the other side, however, the strange and beautiful Jamie took the gun and started firing it all over the train. Armed police came aboard and searched every carriage. Jamie hid in the gents’ and put the gun in his shoe, which they never thought of searching. Not long after we got back to England Jamie was diagnosed as schizophrenic and bunged into a mental hospital, where he stayed for quite a while. George’s mother decided it was time he had a job, so the head of fine art at her leading auction house was deputed to find him one: it was painting the scenery for Bill And Ben The Flower-Pot Men. ‘The bloke who paints the flower-pots used to smuggle guns with me from Germany into Belgium,’ I told the boys at school, but they never believed me.
My confidence had grown and, in contrast to the shy photograph of me trying to ward off the taking of the picture on the caravan steps a couple of years earlier, I appear in a photograph at this time as a page at a cousin’s wedding. Dressed in an Eighteenth Century velvet coat, legs slightly apart, staring directly at the camera, I am the perfect counterpoise to my cousin Alexander, who is looking away awkwardly, trying not to be there.

***

The programme about the invasion of Czechoslovakia was a new experience. I’d heard terrible things before, of course, and I’d even seen lots of Holocaust imagery on the television and in the cinema – you couldn’t escape it. But there was something very particular about this story of a little boy of my age having his face smashed against a stone wall. I’d seen stone walls, especially the ones in Ireland: my sister Georgie had her face cut open by one when a farrowing sow attacked her. Having your face smashed against a stone wall hurt and, as in the case of the little boy from Czechoslovakia, it could kill you. As far as I could tell he’d only been taken on the forced march because he spoke a different language. ‘What language are you?’ the German soldier must have wondered. The wrong one.
In childhood, it was the world’s differences that appealed to me. I adored Ireland, where I spent so many of my summers – in a rented house, of course, except for the times we spent at Nellie’s mother’s place. When we played hide-and-seek with the village children, it wasn’t the result which mattered: the Irish kids loved to talk about the game afterwards, creating stories about who did what as we ran wild among the ruins of the castle and the abbey. I learned about timelessness because we had to find enough time to tell these stories. In County Cork I was always wild and free, but also in a hurry. ‘You’re a terrible speed merchant,’ they said, as I galloped around on a pony called Dandy Tom. Once I was knocked off him as I galloped into the branch of a tree.
There was a dark side, though. One day we went to Tallow Horse Fair and I saw horses with their bellies red-raw from whipping, their blood running into the gutters of the town square. A forceful Anglo-Irish woman called Miss Punch ordered the guards to issue warnings to the dealers.
That year the tinkers came into our village. With them was a little bay pony wearing blinkers and pulling a cart and a caravan. Her back was covered in scars, and some of the hair had turned white from beating. My mother offered to buy her from the tinkers, so the whole village turned out to watch the blacksmith inspect the pony: her back, her teeth, withers, hooves, the lot. The blacksmith proclaimed her fit. The tinkers took her out of the traces and handed her over to my mother. ‘Keep the winkers,’ they said, and they were gone.
When we got the pony home and took off the blinkers, we had a shock. She was blind in one eye, which had clearly been smashed in with a stone. My mother leapt into the car with Sergeant Campbell, an ex-Garda, and gave chase. They drove for miles in every direction, but the tinkers had vanished into the landscape.
Renamed Tinkerbelle, the pony later came to live with us in England, where she refused to pull even a tiny trap, knowing that her days of slavery were over.
Try as we might, we could never persuade my father to live full-time in Ireland, and not only because he refused to buy one of the several beautiful houses nearby. No. His argument was that the hunting wasn’t good enough in Ireland.

***

In those days Ireland had no television to show us programmes about the invasion of Czechoslovakia, or even the brutality of the Black and Tans. Then one year it arrived, and we never again ran around quite so much. Instead, I sat in Mrs Kenny’s pub watching a documentary about James Dean returning as a child to his home town by train, with his mother’s coffin on board. It was a Pandora’s Box, this television, but in England, thank God, I discovered Shakespeare on it. The Wars Of The Roses was shown on Sunday afternoons, the battles fought around England coming alive for me and seeming more immediate than the documentaries I had seen about the First World War, with their cast of soldiers and politicians walking around too fast. Richard III: aged eleven I nodded in and out of sleep to Olivier’s Gloucester on the telly set at the foot of my bed, his performance merging with my dreams, forever. Julius Caesar: for years afterwards I associated suicide with falling on your sword when dishonour was too much too bear. (Though a little later I became mesmerised by Underground trains, so it turned into a toss-up between the sword and the track. The Shakespearean way hurt more but, because it was slow, gave you more time to make a death scene speech.)
Then I discovered kitchen sink. Saturday Night Theatre, Armchair Theatre, Playhouse, The Wednesday Play. People didn’t often kill themselves in these plays: they seemed to go on living forever in misery. ‘What language are you?’ I asked myself. The same as Shakespeare. And Pinter.

***

Oh, the whiteness of this floor has made me think about borders. What is and what isn’t, or are and aren’t? How things are defined. I’ve read somewhere that a fascination with frontiers is a Celtic one, involving an interest in what cannot be clearly defined: the haze which lies well away from the centre. The fascination of a people who travelled from the heart of Europe towards its edge, indeed towards the edges of the world. I’ve travelled away from it or them often: I’ve stood at many of Europe’s edges, from the cliffs of Dun Aengus to the Marmaris Sea.
It’s poignant that the people who took the Celts’ place at the heart of Europe should have developed such false ideas about racial purity. A people whose lands have been ridden over so many times contain little purity of blood, thank God, yet the Nazis denied their true history, their German and non-German miscegenation. The home sea-ports of colonial and imperial powers convey a more realistic message. I’ve visited many of them, from the docks of Lisbon to those of Tiger Bay, and I’ve seen the welcome mongrels full of human flaws and goodness. Central Europe might have been short on black people, but one visit would have convinced an observant stranger that a lot of Gentiles had Jewish blood in them. The Nazis raged against the evidence like Caliban did, as Oscar Wilde said, when he saw his own image in the mirror. Or looking-glass.

***

When I became a man I heard about a South African academic who proved through DNA testing that all the leading Boer families had African blood in their veins. They tarred and feathered him. At least that’s what I heard.
Once I went to buy a stamp at a post office in Durban. I was always forgetting whether I was blanke or nie-blanke because a blanke sign looks like black after you’ve had a couple of drinks. Anyway, I entered a huge empty room with a partition down the middle, but was immediately told by an Indian sub-postmaster that I was in the wrong part. Apparently I’d walked through the nie-blanke door. ‘No, no, no, you are blanke,’ he said. So I had to exit, walk nearly fifty yards down the street, turn the corner, walk another fifty yards and enter the post office through the blanke door. I found myself in the same huge empty room, but on the other side of the partition, where I was greeted by the same Indian sub-postmaster who sold me a stamp from the other half of the divided counter.
Another thing I did as a man was to visit Dachau. It changed me forever. I arrived in drizzling rain, thinking about my great aunt the Prussian princess, who was really an Englishwoman. (Before the Great War she launched a huge German battleship which was later sunk by her brother-in-law and the Royal Navy.) She and her husband, who pissed off the Kaiser by refusing to fight against the British and running a St John ambulance train instead, spent the war in Berlin, mistrusted by Germans and British alike. Both sides were convinced that she was spying for the other, when in fact she was busily matchmaking between noble Prussian girls and British POWs. Besides this, they were friends of Sir Roger Casement, who left many of his papers with them before he set off on his ill-fated journey home. (Later, my grandparents refused to house these documents in England.)
I stare at the two huts which are supposed to represent the hut-life of Dachau and try to imagine some of my relations there, or relations of friends. I think about the fifty lashes for a spilled cup of coffee. I think about the Berlin satirist who, after spending a long period in a camp, went back on stage in 1945 and said to his audience, ‘Now, as I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted…’ At least I could picture my relations, whereas Jewish friends of mine had no photographic record left of their murdered families.
Some English friends appear beside me, smiling and unaffected by the place because they’re in love. (A few days later they tell me that this was the happiest day of their holiday in Bavaria.) I find it hard to be with them, and so drift away. Sheltering from the rain, I hear an American man’s voice drawling nearby.
‘Are you a Nazi?’ he asks a shaken man.
‘Am I what?’
‘Are you a Nazi?’
Same language, I reflect, but different accent, different stress, different emphasis, different meaning. What the American is really asking is, ‘Are you an Aussie?’ Phew. But the question makes me think. Are you a Nazi? Are you a Nazi? Are you a Nazi? No, I bloody well am not. If there was one thing I had come to know by this stage of my life, it was this: whatever else I might have become, I’m the exact opposite of a Nazi. At least as I understand the meaning of the word. What language are you?

***

‘Editing note from Vladimir Bartok:
Obfuscation would be greater if you end with:
“Incredible how people rewrite history. We didn’t have telly when I was kid.”
And perversion too.
V. B.’

*****

THIRD PART

‘Dr Aadam Aziz, the patriarch in my novel Midnight’s Children, loses his faith and is left with “a hole inside him, a vacancy in a vital inner chamber”. I, too, possess the same God-shaped hole. Unable to accept the unarguable absolutes of religion, I have tried to fill up the hole with literature.’

Salman Rushdie, The Observer, 1989.

*****

SIXTEEN.
THE GATES OF HEAVEN

The gods are what we can never be, but I’m sure that sometimes we make the mistake of thinking we’re them. As I reflect on this, I examine the white paint smeared across my finger, symbol of my folly and mortality. It’s still wet because this seems to be the slowest-drying paint in the world. While wiping it on the grey skull, I wonder if the paint is actually becoming wetter because time is travelling backwards.
Roused from this thought by a loud droning noise which is swiftly followed by crashing, smashing sounds, I realise that Edna is hoovering in the hall, thereby destroying all the vase-chattels lined up earlier by Murphy. I am past caring. All that matters is the safety of my floor.
‘Vladimir!’ I shout. He appears in the doorway. ‘Stop her!’
‘She is hooving too loud!’ he shouts back. ‘Edna, hoove on!’ And he tries to steer her towards the kitchen.
‘Get her to switch it off!’
‘Oh hoove off!’ he yells, disappearing after her.
A terrible crashing sound from the kitchen suggests she has collided with the table and smashed all the glasses. The angry one now appears in the doorway, looking very beautiful and almost smiling. I remember our love-making. You were so wonderful there, I recall, so generous – a true communist.

***

No doctors were present at my birth because it was three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon in early July, and they were all playing golf miles away from the hospital. In our temporarily rented flat down the road, Nanny Gibbs was about to gas my sister Georgie. An inauspicious start to life, you might think, being born on the day your sister dies. As I told you earlier, I had crossed the world in my mother’s haunted womb in order to be born in this hospital just off High Street Kensington (since then converted into several blocks of flats for the rich).
Nanny Gibbs, who had brought up many of my relations, was by now deaf – and with her hearing had gone her sense of smell, and she’d become forgetful too. Having made a cake to celebrate my arrival, she put it in the oven, turned on the gas but forgot to light the burner. The flat soon filled with lethal gas, which Nanny Gibbs failed to notice as Georgie lay in her cot gasping for life. Then, thank God, in walked Aunt Julia, the novelist, who saved both Georgie and Nanny Gibbs. And neither they, we nor her readers were ever allowed to forget it. ‘I saved your life, you know,’ was one of Georgie’s most frequently heard childhood mantras. In The Secret Saint the readers were treated to: ‘Philippa Grenville stepped into that baby’s destiny…’
Meanwhile, my mother was growing more irritated with the doctorless hospital as she hadn’t expected them to bugger off like that, so she discharged us the very next day. (She probably suspected that Georgie wouldn’t last long if left alone with Nanny Gibbs.) The flat had been rented for the time it would take my father to sort out his affairs after spending many years living in the Far East. And it was just a stone’s throw from the convent my mother attended as a child. Aunt Julia was a pupil there too: the convent’s kitchen ceiling still bore the stain of a pancake she tossed during a cookery class in the 1920s. ‘A best-selling author did that,’ the nuns would tell the new girls as they pointed towards what the new girls thought was heaven. ‘She was a better writer than cook.’ Some mean-spirited critics in London did not agree.
When we arrived at the flat, the smell of gas had gone, and I was handed over to the care of Nanny Gibbs who, though we didn’t know it then, would succeed in accidentally gassing herself to death within a year. After that I would pass into the safer hands of her former nursery maid Nellie but, for now, I was all Nanny Gibbs’s. This was my introduction to life, and it seemed full of pitfalls – but so had the womb. And it wouldn’t be long before my mother was dragged for a mile along that Oxfordshire lane, her foot caught in the stirrup, her head dragging along the tarmac.

***

‘You can’t be an imperial power without later becoming a post-imperial power. You can’t be a colonial power without becoming a post-colonial power.’ I am addressing Bartok.
‘And you can’t be sexual power without becoming post-sexual power,’ he adds helpfully. ‘Especially you!’
‘Projecting again?’ I suggest, as we are obviously talking about his own fear here.
‘All sex is projection.’
‘Therefore,’ I continue, ignoring this side-track, ‘it’s no good people in post-colonial countries complaining about immigration, is it?’
‘Or refugees,’ adds Bartok, looking over his shoulder to see what Murphy is up to.
‘The arguments can drive you mad.’
‘People are mad anyway.’
‘A sane man is driven mad by injustice, said Swift, but he was only echoing Socrates.’
‘When love goes wrong, people are driven out of their minds. Look at that lovely woman who is too good for you.’
‘Hurt pride?’
‘Logical conclusion to your argument would be reaction against unfairness by you.’
‘Hurt pride.’
Gaby has taught me that love is love, that you can’t be selective about it. You either have a capacity for it, or you don’t. If you don’t, all you feel affection for is a stereotype, making you a human sensor inside the human blizzard. ‘We create our own monsters,’ she has told me more than once.

***

As soon as I was able to crawl, I headed for the open sea, drawing huge crowds at beach resorts. With a determined look in my eye I waded fearlessly into the surf. Photographs from that time show me beaming at the waves or face to face with Lila, the proud Pekinese, on the sandy shore. Later I acquired a terror of the sea which remained for years, and I became scared of crowds. I also acquired and developed a narrative flow to describe my condition, never failing to do anything without simultaneously commenting on it in my head. ‘He became scared of the sea… he realised that he was frightened of crowds, although he didn’t feel fear about the usual things in life… Slowly he sipped his strong tea and drifted back to Ancient Rome, to Greece, to Mediaeval York, to Mexico, to the open Steppes, to the dark Cave… He tied his shoelaces and left the room, skipping, playing with the shapes of the words in his head… He despised the maths master… He didn’t feel competitive in the classroom and never listened, counting the letters in words instead, making up new words from their initial letters, scrambling words: drows, sdrow, sword… He never cared what the teacher thought, only what Shakespeare might have to say to him – or Pinter… The motto of his family’s regiment was “Second to none”, a dangerous motto which sometimes stopped him trying at all… By the time the Offertory came, he was already bored, and drifting off…’ Whatever unlikely career I chose for myself, I was going to be a writer as well. Soldier and writer, barrister and writer, actor and writer, traveller and writer. There were loads of writers in the family, starting with the man himself, Henry Fielding. My cousin Susannah slept during the day and wrote by night, when she also hoovered her bedroom at Wetheby, much to my Aunt Diana’s annoyance. And those who didn’t write, talked. Especially Aunt Julia. In those days she had no idea that her status as a novelist would be eclipsed later by her daughter, Emma. Then Aunt Julia, forgotten by the publishing world and the critics, tried to persuade me to turn one of her short stories into a film script.
Film had long been my medium. To this day I can’t remember whether the first movie I saw was Reach For The Sky, Singin’ In The Rain, Davy Crockett or The Great Caruso, in which Mario Lanza, as Caruso, was deeply affected by war, sitting up in his sick-bed and crying like a girl. Bit of a sissy, I thought. Of course, if he’d been a complete sissy, they’d never have made a film about him.
As a child I lived events through a camera in my head and saw most things in film terms, believing that cameras were everywhere and not having a clue where cinema ended and life began. Whatever you did was recorded on film, I told myself, since cameras could see into any room or open space, catching your secret acts anywhere, focusing on you from space. God was a cameraman, not sparing you even when you went to the lavatory. ‘We’re being watched,’ I used to tell people, ‘believe me.’ How right I was, only getting the tense muddled and calling it the present when it was, in fact, the very near future.

***

‘Now, I have suggestion for your problem,’ says Bartok, eyeing me in my unpainted corner, ‘so you should listen to intelligent man talking.’
‘When one comes along, I will.’
‘Very funny. Happy birthday!’ Suddenly he looks concerned. ‘‘Meine gōō-‘
His voice is drowned by Edna hoovering towards him, and by Mottram Duckworth standing beside him in the doorway, shouting something at me while waving his ruined, soggy notebook. I can’t make out the words. Murphy appears next, also waving something: a writ. Then the angry one, saying nothing and just staring at me with her lovely eyes. They have crowded the doorway by entering the exit. Suddenly they look aghast as their eyes focus on something behind me on the balcony. I turn to see that it is Summers, dressed as Superman, mooning. Duckworth exits in disgust, at last leaving the building. When he passes below, Summers hurls abuse from the balcony and pisses down onto him. Time stands still as I stare at his mooning arse and watch the golden shower cascade over the brick and stone towards the gnomic poet below. In fact, time freezes and I am convinced that even the insane clock hands must have stopped by now because I am witnessing something happening in terrible slow motion which could undo my world. Something happening so slowly that it is almost imperceptible. Summers is falling backwards, jutting out his bum towards my jammed French windows, his naked buttocks closing on the panes of speckled glass, the cascade of his urinary shower rising and falling above him in a golden parabolic curve.
And then the ghastly event occurs. With a deafening noise he crashes into my whitened room, arse first, scattering shattered glass across the floor. Blood and urine splash over the shimmering space and sprinkle onto the speckled existential mirrors. After a momentary stillness, Summers groans and shakes himself, muttering ‘Cor blimey.’ He spots my unopened can of beer and helps himself, scattering foaming liquid as he breaks into it. At that moment, Edna’s hoover roars across the floor towards him, knocking Bartok onto the painted surface as she goes. Murphy steps forward, writ in hand, and the angry one rushes to help the mildly injured Summers. I feel a lifetime’s work going down the drain. ‘And Time, a maniac scattering dust,’ I say to myself, remembering Tennyson, ‘And Life, a fury slinging flame…’
‘Friendship’s full of dregs,’ said Apemantus.

***

God worked in a curious way. My existence was due to the power of prayer. After her miscarriages, my mother was told she’d never have another baby, so everyone in the family started praying to St Jude and got me. I don’t remember anyone ever mentioning St Jude’s name during the whole of my childhood. Bit of a taboo. Double-edged sword. Mixed blessing.
Not only did God work in a curious way, but His place in the hierarchy of things was hard to pin down. Among the family icons. I found it hard to tell whether He was senior to the Queen, the Pope and my grandmother, all of whom were held in huge esteem by my relations. For quite a time I felt He came third, just below the Queen and two down from my grandmother. Placing the Pope fourth didn’t stop us being very Catholic, though. Especially Aunt Julia, who was keen on the letter of Catholicism though rarely able to back it up with Biblical evidence since she was a lazy reader. Given to great rages if anyone was late for Mass on Sundays, she would blow her car horn and scream furiously: ‘We’re going to be late for bloody Mass!’ (Pronounced like arse. And Catholics were Carthlics.) Two of her children remained Catholics – Rupert becoming a Knight of Malta – and the other two turned atheist, producing offspring described by Aunt Julia as ‘little heathens’.
Aunt Julia was the only person in history to receive hate mail from Mother Teresa, who had been driven mad by her attempts to raise money for the dying in Calcutta. Mother Teresa told Aunt Julia that she didn’t want independent fund-raising organised in England, whereupon she was informed by Aunt Julia that her values were wrong and that the dying of Calcutta did indeed need independent funding from Oxford. A hefty correspondence followed, ending with Mother Teresa’s subtext telling Aunt Julia to bugger off. The family heard a lot about Mother Teresa’s perfidy. The readers got ‘Bride Of Satan – how an evil little Central European nun fooled the world and killed the dying.’

***

And then she’s there. Here, like an apparition, my saviour. My guardian angel. My Leonora, my Gaby. She becomes the angry one, and all the anger disappears. I am filled with desire. My desire is so sensitive that it feels like an open wound in the South, like flayed flesh awaiting ointment and bandages, and I know that she will nurse me. As we cross the whitened landscape towards each other, I am bursting with love. Love is the essence of my being. My love is purified from the darkness of my lust, my longing purged of low desire, my mind freed from shame, thanks to Nizami’s text. You imagine that you see me, but I no longer exist: what remains is the beloved. Our lips swell with passion as we kiss.
Love. It’s madness. It’s pathological. It defies reason. Love makes you throw away your life. Your wife. Your family. It makes you kill. Wouldn’t you just kill for it? And sex. A return to infancy. The fascination of body parts and fluids, though this time they’re someone else’s. It strips you naked, throwing class out of the window – or at least it should. You’ve got to go beyond your class, your race, your taste, to mingle your personas. To enter the twilight zone, to trigger your sensors, to make the floor the ceiling. To give, give, give because taking is such sweet joy. It keeps you in tune with heaven.

***

My earliest memory is hard to pin down. I remember odd flashes, like the time I was run over by a pram in Harley Street, and how the girl pushing it looked at me with fury, as though it had been my fault. Perhaps she was in shock, perhaps not. Another time, Nellie took me to stay somewhere near Newbury, and that weekend seems so remote that it might have taken place in the time of the Druids. But one memory stands out, and though it may not be my earliest, it seems the most cohesive, if that makes sense.
It’s my birthday, and we’re having a picnic in Queen Mary’s Gardens: me, my mother, my sisters Charlotte and Georgie, Nellie, Sieglinde the au pair, Monica the governess and the Pekes, Lila and Topsy. I‘m a camera as usual, recording my godfather’s arrival as he enters from the Inner Circle and passes through the huge black and gold gates. And although I‘m pleased to see him, I can’t take my eyes off those magnificent gates. I’d heard people talking about The Gates of Heaven, and these ones were obviously modelled on them. After that, whenever I heard the gates of heaven mentioned, I formed a mental picture of those gates in Queen Mary’s Gardens, glowing in my memory, infused with the patronage of God and leading directly to Him. Wrapped around Queen Mary’s Gardens was Regent’s Park, where I frequently went with Nellie. The boating lake was like the sea, or Hiawatha’s Gitche Gumee, with an island in the middle which I never visited. Swimming around it were large grey cygnets I took for burglars: whenever I heard about domestic break-ins, I imagined dust-coloured swans flying into people’s houses. Best of all, however, was the small round pond with canoes and motor boats. I’d have to drive myself around in one of these motor boats because they always made Nellie feel seasick, so she stayed on dry land. When I was older I took a day off school and cycled to the park to see Goldie the golden eagle who kept escaping from the zoo. He’d sit for hours on the branch of a tall tree, ignoring the zoo keepers’ attempts to recapture him and apparently doing exactly what he wanted with his life.
I used to walk along the canal beside the park and think how boring the rows of anglers looked gazing into the water, munching their sandwiches in the drizzle. I thought it would be a good idea to release sharks into the canal and watch their reactions when they saw the dorsal fins approaching their lines.
Sometimes on my walks I heard the lions growling from the zoo. I got a shock inside it once. As I walked past the leopards’ cage, I noticed one of them staring at me and licking its lips.

*****

SEVENTEEN.
STRANGE DOOR

A playground inside a graveyard lay between our house and Regent’s Park, its slides and swings set next to the graves. In fact, the old gravestones seemed to be part of the playing area. Not surprising that my psychiatrist friend told me later in life that this experience had made me unable to distinguish comedy from tragedy.
At one end of our street was Lord’s Cricket Ground – a kind of heaven – and at the other a hospital run by nuns, where all my earliest illnesses were diagnosed and my injuries staunched. In its courtyard was a chapel once used in a film. A man ran up the steps and entered the chapel doorway. Cut to a sumptuous bedroom with Brigitte Bardot lying naked on a bed. (The nuns never knew because they weren’t allowed to visit the cinema in those days – as my father learnt when he offered to take one of them out in gratitude for her nursing care after he’d broken his leg, hunting.) This bit of film grammar taught me something: cinema obviously went beyond camera movement and narrative flow. Thinking about the man’s response to finding Brigitte Bardot lying naked in a chapel, I realised there must be something which I would later come to know as subtext.
I learned more about it one day at Lord’s when a little middle-aged man tried to pick me up.
Discovering the fundamentals of camera movement through my father’s binoculars as I followed the players and the ball – they even had a battery-operated zoom lens – I was interrupted by the man:
‘I wonder if you’d mind answering some questions…’
‘Er, yes…’
‘Perhaps you could tell me what you do when you go to the lavatory.’
‘I don’t think my mother would like me to.’
‘I don’t see why not. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind.’
Trapped by politeness, I left. Obviously I understood subtext even better than he did.

***

We smear the floor with our bodies. The paint smears us. We smear our moisture on the painted floor. We gambol like friendly dolphins, and dive like sharks. We writhe, bump, collide, entwine. I enter all her orifices. Entrances and exits are interchangeable. No compass is needed, nor Duckworth’s feculent caryopses. We lodge our faces in the depths of heavens. We tramp through blizzards, our eyes sealed tight. Our extremities swell. Tenses converge. The sea is wet. Is, was and forever shall be wet. It’s lovemaking as a verb. And it’s fucking wonderful.

***

My reward for failing the Common Entrance three times – scoring fewer marks on each occasion – was being sent to the Jesuit prison up North. My psychiatrist friend told me I obviously didn’t want to go away to school at all; everyone else said I was a lazy slacker or an idle loafer or inept. (‘It’s because you won’t eat fish,’ said Nellie loyally. It was true: I wouldn’t eat any fish other than smoked salmon.) Actually, the truth was in all of these, but there was something else: I hadn’t lost my terrible contempt for schools of any sort, nor my outrage at their injustices. They simply forced me to dwell elsewhere in my mind. And this was before I’d experienced the Jesuits, who’d punish the whole class for one boy’s crime. (Usually Raymond Rivers’.)
Just before I sat the Common Entrance for the first time, I suffered the first of migraine attacks which would recur for years and years. Nightmare. I lay in the dark for two weeks, often screaming in agony. I wasn’t even thirteen, but if someone had given me a gun I would have blown my brains out. I even searched my father’s study for a revolver.
‘It’s all psychological,’ said my sister Charlotte.
Its cause might well have been psychological – though, in fact, it wasn’t – but it still hurt.
The record for a migraine was five weeks. I hardly noticed the pain in my toe which had crushed audibly because the migraine was stabbing into my eye like a stiletto knife all the time the toe was injured. Throbbing and stabbing night and day for five weeks. Add to that the agony of anticipating the next throb, the next stab. As a result, I developed a huge capacity to withstand pain, and later a system of breathing which eventually defeated the migraines. But not before I’d lost a year of my life through them.

***

I knew all the men working on the back gate at Lord’s. Mostly elderly, they let me into all the matches free, including Tests. On Test Match days, when the streets seethed with supporters and huge queues formed outside, the men waved me through. It was like having a season ticket to heaven. Once inside, I could make thruppence a bottle collecting empty Coca-Cola bottles. My record was seventy. It was probably the last time in my life that I made a profit, since I was destined to become a bit of a spendthrift and very unmotivated by cash. (The psychiatrist said I associated money with cruelty. At five I’d scooped some ants into my new wallet and immediately afterwards panicked about imprisoning them. Hurriedly I emptied them out onto the garden paving stones and vowed to never capture or kill another animal. My wallet’s never been particularly full since, and it’s empty now.)
I ran up huge food bills at the village shop while I attended the Jesuit prison because the school food was so disgusting. A survey of meals at 218 British public schools put the Jesuit prison at No. 217, which meant that somewhere out there was a place with even more disgusting food than ours. Unbelievable.
Aunt Julia’s late husband had been at the Jesuit prison. He died an alcoholic. So had my great aunt’s Prussian Prince, who later pissed off the Kaiser by refusing to fight the British. He loved the place – like Raymond, he found it a bit of a haven – but in those days he’d been allowed to keep a couple of hunters and enjoy himself.
About that time my mother, loyally determined to find out why I was underachieving, took me for an IQ test. Instantly I hated the woman doing the test and had a row with her. She wanted me to put some pictures together to make a coherent story and wouldn’t listen to me when I told her I could see various narrative possibilities. Unfortunately I’d seen Fellini’s 8½ that week and my life had changed. I was determined to become a film director, and anything was possible artistically. Although I refused to co-operate at all for the second half of the test, my score came out okay, so my mother was pleased to have proof that I wasn’t an imbecile. I thought the idea of sticking a number on your intelligence was extraordinary: emerging okay after only doing half the test was bizarre. But I wasn’t out of danger yet, because I could easily be labelled lazy, which would mean more work. I had no objection to doing what interested me – but that or those was or were only English, History and French. I simply refused to tackle anything I found boring. And there was a lot of that at school.
Eventually it was discovered that I was a cross-lateral, whatever the hell that meant. Nobody seemed to know very much about it, or how to deal with it. I wondered if it was the reason I played about so much with the sounds and shapes of words in my head, jumbling them up, juggling with them – but I didn’t ask anyone, of course. Apparently the wrong eye was dominant when I read. It seemed obvious to me that all I needed to do was read backwards, which I often did anyway thanks to my hang-up about the structure of words. Or, I thought, I could just take up Arabic.
My mother was determined to tell my form master about my being a cross-lateral.
‘He won’t want to hear about that,’ complained my father, convinced I was just an idler.
‘Oh, my son’s a cross-lateral as well,’ said the form master.
But he didn’t know what to do about it either.
Enlightened times.

***

Lovemaking is a form of madness – and an escape from it. Several issues are involved. There is no need to kill off one another, though we are dying of pleasure. Drub drub drub. I am a car driven by Michelangelo. Gliding down a beautiful alley, I move on wheels of air, hurtling backwards and forwards again, my loins motional, my limbs co-ordinatedly semaphoric. I am lodged in the South, under the Northern sun of her face. Her bum is the moon in the sun of my face, shimmying, shimmering, firm. The front of her South: moist, like tropical fruit. Tropical sunshine taste, beyond my own taste. Talking of Michelangelo, she makes the verb a beautiful act. We’re moon and sun. There’s no humiliation here. We’re not dangerous to one another. We have no need of S & M, nor holograms. Nor human sensors. Nor the cocks of Belfast boys. There’s no wanking into socks and queuing for Confession. No cruelty, no war, no Bosnia, no Gulf, no Serbia – or whatever the latest one is called. No useless mantras, no gub-dub-drub. No inventories, nor infantries. No ‘Marvellous, darling, marvellous,’, nor simply ‘giving her a portion.’ Here there is fuck and double-fuck, love and triple-love. A found language. A hidden number. A discovered number. A mega-twinning number, a winning number. A sublime numerical calculus. A quadruple-joy. The marriage of Venus and penis. The birth of the day, the death of night. The rising of the sun, the downing of the moon. The sun in my face, the moon at my back. Here is my journey’s end, my butt, my one true heaven. I am home, I am home, I am home. If there is Paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this. Ah…ah…aaahh… Aaaaaaahhhhhhhh… An exhalation, the letting out of breath – like Yahweh or Dieu… Aaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh…

***

I couldn’t lie, which left me at a disadvantage in a place like the Jesuit prison up North. When I was a child I tried lying to Nellie once and it felt so awkward and unnatural that I never did it again. I’d broken the knob on a chest of drawers, and Nellie simply asked me if I’d done it.
‘No.’
The earth shook inside me. It felt completely wrong, so I decided: Never Again.
Now this clashed with Raymond Rivers’ philosophy, as you can imagine. In my first term the maths master asked us to put our hands up if we hadn’t visited an exhibition about Pythagoras in the library. Mine was the only hand to go up, and he hurled abuse at me.
‘Are you mad?’ asked Rivers and Summers afterwards.
‘But if he’d asked me to describe the exhibition, I’d have had to tell more lies.’
‘Exactly,’ said Rivers.
Now, I’m not including in this what we say about sex, of course, or the books we claim to have read when we haven’t. That’s a different kind of lying.
PS – Most of the men responsible for my moral welfare at this stage of my life were, many years later, arrested for boy-fondling. Retrospectively, that is. I don’t know if this shocked me more than their pretending to believe in God when clearly they didn’t.

***

‘What is truth?’ Pilate asked Jesus in a deeply philosophical moment just hours before a death which changed the world – and art – forever. (Though James Joyce claimed the Italians’ contribution to art had been only to illustrate a few pages from the New Testament. And a friend of his, Madame Yasushi Tanaka, said Joyce had only genius, not taste.)

***

I became an atheist in a Religious Instruction class.
‘What is God?’ asked the Jesuit who would end up at Cambridge an atheist himself.
Blimey. I’d never met a Jesuit who wanted to discuss that one. Or even a Catholic.
‘Is He something abstract? Like goodness?’
In an extended family like mine, you didn’t get this kind of reasoning. Lots of books, reading and talking, but no reasoning. Or very little. And because of this, my defences fell fast. As soon as I heard his words, I realised the game was up. The question had been asked, and within moments God – once so tangible and not at all abstract – had ceased to exist…
I was fifteen. The same age as Salman Rushdie when he discovered his atheism in a Latin class at school. (PS. He went on to bosh his God-shaped hole image later with ‘I used to say: “there is a God-shaped hole in me.” For a long time I stressed the absence, the hole. Now I find it is the shape which has become more important.’) Now what does that mean? What the hell does that mean? While in hiding he obviously spent too long in his equivalent of my white room in World’s End – and don’t forget the Ayatollah’s fatwa was proclaimed on the most loving day of the year, St Valentine’s. Writers go mad eventually, you know – even the best of them. Look at Gore Vidal espousing the cause of Timothy McVeigh, murderer of so many children, or V. S. Naipaul and the Hindu fascist BJP. (Though Hindu fascists thought he’d come to his senses at last. PPS – They turn particularly nasty on St Valentine’s Day, when members of Shiv Sena like to attack people buying love tokens for their lovers and loved ones. PPPS – Nellie always used to send us Valentine cards in case nobody else did.)

***

‘You’re the most useless cadet we’ve ever had in this Corps,’ said the Colonel at my Court Martial, or whatever it was: a trial of some kind. ‘And if you ever attempt to get a Commission in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, I’ll make it my personal duty to see that you fail.’
I was sixteen, and facing five charges: losing my uniform (I’d thrown it away), appearing on parade incorrectly dressed, refusing to get my hair cut, appearing on parade with my hair too long – and finally, telling the schoolboy sergeant charging me to fuck off.
‘Would you like to hear what the Brigadier had to say about you when you went up for officer selection?’ A mean look comes into the Colonel’s eye. ‘…and furthermore,’ said the Brigadier, ‘Cadet Harper is a BORE!’
Charming, I thought. I was only trying to be polite to the old booby. (I’d read a lot of Evelyn Waugh that term.)
This Colonel was always angry, and he was always angry with me because he’d once heard me say something rude about the Royal Artillery. The previous year we’d said goodbye to a sweet old Infantry Colonel who probably should have retired years earlier. I don’t know where they got this Gunner from: he just appeared one day – probably from Hell.
After a couple of years in the Corps, the CCF, I could shoot well but I still couldn’t map-read or compass-read. When given a squad to lead over the moors one wintry day, I simply held my finger in the breeze, pointed us in the opposite direction and got us home to the trucks. A bit of luck. In the drum and fife band, only two out of twenty-eight fife players could produce a tune while the rest of us held the fife in front of our faces and whistled. At the Annual General Inspection we were made to march round the outer perimeter of the parade ground so the visiting General wouldn’t hear how awful we were.
That year the headmaster – one of my lifelong models of evil, possibly the Devil himself – a convert known universally (and throughout Heaven, I shouldn’t wonder) as Pig, accompanied the General, holding a huge black umbrella over him, with the Gunner from Hell lurking behind. They stopped at Valentine Summers, a notoriously ill-disciplined cadet.
‘And what do you think of the CCF?’ asked the General.
‘I don’t think, Sir – I’m in the CCF,’ answered Summers, fainting at the General’s feet. From the perimeter of the parade ground a cheer and whistle went up.
‘You’re dishonourably discharged from the CCF!’ screams the Gunner from Hell at me.
‘Does this mean I don’t have to attend the annual camp in Herefordshire, Sir?’
‘Yes! It means you won’t have anything to do with the Combined Cadet Force ever again!’
Actually, it means that I can party in London when everyone else is at the camp.
‘Dismissed!’
I march away out of step, the way I came in, reflecting on how Gunners can’t get subtext. (Napoleon was one, don’t forget.)
Next day, after bidding Summers and Rivers goodbye, I’m driven away by taxi, my parents having decided it’s time for me to move on to the next prison. I pass the two long lakes fringing the imposing avenue, swing left by the statue of the Blessed Virgin and exit through the gates. I turn back to look at them. They’re nothing like the gates of Heaven. I’m free again, at least for the Christmas holidays and until I start at the new place in January. I’ve escaped from the Jesuits and any chance of joining the Army (or so I think). I feel triumphant. Once again I’ve broken the pattern of my life in a way that for many people would be a catastrophe.
Naqba.

***

‘Editing note from Vladimir Bartok:
You have not made Jesuits sufficiently perverse yet. Boy-fondling is not enough. They should become more like Communists – and you.
V. B.’

*****

EIGHTEEN.
MAY MORNING

How much joy will Gaby bring me? How much of it will I take to her? Will our orgasms endure? How much love can I give her? Will I discover her hidden number? Will I be prepared to die for her? Will we have children? Will we take a chance on helping to further the human race together? What would I teach my children? How would I bring them up? What beliefs would I want them to hold? What beliefs should they hold? (I said earlier that both God and morality are human constructs.) What does our future hold? Is there a future? Will we achieve unity?
I am optimistic. I have to be.
Here’s another story about Raymond Rivers. And three of his friends, all of whom are or were people’s sons.

***

‘You don’t think I’ve put on weight, do you?’ Oliver asks a total stranger who hurries nervously along Oxford High Street to escape him.
Oliver, six feet three and seriously concerned about his weight, stops a passing Grey Friar.
‘Do you think I’ve got too fat?’
‘Come with me to matins, my dear.’
Oliver looks alarmed and hurries to Rayburgers instead.
‘Stop nicking the Pepsis!’ he shouts at Paddy Jamal behind the counter.
‘Right, boss.’ Paddy points at the ceiling. ‘Raymond’s back.’
Oliver steps over several weeks’ worth of unopened bills on the stairs and goes up to the office. Raymond, back at his desk for the first time in four months, his feet stretched across a mound of neglected paperwork, is in a state of gloom.
‘I’ve given up believing in God,’ he says, tossing a stale orange in the air.
‘Why?’
‘Well…’ he catches the orange and inspects it. ‘Just suppose this was the world…’
Oliver gazes at the shrivelled globe.
‘…and I was God,’ continues Raymond, ‘and I wanted some market research done on its possibilities as a viable planet…’
‘Yes…?’
‘…and the market research people came back to me and said: “Well, you have an animal here…”’ He points to an imaginary dot on the orange. ‘”…who’s eaten by a bigger animal who’s then eaten by Man who then blows himself up with a nuclear bomb…”’ He replaces the orange on the desk. ‘Well, I’d ask for another report.’
Oliver looks at him.
‘And that’s why you’ve stopped believing in God?’
‘Yes.’
‘Do you think I’ve put on weight?’ Suddenly Oliver notices a sad figure at the other end of the room, gazing out of the window at the bus depot below. ‘Hello, Dickie.’
‘Richard.’
‘I tried ringing you yesterday, Richard, about standing security for me…’ He watches Richard wince. ‘But your phone had been cut off.’
‘They’re digging up the road, that’s why!’ snaps Richard. ‘The workmen cut through the cable.’
‘Bollocks!’ yells Raymond. ‘It’s been off for weeks – I tried ringing you from up North.’
‘Not true,’ Richard protests weakly.
‘Dickie’s feeling very sorry for himself,’ says Raymond, ‘now that his cheques have caught up with him.’ Richard winces again. ‘By the way, Dickie, you’ll be getting a letter from the investment advisers. I told them you own a three-million quid estate in Norfolk. They were quite impressed. Can’t remember if I’ve made you a baronet or an earl this time.’
‘Aren’t I interesting enough as Mister?’
‘Owning a three million quid estate makes you interesting, doesn’t it?’
A brief pounding on the stairs, and the door flies open. In charges Matthew, a no-expenses-paid freelance photographer and another former inmate of the Jesuit prison up North, though a couple of years junior to Raymond and me. He squeezes something in his hand, making his colourful bow-tie spin like a manic windmill, slapping his chin.
‘I’ve just been photographing May Morning from a two-seater plane!’ He brandishes his camera. ‘I hired it for seventy quid,’ (this is the Eighties) ‘and my fee from the Observer is a hundred.’
‘Was it worth it?’
‘Yes. I paid by cheque. Hello, Raymond – why are you back?’
‘Because I’m not an investment adviser anymore. But you’ll be getting a letter about a plantation you own in St Vincent.’
‘How did you lose the job this time?’
Raymond has been used to this question for years.
‘First they found out I wasn’t ill when I said I was…’ The other three gather round. ‘Second, they discovered I’d written my own references…’
‘Good one!’ shouts Matthew, attaching a zoom lens to his camera. ‘How did they find out?’
‘I crashed the company car on a day I was meant to be off sick. I was doing another job. They rang my uncle who was supposed to have been one of my referees. He told them he thought I was in Java – that was the excuse I’d used for not going to a family party.
Click.
‘Who was your other referee?’
‘Prince Andrew. They were very impressed by his enthusiasm.’
Click click.
‘Was the car badly damaged?’
‘Yes. And so was the one I crashed into. Unfortunately, it was full of detectives. I should be in court today but I’ve written to say I’m ill.
Click click click click.
‘Where’s the car now?’
‘There’s a story. Half the office turned up to reclaim it. Unfortunately it wasn’t insured. I’d persuaded them to do it through my uncle’s insurance firm…’
‘But your uncle’s an oboist.’
‘Quite.’ He looks wistful. ‘Do you know, I’m more in love with Susie than ever but I have to keep visiting a woman in London called Triple Eight. She’s a big girl. I found her advert in a magazine. She swings from the ceiling. It’s re-enforced.’
Matthew’s bow-tie twirls. He loves to hear about the seamier side of Raymond’s sex-life. (He had a fairly stormy one himself at the Jesuit prison up North, but that’s in the past.) However, he’s got another assignment to deal with now.
‘Could I borrow your car, Dickie?’
‘It’s being mended.’
‘Bollocks!’ shouts Raymond. ‘It’s been reclaimed. Am I the only one here with any sense of pride about his debts? Have the rest of you no sense of honour?’
They look at each other.
‘Mr Universe has come to town and I’m photographing him. I wanted to drive him down to the Cherwell Boat House. What about your car, Oliver?’
‘I’m off to the Cash and Carry.’
‘There’s been a lot less cash than carry while I’ve been away… My real downfall was the death of the same relation twice. I was taking quite a lot of time off and I killed the same grandmother again within a week.’
‘Couldn’t you have said your other grandmother was the second one?’
‘Oh no, I had to keep one of them alive because I’d arranged for the firm to advise her on investing the millions she’d made from selling her non-existent family diamonds.’
‘What are you going to do now?’
‘I’m going to sell rechargeable batteries.’
‘What does that mean?’ (They were a novelty in the Eighties.)
‘It means people have to pay twice. Let’s go and have breakfast at Brown’s.’
‘We’ll never get in on May Morning.’
‘We’ll get in.’ Raymond puts his arm around Richard. ‘Cheer up, Dickie. Most of your creditors think you’re in the South of France.’
‘I haven’t got any creditors.’
‘There, there…’
He leads Richard down the bill-spattered stairs. Matthew turns to Oliver.
‘That’s quite a time Raymond’s been having,’ he says.
‘Certainly is.’
‘Is it all true?’
Maybe, but the time scale doesn’t fit.’
‘What do you mean?’
Oliver looks at him knowingly.
‘It happened four months ago.’
‘What’s he been doing since?’
‘He’s been in Warrington Gaol,’ says Oliver before shooting down the stairs.
Stunned, Matthew grips the banister.
‘What?’
But the staircase has become a void, except for the unopened bills, the dust and the summonses from assorted magistrates’ courts.

***

‘Paddy,’ says Oliver, ‘lend us a tenner.’
‘Right, boss.’
He hands him the ten-pound note he’s just taken from a customer.
‘Your wages should be more regular now that Raymond’s back.’
‘Yes, boss,’ says Paddy without conviction.
Oliver joins the other two in the street. Matthew catches up as a workman revs his drill and others look on.
‘We’ll drive,’ Oliver says grandly.
Four minutes later the car pulls up outside Brown’s at the start of the Woodstock Road. A long queue of May Morning revellers is taking up much of the pavement.
‘Hello, everyone,’ says Raymond, beaming at the crowd. ‘Lovely to see you all. We’re the new owners.’
Matthew twirls his bow-tie and they enter.
‘A table for Sir Richard, please.’
A waitress leads them across the huge restaurant to a dais in the corner.
‘Nothing too fattening for me, darling,’ Oliver says to her.
‘There’s Mr Universe!’ shouts Matthew, spotting his vast bulk across the room and leading the others towards his table.
Mr Universe is surrounded by body-builders of both sexes. He and Matthew agree to do the photo-shoot later at Magdalen Bridge.
‘We’ll call it Punting With Mr Universe, says Matthew.
‘Do you think I should worry about my figure?’ asks Oliver.
‘Yes,’ says Mr Universe.
They sit at their table on the dais.
‘Do you know,’ says Raymond, ‘once I ate some magic mushrooms, and they made me feel like I was turning into a woman. I even started to fondle myself like one. You know, breasts and things…’
‘Good God.’
‘Fuck – we’ve got to leave. Now!’
Raymond has spotted a creditor across the room. They all get up, used to this.
‘Sorry, sorry…’ Raymond says to their waitress. ‘Urgent meeting.’ They exit. ‘All going very well,’ he assures the people in the queue. ‘You’ll soon be inside.’
Four minutes later Oliver drops them outside Rayburgers and drives off to the Cash and Carry. The others are just about to enter when there’s a terrible screech of car tyres, and a large black Jaguar skids to a halt in front of their knees, pinning all three of them to the plate glass window. Two large men get out.
‘Hey, Burgerking – where the fuck do you think you’re going?’
Thinking fast, Raymond points to the workmen digging up the road.
‘I’ve come to see them, as a matter of fact. They’re going to do some work for me.’
The workmen, who have stopped drilling for the moment, look on with interest. Raymond smiles at them and nods.
‘Be with you in a minute, lads!’ he calls.
Four of the workmen start walking towards him. The two large men jump back into the Jaguar and drive off.
‘We’ll be seeing you later,’ shouts one of them through the open window.
One of the workmen calls to Raymond.
‘You’re the cunt who owes my brother two hundred quid for the work he did on your counter!’
Raymond swallows.
‘Good heavens! Didn’t my manager pay him? He’s hopeless. I’ve been away, you see… Tell you what, you’ll catch him at the Cash and Carry if you pop round there now.’
‘He’d better be there,’ says the workman.
The four of them head off in the direction of the Cash and Carry. Raymond looks relieved.
‘Let’s go and have breakfast at George’s in the Covered Market,’ He taps on the window and calls to Paddy Jamal. ‘Don’t nick anything!’
Paddy gives the thumbs-up sign as they begin their journey to the Covered Market. Raymond turns to Matthew.
‘Will they take a cheque to hire a four-seater plane?’ he asks. ‘And are you allowed to take a dog in one?’

*****

NINETEEN.
THE FRIENDLY ONES

‘Rupert’s put me up for membership of another club,’ said my cousin-through-marriage Edward, aged sixty-two. ‘I had to fill in a form. It had a section called Career or Life or something. I mentioned the two months I spent in the family shipping office when I was twenty-one – and I couldn’t think of anything else to say.’
This was one of my childhood role models. Good-looking and fun, he seemed like the ideal father to me, though his own children’s lives turned out oddly. People said that Cameron ran guns and cocaine in Ecuador (probably with Raymond’s real father, who did much the same after he stopped being a military attaché in London). One day at my prep school we were asked to pray for Cameron’s soul as he’d been killed in a road accident in Quito. Road accident my arse – he’d been shot robbing a bank. His sister Emily rode elephants in a circus in Dubrovnik. After that, she and her husband grew sunflowers in Sicily, but they wilted. Then they reared pigs in Liberia until they all died of a mystery disease (hunger, said a cynical aunt). Nobody was sure what Lizzie got up to: she drifted off to remote places for long periods and returned without telling the usual travellers’ tales. But everyone knew about Charlie…
At eighteen he started travelling around the world – and then he couldn’t stop. He circled the globe for ten years, quite unable to break the rhythm of his voyage. When at last he did, he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to be a pilot or a priest, so he alternated between the two. While a novice at a monastery in the Sierra Nevada he was made a bishop by a visiting Laotian cardinal. Next year he was flying planes across the Andes for Cameron’s outfit. The year after that he was a missionary among the Bende of Nigeria.
Role models, all. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t imagine myself with a normal job. There were no male relations on my mother’s side who had ever seriously worked, other than Henry Fielding, who took up the law because writing paid so badly. Occasionally a speculation was attempted. A great uncle was sent to South America to make his fortune. He wired from Buenos Aires to say that he was shipping home five hundred polo stallions he’d bought for breeding. When his father met the cargo at Southampton he found they were all geldings. For generations the head of the family traditionally kept the fortunes afloat by marrying two heiresses each – appropriate, therefore, that their crest should be a double-headed eagle. (Though a vulture might have been more apt.)
My Aunt Diana’s husband William tried working once, dealing in antiques with a friend, James Hathaway. They only bought items which Uncle William found beautiful but, since he was an aesthete, he couldn’t bear to part with any of them. Wetheby began to fill with pictures and furniture. Attics and barns soon swelled with Renaissance paintings. Rooms became impassable because chests and bureaux blocked the way. Attempting to cross Wetheby’s rooms as a child, I would frequently find myself quite literally trapped by its beauties. This was my inheritance from Uncle William, another role model. It proved too much for James Hathaway, who gave up the material world and became a Buddhist monk in the Himalayas.
And I’ve come to live in a white room, with my few remaining possessions being removed from my care by a deaf, drunk bailiff called Murphy. I can’t help remembering that Henry Fielding had a friend called Murphy. Arthur Murphy. Which leads me on to all the dead role models I never met. My Uncle Alistair, for example, who conducted the whole of his courtship of my Aunt Lucinda standing to attention. He was a deeply patriotic subaltern at the time who never failed to stand for the national anthem, which Aunt Julia and Aunt Diana kept playing on the gramophone, much to their sister’s irritation. Or my heroin-addicted grandfather whose condition forced my father to be dragged round Europe as a child and to find salvation in extreme conservatism…

***

As we lie here holding one another in the fading light, I know that time has stood still. The soothing voice on the radio wafts across our paint-smeared bodies. ‘Lundy, Fisher, German Bight: a thousand and ten, falling very rapidly… St Catherine’s Point Automatic…’ We have become as white as the moon. It is the colour of joy, the whiteness of time – like the white of Greek temples brought about only by time as it washes away the colourful detail of their past. It tells us the truth. It is the strength of the moon, the shock of the sun. It eclipses our fear, and blinds our enemies. It is total, like a blizzard.
We roll over and dive again. Up to Heaven and down to the great bright deep. I don’t know where my paint ends and hers begins. We roll and roll and roll until all we can see is whiteness. Until all we can do is taste each other, our eyelashes caked in white, the pupils of our eyes smothered by white…

***

Oak is said to be strong yet yielding, like the waves of a great sea. It is Brahma and God the Father. The priests of the Selloi heard the voice of Zeus murmuring to them in the rustling of its leaves.
The essence of Wetheby was oak. Pure, pale unadulterated oak – unvarnished, unstained, unimproved by the Victorians. It propped up the interior of the house: oak beams held together the plaster, which hadn’t been altered since 1540, the small Oak Room was panelled with it, and the oak of the three-storey spiral staircase was so enduring and polished by shoe-soles that, in childhood, I thought it was stone. And by one of the moats (like Britain, Wetheby was surrounded by water) was a hollowed-out old oak tree, long dead and propped up by inferior wood. I used to stand inside it, having been told that Charles I had done so long before me, escaping from the Roundheads. From the Oak Room he had travelled by a secret passage, now lost, to Wetheby village a mile away.
There was another sort of oak too: the ilex tree, with its tiny leaves of a subtler green. A pair of them stood beyond one of the great walls of yew. When I first visited Florence as a teenager I saw some ilex trees there and felt I’d reached home. In fact, arriving in Tuscany really was a kind of homecoming because I’d been exposed to so much of the painting and the furniture at Wetheby, and I’d seen so many of my Uncle William’s paintings of Florence – the only other subject he ever painted besides his own house and gardens (he almost outdid Monet in this regard).
Wetheby was in the heart of England, and it was very English: a Tudor hunting lodge of plum-coloured brick, and stone. When I first read Richard II, I thought that John of Gaunt must have been describing it in his England speech. The moats stood in place of the sea, and walls of yew instead of cliffs. But there was something wonderfully foreign about it too: I glimpsed a corner of the Medicis’ world, or it was Agamemnon’s little palace where Electra spoke of her agony, or the place where Iphigenia pleaded for her life (‘Do not let me die before my time… Spare me: have pity, have pity on my youth…’) I felt like a Renaissance painter who sees his home town as the setting for Bethlehem in the Nativity or Jerusalem at the Crucifixion. (A tradition carried on by the Franciscans who have used Oxford as the backdrop at Grey Friars in the Iffley Road.)
The white room in World’s End suggests such a different kind of play. A different kind of death.

***

Not long before she died, my Aunt Diana lay on her four-poster bed one autumn afternoon, listening to the sound of Peggy Ashcroft’s voice wafting up from the front garden below, between the house and the moat: a television crew was filming her reciting the Nurse’s speech from Romeo and Juliet.
‘That was nearly perfection,’ she told me afterwards. ‘I was at Wetheby and I was in Verona, and her beautiful voice wafted up through my bedroom window. I presume I’ll be in Heaven soon, and I hope it’ll be as good.’
A few months later, as she lay on the same bed in a coma, Mass was said in Aunt Diana’s room. The memory of Peggy Ashcroft and Shakespeare was still hanging in the air, and that of John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, who had also filmed at Wetheby. My favourite actors had recited my favourite passages from my favourite author at my favourite place. Standing on the bridge across the moat, Richardson, as Enobarbus, described Cleopatra to Gielgud’s Agrippa: for a moment the moat became the Nile. Or at least the Tiber.
Now a priest had taken their place, and it was time for beauty of another kind. Relations were gathered around the bed, hemmed in by Tuscan chests and Renaissance pictures. The atheists were in another part of the house, drinking. (Raymond Rivers had come with me as Aunt Diana had always been thrilled by his prison tales, but he was among the atheists downstairs because he fancied my cousin Imelda, their leader, who seemed to satisfy his twin needs of tough and frigid.) I belonged with them, but I also belonged here. I stood in the open doorway, half in and half out. I was used to being in foreign places of worship.

***

On that first visit to Florence, my cousin Alexander and I slept under a bridge on a bank of the Arno. Soon we were woken by a rumble of thunder and the panic of rats scuttling over our faces in the dark and lightning. Drenched, we made our way in the rain to the Piazza Signoria, where a taxi driver took pity on us. From the boot of his cab he handed me a blanket: a Tuscan design of green and red and yellow zig-zags. (I have it to this day – unless Murphy has lined it up with the rest of my chattels.) I wrapped it around myself and Alexander, and we lay down on the stone benches of the Loggia. The thunder boomed and the lightning lit up the statue of Perseus holding up Medusa’s head, the rainwater dripping off her severed neck like blood.
I fell asleep and dreamed of Wetheby. I saw its topiaries luminous under the lightning flashes. The peacock, the spiral, the wedding cake – all sculpted by Uncle William. The bear, whose arms and belly I allowed to shelter me in childhood, the Mexican hat, another bird… Everything made of yew, symbol of mortality to the Druids, and clipped by Uncle William. That night in Florence I understood their intensity.
There were three topiaries. The yew sculptures were enclosed by enormous walls, also of yew: just beyond them, beside a moat, stood the ilex trees under which I listened hopefully for the murmurings of Zeus in the rustling of their leaves. Then there was a larger enclosure, walled by yew, where low partitions of sculpted box shielded the white roses tended by my Aunt Diana. A secret war was waged in this garden – not between Aunt Diana and Uncle William, but between yew and box. Wherever they vied for supremacy, the box won. And during my childhood, the gardener whose job it was to try and control the effects of these battles was Linda’s father, Mr Privet. (I heard more of his daughter’s murmurings than Zeus’s. The chicken shed was near the ilex trees.)
The third topiary was the largest, made up of dozens and dozens of geometrically shaped box hedges: spheres, rectangles, semi-spheres – but the majority of them was or were massive walls of giant pyramids. On windy nights they trembled fiercely, huge and black against the sky. On autumn mornings they collected dew in the spiders’ webs which clustered between them. They were like the Furies, in the days when they numbered many more than three. I wrote about them often. Whenever I saw a full moon behind them, I was restless for days afterwards. If I have ever understood Orestes’ plight, and therefore Hamlet’s, I learned about it in that garden.

***

Everything is white. The past, the present, the future. The last orgasm, the current one, the next. From the start of her gasp to the end of her sigh. Her vowels are white, and her consonants too. She has saved me. Delivered me. She is Leonora.
‘Preist mit hoher Freude Glut
Leonorens edlen Mut…’
‘Let us praise with joyous ardour
Leonora’s noble courage…’

*****

TWENTY.
BAD FAITH AND THE PENDULUM CLOCK

One of the few items Uncle William ever sold was a Seventeenth Century inlaid grandfather clock, among the first winding pendulum clocks made in Europe. Why he let it go – to my mother – is a mystery, since it was very beautiful. As a child I used to climb inside and pretend I was Charles I hiding in the oak tree at Wetheby. When I inherited it, the pendulum clock took on a new meaning.
By that stage of my life, my chief concern was to buy writing time. (‘Money writes books…’ said George Orwell in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. ‘Money, money, all is money! Could you write even a penny novelette without money to put heart in you? Invention, energy, wit, style, charm – they’ve all got to be paid for in hard cash.’) Through an elaborate balancing act I still had a roof over my head – my flat – though I frequently let it out to pay off debts. Not that I could always be sure the tenants paid the bloody rent, of course. Something would have to go. My car had already gone, and I was leading a peripatetic life – not unlike Orestes, though my crime was entirely different. Wandering around the world, incurring more debts, I wrote furiously: plays, novels, poems, stories, scripts, cheques… Most of it or them crap, no doubt, especially the cheques. One day I picked up a newspaper and saw that an airliner had stalled at thirty thousand feet, then fallen out of the sky and hurtled earthward. Just as its wings were brushing the branches of some trees, the pilot managed to restart the engine and land the plane safely. Phew. I realised that I had performed this same trick several years earlier. Owing the bank a fortune, I’d telephoned my mother in desperation.
‘Has anyone died by any chance, and left me some money?’
‘Funnily enough, yes.’
An old cousin in Scotland had keeled over, and I was next in line for the proceeds of a trust. On her deathbed she’d tried to sidestep me by leaving the money to her cat or budgie or cook but, thank God, this trick had been thwarted by the trustees. The sum I received matched my enormous overdraft exactly (several tens of thousands). But that was then, and now I was broke again.
Whenever I was at home, the pendulum clock’s deep ticking reminded me that I needed time. Every hour it chimed I heard the writer’s death knell. When I wound it each month I began another term in thrall to the business of writing. Thinking about my paternal grandfather who had survived on heroin, I wrote sentences like: ‘He woke up and asked himself when it would ever end…’
I also remembered the next bit about money in Keep the Aspidistra Flying: ‘…moneyless, you are unlovable.’

***

At the prison up North, the Jesuits’ main teaching instrument was a piece of re-enforced rubber called the ferula, which would crash down on the palms of our hands and send shock waves into the knuckles of our thumbs. Why they weren’t damaged forever is one of life’s mysteries.
The older boys were allowed to give another form of punishment: the essay, which was to prove a vital part of my training as a writer. Once you’ve produced five thousand words on ‘The Inside of a Ping-Pong Ball’, you can write about anything, believe me. Particularly helpful to a journalist on an evening paper, as I once was. Or for filling in MOD forms.
During that time at school, I became aware of Sartre. ‘Writing is like breathing,’ he wrote. But I found I was thinking about it much more than actually doing it. Novels would fizzle out after the first sentence. ‘The stripper was no good…’ (My attempt to marry J.D. Salinger to Robin Maugham.) Then there was my English version of Hemingway’s opening line, ‘Chicago stinks.’ (‘London never changes.’) Thrilling.
There were two huge problems. One, me: I was trying to have as much fun as I could, having always been a sucker for the pleasure principle – sad, but true. (There was or were more than one manic depressive in my family.) And, two: I’d been immobilized by something Sartre wrote:
‘Human life begins on the far side of despair,’ says Orestes in Les Mouches.
Reading a line like that slows you down a bit. I imagined him coming to this conclusion beside the pyramids of box at Wetheby, drained of hope by the Furies. Sartre’s Orestes introduced me to the idea of mauvaise foi, or bad faith. In other words, the acceptance of inherited superiority, or role – or chains, however gilded. The prescribed patterns of life and being, as opposed to the frightening freedom which Orestes chose. He emerged triumphant, though buzzed by the Furies as he went. Ultimately, he was not drained of hope. But perhaps Sartre was. Later in his life, he came to believe that the writer’s salvation lay not necessarily in his or her writing. I couldn’t decide about that. For a long time I believed that the world listened to its writers. Now, I knew that writing made practically no impact on events. (Auden: ‘Poetry makes nothing happen.’) Finally I was driven to half-mad speculations like ‘Would Auschwitz have been slightly more awful in a world without literature?’
What I did know was that, as I said earlier from the misery of my white-painted room, writing is – to some extent – like talking, and therefore offers some of talking’s beneficial powers. Also, it’s cheaper than therapy. It helped me overcome homesickness and a sense of injustice when I landed in the outrageous world of the Jesuits, whose idea of greeting us in the first term at the main school (I’d done one term at the prep already, starting that term as the only new boy) was to plunge us into three days of silent retreat. (I’m not staying here for five years, I thought, silently pacing the enormous corridors.)
‘I suppose you’ve all heard of the Jaguar car,’ said the dear old Rector from the church pulpit on Day Two. ‘Well, we may all know what it looks like, and some of us may know how to drive it, but only very few of us will ever find the key to make it go. Faith’s a bit like that…’
During the uneatable lunch afterwards, our mad form master, who’d had his stomach removed following torture in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, lectured us about wasting food. When he spoke of the starving millions, we thought of them with envy. Summers started to laugh. The mad form master dragged him by the ear into the centre of the refectory and forced him down onto his knees.
‘Pray for forgiveness!’ he screamed.
Summers laughed and was sent, laughing, to receive six ferulas (igniting his interest in sado-masochism) and afterwards made to write ten thousand words on ‘Hunger Through the Ages’, which began: ‘When mankind first appeared on the earth, he walked about stark naked, except for an umbrella and a bowler hat…’
When the ungodly retreat was over, we were all given an English essay to write, called ‘Me.’ For the first time in my life I had to take stock of what I was, what I was aiming at, and what I had left behind.
What have I left behind? I wondered. A lot, I decided.
Then, aged fourteen, I started to write my autobiography.

***

Most of my female cousins were expelled from their schools. (Convents, nuns, prison-like conditions, illicit boyfriends, no freedom – the usual ingredients. Oh, and an inability to concentrate on one thing at a time.) Perfectly natural, it seemed to me, to follow the family tradition. But it was different for boys, I soon discovered, and not greeted with the same degree of tolerance. Being asked to leave was the euphemism for expulsion, and it was an expression I heard a few times – unless my parents managed to remove me first. School holidays always held the misery of my father sulking about my report for days and blaming my mother for my idleness. It didn’t make me try harder, though. Less, if anything. (Another mantra: Could try harder.) Being asked to leave often meant I started a school as the only new boy. Somehow I even managed to do this at my first-ever school. I don’t know how.
I walked up the huge staircase and turned to wave goodbye to my mother. I don’t like this place, I thought (and I’ve never liked literature about children being happy at school: I saw them as prisons, not places of learning). It was a convent that went in for Montessori. Perversely, I got no pleasure from sticking round pegs into round holes but was intrigued to see the design they made in the square ones. As a result I spent a lot of time in the corner, examining a blob of dried gloss paint at my chest level.
That first morning lasted half a lifetime, till Sieglinde the au pair came to rescue me on her bike. Free at last, I waved my cap with joy as we cycled home, where Nellie welcomed me on the doorstep and congratulated me on surviving my great ordeal. (This event set the tone for what was to become a welcome but dangerous lifetime’s mantra from Nellie: ‘Don’t work too hard.’) Dorothy the cook filled me up with some sort of Welsh stew. (Soon I’d be visiting her in a huge mental hospital near Epsom. Strange places, institutions, I thought: my view was so different from Raymond’s.)
At my next school – another convent, another lot of wimpled nuns – the headmistress hauled my sister Charlotte into her study.
‘Your brother’s the naughtiest boy we’ve ever had in this school,’ she told her.
Charlotte said it was deeply humiliating, but just better than being told that I was boring. I was moved down a year. Then a handsome, masculine nun called Sister Augustine decided that I was gifted but misunderstood and moved me up two years. When I left, she said my prep school was lucky to be getting me. No one at my prep school agreed with her. Not even me.

***

I missed my First Communion through illness – not because I was too naughty to make it with the other children – but a genuine illness, though I can’t remember what. A fortnight later I had a service all to myself, and a great fuss was made of me. It was My Day. A special breakfast was laid on in the convent dining room for my family and me, and smiling little girls – including the ones I wanted to take on my flying carpet – brought presents to my table. Sister Augustine was proud of me as I passed through yet another right of passage on my own.
Round about that time my father tried to make a right of passage by converting to the Catholic faith. He had to undergo a series of eighteen sessions with the Jesuits at Farm Street, which frequently played havoc with his hunting and race-going schedule. Anyway, he kept attending until a particularly good day’s racing at Sandown made him miss session number seventeen. At which point the Jesuits told him he’s have to start the whole course again.
‘That’s outrageous,’ he protested.
‘Are you only becoming a Catholic to please your wife?’ they asked.
‘Of course I am.’
‘Then you can’t become a Catholic,’ said the Jesuits.
He still went to Mass every week, though, because he couldn’t think of anything else to do on a Sunday morning. No racing, no hunting.

***

When Sir Anthony Blunt was exposed as an ex-Soviet spy, Uncle William was delighted.
Years earlier at Wetheby, Blunt had proclaimed that two of Uncle William’s three Poussins were fakes. Now, thanks to his public disgrace, Uncle William could write him off as a dodgy art historian.
‘I always knew he was a bloody Communist queer!’ he boomed, claiming from that day to be the owner of three Poussins again.
All over the kitchen and up the great oak staircase were his paintings of Wetheby and Florence. Wherever you went in the house or gardens, Uncle William always seemed to be there, painting. I grew up with the smell of oils and turps, though I never painted myself. (And, I suppose, a sense of composition and perspective.)
‘The way to cut the hedges,’ he used to tell me, ‘is to keep stepping back and looking at the whole. It’s the same with all art, as Leonardo knew…’
And so it was. What I didn’t learn at school by writing about the inside of a ping-pong ball for hours on end, I learned cutting the hedges at Wetheby. Keep going back to the beginning to see the work developing, read through until a rhythm emerges. It’s how you get your flow.
After Uncle William and Mr Privet died, I no longer helped with the hedge-clipping at Wetheby. I was too busy travelling, or writing at home, listening to the ticking knell of the pendulum clock. The work fell to others who made it into an ugly, rushed affair. All the poetry went out of the topiary and it seemed to be composed of angular, shorn Furies. Cobwebs no longer formed between the giant pyramids in the autumnal dawn…

***

‘Our revels now are ended,’ said my old cousin-through-marriage Edward, in his eighties by this time, as we stood together on the bridge at Wetheby astride the moat, where Richardson and Gielgud had stood and shared their awe of Cleopatra.
It was the day of Aunt Diana’s funeral, a Catholic service held in the mediaeval Protestant church. (‘I’ve been expected to find God in a series of Nissen huts for over eighty years,’ she said shortly before she died. ‘At least I’ll have my funeral in a proper church and be buried in a real graveyard.’) Luckily for her the local vicar was so high church that he had a medal of the Pope on his key-ring and was delighted to host a Catholic service by Aunt Julia’s old friend, the convert Father Tucker. It’s often said that English Catholics make the best in Europe because they’ve had to hold onto their faith against terrible adversity. Well, take my word for it: the toughest bit is the pain we’ve suffered sitting in ugly churches, a mixture of Victorian red-brick and Sixties prefabs. (With occasional exceptions like the smartest church in London – the Brompton Oratory, which grandly eclipses its Protestant neighbour and supplies sacerdotal dinner guests to the tables of Knightsbridge: the place we used to walk to from my prep school, two by two, to say our simple boyish Confessions, gazing up at the morning sky above Thurloe Square and the Rembrandt Hotel on the way, and contemplating the enormity of the Universe.) Once my mother was standing inside Westminster Abbey with a Freemason friend who said to her:
‘Such a pity your lot don’t have any churches like this to pray in.’
We did once, thought my mother, but she was too polite to say so.
And we’d given up a lot more than our churches for the dear old faith. Estates, University degrees, Army commissions, power. And yet, because this is England, there was the supreme irony of the premier English duke being a Catholic who, as Earl Marshal, organised state occasions in Westminster Cathedral and at St Paul’s. And Catholic estates had been saved for generations by trustworthy Protestant friends holding them in their names.
‘Our revels now are ended,’ said Cousin Edward.
And in a way they were. But only in a way. The family had grown and changed, like the whole country. It took in different races, cultures and colours, religions and outlooks, politics and atheisms. People had jobs, even professions. A motley band had crossed the bridge into the topiaries at Wetheby after the funeral. We’d all come out of the woodwork. (No Aunt Julia, though, who had died a novelist’s death a couple of years earlier, attended by those kind nuns in the Cowley Road before they sang her on her way.) Here were assorted writers and soldiers, an ex-elephant rider, an assistant gun-runner, an illicit Cardinal, Raymond Rivers – almost family – with an electronic tag locked around his ankle (he’d persuaded the prison authorities that Aunt Diana was his aunt), still trailing my cousin Imelda, though I’d never learned whether her toughness or frigidity attracted him more…
For me, of course, the faith was long gone. But the Furies weren’t.
The pendulum clock?
Not yet – but it was only a matter of time.

***

‘Editing note from Vladimir Bartok:
Good. Both Jesuits and you are becoming more perverse. Like Communists and Freemasons.
V. B.’

*****

TWENTY-ONE.
THE STRANGER IN THE MIRROR

You’ll have noticed that I’ve delayed my return to the white room in or at World’s End, and the state of Valentine Summers who, along with the others, has undone all my work. Red blood and golden urine have smeared the floor and speckled my existential mirrors, if you recall. A late Nazi leader’s son once said to me: ‘My wife and daughter left me this morning, and I feel a little strange.’ (At the time he was trying to atone for his father’s enormous crimes by restoring an Eighteenth Century Austrian castle from its state of utter ruin, room by room. He’d completed two, and had another seventy-eight to go.) Well, that’s how I felt.
Talking of crime – and this is another delaying tactic – the most genteel cocktail party I ever attended was full of mass murderers, in a maximum security prison. Aunt Julia took me there because it was one of her regular haunts as a prison visitor. I was handed a glass of medium sweet sherry by a man who’d beheaded two wives, and accepted a cheese puff from a handsome youth who garrotted people on a fairly regular basis in Sunbury-on-Thames. It was a charming evening, and the inmates were ideal hosts until they discovered that one of their own number had been stealing from them.
‘What a fucking nerve,’ said a tiny serial killer with a facial tick.
‘Fancy nicking from us,’ said a fat bloke who’d shot and dismembered his parents.
Later I learned that they chopped off the thief’s fingers that night and made him eat them in an over-sized vol au vent left over from the cocktail party.
Anyway, I pick myself off the floor and look into one of the speckled existential mirrors. I see a distorted figure: grey, colourful, fat, thin, bald, haired, male, female, me, you, her, him, it – who knows? And I realise that before long this will have become my daily experience. That, day in and day out, as long as time moves forward, this is a ritual I will have to go through. Endlessly confronting a stranger in my mirror. Someone I simply cannot recognise. Someone whose name I will forget. Endlessly thwarted I will be, endlessly confused. Endlessly bored. And that I may experience a far worse fear than finding that not one person on the planet fancies me – that I might end up fancying no-one.

***

When my mother told me bedtime stories, she would always make me the hero of them.
‘Once upon a time there was a very brave cowboy…’
‘What was his name?’
‘Stephen.’
‘Ooh…’
I was at every event, and always the hero of it. A man of many identities, I could turn up anywhere, like McCavity the mystery cat or the boy with Rin Tin Tin in the US Cavalry. Anywhere – even at the Gates of Heaven in Queen Mary’s Gardens, if I wanted to. There, in the darkness of the night nursery, the stories were born. We children were visited by gods and goddesses and made to feel our promise. We were rocked by possibilities. ‘Yesterday is mystery,’ said Emily Dickinson. ‘Where is it today?’ The night sun shone.

***

When she was a child, Nellie’s mother used to point out the stars to her as they walked the several miles from the town to their little house outside a village in County Cork. Many years later she told me that she wished she’d paid more attention as they’d made their way home along the road, over the hill, through the fields, across the Metal Bridge, and up the boreen.
‘I’d know all their names now if I‘d listened more,’ she said. ‘But you don’t pay attention when you’re a child.’
Though a country girl, she loved the big city. In the days when she was nursery maid to Nanny Gibbs during the Thirties, they used to spend a few months a year at Uncle William and Aunt Diana’s London house in South Ken. Then she’d take long evening walks through the streets, peering down into the basement areas and through the kitchen windows at other people’s shadow-lives. Another population lived there, in another world, in a twilight zone of acoustic shadows: butlers, housekeepers, footmen, cooks, housemaids, parlour maids all gathered for their evening meal below stairs, with Nellie as their only witness. Each window offering a different combination, a different scene, a different play, a different film, a different shadow-life. One night Nellie got so carried away that she became completely lost somewhere in Knightsbridge, until a kindly old lady sent her home in her chauffeur-driven Rolls. A lost world.
The second time Raymond Rivers went to prison Nellie, in her eighties, was furious that he’d let down his girlfriend Susie so badly. Then she prayed for him every night he was inside. She got through a lot of prayers.

***

‘I’ve come to stay,’ says Raymond. ‘I need to lie low for a while.’
‘What have you done?’
‘Don’t ask. I must be getting old – I simply can’t remember what I told them this time.’
The truth is, there are so many lies inside his head that one day they or it had to implode. We poor humans don’t have a simple delete button within us, though we need it badly.
‘Darling, do they still have corporal punishment in prison?’ asks Valentine Summers, who’s rather enjoyed his minor injuries in a sado-masochistic way. ‘Do they use the ferula there? Do the prisoners wank into a sock every night? Or do they wank into each other?’
‘Oh please,’ I groan. I’ve had enough. Nunc Dimittis.
‘Happy birthday, happy hoovings and many, many children,’ says Vladimir Bartok. (Though the idea of Raymond Rivers passing on his genes fills me with horror: see how literal-minded I’ve become in this room.) ‘Would you like to be in my commercial tomorrow mornink?’
‘Well, I don’t think I’d better show my face on the telly for a while.’
‘He’ll give you a lovely reference, dear,’ Edna tells Raymond, pointing at me as she hands him a broken cup of tea.
‘What do you want to do about them?’ rasps the nameless one, ignoring everybody else. (When she stopped believing in her own beauty, I now realise, she was no longer beautiful to me.)
‘Actually, I need fifty quid as well,’ says Raymond. ‘I’m off to see Triple Eight. She lives just round the corner. Here’s her address.’
‘I’ll write it down,’ says Murphy.
‘Don’t work too hard,’ says the memory-mantra of Nellie, who’s up there with the stars.
‘I do think it’s so middle-class to visit prostitutes,’ says the ghost of my Aunt Diana.
‘Do men who visit whores have smaller bits down below?’ asks Aunt Julia.
‘Fucking stupid cow!’ roars Roger Fennell.
‘He wants a portion,’ says Gary in Brixton.
I want to get out of here, I tell myself. Time’s up. Nunc est bibendum. I could go to the pub. Nil desperandum. Or, inappropriately perhaps, ad maiorem dei gloriam, as the Jesuits say on a regular basis. AMDG.

***

‘Another round, barman!’ calls Summers, clinging to the bar by his fingernails as his body sways backwards towards Rivers, who gives him a nudge which forces him upright again. They’re in the local pub. The World’s End.
‘Thangyou!’ says Summers. ‘And thangyou too, barman!’
Two pints of beer with whisky chasers have appeared in front of them. Summers hiccups.
‘You’re the fastest barman I’ve ever known – or has the world slowed down?’ He drinks. ‘So good to be away from Stephen – he’s always trying to show me up.’
‘His cousin Imelda’s given me the push,’ says Raymond. ‘“I had to draw the line somewhere,” she said, “and I decided to draw it at you.”’ He drinks too. ‘I’ll have to go back to Susie one day, if I ever get out of this mess.’
‘Ray darling, if you don’t mind my saying so, you seem to be in a bit of a moral dilemma.’
‘What’s a moral dilemma?’ asks Raymond Rivers, sinking his drinks fast.

***

‘Let us praise with joyous ardour
Leonora’s noble courage…’
I am dazzled by the brightness of her light. It is pure, pure white. I see her as if she is lit by a huge white sun. A strange white sun of hope. ‘The undying, swift-horsed sun,’ the Persians called it.
‘Komm, Hoffnung…’
‘Come, hope…’
Come, come, come… It is this, it is this, it is this… the Persians said during another part of their history. She is whiteness itself. White as the sun, or the paper I must feed with words every single day of my writer’s life to avoid creative death – my Moloch: a predator, and I the predatee, unless we reach a condition of equality. (The leopard watches me and licks its lips in London Zoo.) White as the coats of the nice men who may come and take me away one day. As white, perhaps, as the marble the Persians brought with them to Marathon, to record their expected victory: the same piece of marble the Greeks intended, in the end, to record theirs on, at Rhamnus, asking Phidias to shape it into Nemesis. If there is Paradise here on earth…
White, white, white, white, WHITE!

***

‘The great secret of life is never knowing when to stop. Fill ‘em up, barman!’
Two more pints and whisky chasers arrive on the bar.
‘Thangyou so much!’ Summers gulps down half a pint and the full measure of whisky before turning to Rivers. ‘Ray baby, among all my other problemmos, do you think I have a sexual problemmo?’
‘Hasn’t everyone?’
‘It’s just that sometimes I have the most astonishing thoughts.’
‘Do you really?’ Rivers burps.
‘Yes I do. Sometimes I try to imagine I’m making love to myself.’
‘Where?’
‘In a confessional.’
‘Good God.’
‘I think it’s because Stephen’s always trying to show me up. I’m making love to myself in the dark, and I can’t tell whether I’m a man or a woman. And I can’t tell whether the other me is a man or a woman either…’
‘Barman!’
‘But I can feel that I’m doing it and having it done to me at the same time…’
‘You’re obviously very self-contained.’
‘And all the time this old Jesuit is watching me do it. It’s his confessional, you see.’
‘Is he being critical?’
‘He’s being clerical. But he’s wanking under his cassock.’
‘Same again, please…’
‘Do you think Triple Eight would like to meet me? Does she like them in twos?’
‘She likes them in threes.’
‘Thangyou, barman. So she’s still going after all these years?’
‘Still going,’ says Raymond as he travels further towards the dark side. ‘I met your brother Jasper with her once.’
‘Don’t mention that name to me!’ shouts Summers. ‘Barman!’

***

In praise of God, or a sexual gasp. An exhalation, the letting out of breath, like Dieu or Yahweh, or Aaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…… A sublime sexual calculus, a non-sexual equation: a number that can be added up, subtracted from, multiplied, divided, caressed and loved, and truly satisfy the mathematician within us. A number Lord Byron would recognise as one to die for, that Roger Casement would be willing to be hanged for. A winning number, since everything’s a contest now: first, second, third, 2-1, 1-3, 30-40, love all.
That is, or those are, the mathematics of a lover’s reckoning – if anything on this earth adds up anymore. It’s the object of desire, the tick of the clock, the skip in your step, a shadow-life, a twilight zone, a white white room, the world the orgasms the plays between the cracks, the swing of the pendulum, the sides of a triangle, the shape of a pyramid, a Shakespearean thought, a glass of Gamay in the sun, or beer from the fridge, an acoustic shadow, the length of a silence, a Pinter pause, a graveyard and a playground: a predator or a predatee, the language inside you, a strange door, the gates to your heaven, a Tuscan lament, a parallel life, a royal moment, a God-shaped hole, a muddled thought, a portion either wanted or un-, a lovely reference… It’s all warmth and human kindness, the paint on your mirror, the music from your radio, both love and the memory of love, you me and it, the force of the gale, a trumpet’s blast, the sound of the angels, the black of the sky, a song in the rain, an article both definite and in-, a tale told by an idiot, North South East and Holy Ghost, a night out with the lads, great crack, a lovely reference, a hole in the head, a trip to the Warneford, the human blizzard, Marathon and Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea, the beginning and end of the world.
LDS, as the Jesuits say. Laus Deo Semper.
Dona nobis pacem.

***

‘Editing note from Vladimir Bartok:
Very good. You have become excellent perverse Jesuit Communist Freemason, so next novel should contain Magic Flute. Your hoovings now are ended.
V. B.’

THE END

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