Chapter Excerpt

Chapter One


The paint on my house is so thick it looks as though it has been iced. All the houses around here are gleaming white. Many of my neighbours are in investment banking, and I think this whiteness appeals to them. White and off-white suggest deliberate restraint, hinting at reserves of character and cash which poorer, and more lurid, people do not possess. The speculators who built these houses in the early part of the last century did not build them well. The area is in a constant state of building flux, partly because of the very mobile nature of employment in the banking world, but also because every small improvement involves major reconstruction. About the time I die these houses will be approximately two hundred years old and all of them will have been re-built five or six times.

    Stephanie, with whom I lived for eight years, has moved to a loft in what she calls a more real part of town. I am now living all alone. Although I sometimes miss the domestic constraints, I find myself enjoying the solitude. I have come to the conclusion that I am not a sociable person, which has made me wonder why I thought I was for so many years. But then, what is a sociable person? Somebody who can't bear to be alone, somebody who has no intellectual interests, somebody who is afraid of silence?

    I am alone in my excessively white house with a wire-haired dachshund for company. He is happy too: he lies on his back as I stroke his thinly planted belly; his mouth, with the little brown cone of hair beneath it, opens and he sighs. Since Stephanie left, his behaviour has become less frantic. He no longer has to compete for my attention and he enjoys the mental release this has brought him. I remember psychology experiments which demonstrated that rats were unhinged not by the pain of electric shocks, but by uncertainty. He basks like a reptile in the warmth of my unmediated affection. Only when I take him for a walk in the Square, the biggest private gardens in London, does he display his natural excitability, straining at the leash and letting out stifled shrieks, hoping to escape. I am on the garden committee so I do not allow him to shit except in the designated area, something which he usually does neatly and quickly, backing up against a tree. Before eight in the morning we permit dog-owners to let their dogs run free in one section of the garden, although they are charged to remove the droppings to the bins provided. Sometimes rogue droppings are found. For the garden committee, the owners' carelessness provides proof of the deteriorating standards of society beyond the Square.

I had a dream about the dog last night. I was driving away in my car and he was running along the pavement trying to keep up. He ran surprisingly fast on his stumpy legs but eventually he gave up and slowed to a despairing walk. The flying ears drooped. He sat down exhausted. But the worst aspect of this dream was the look on my face as I drove. (I was outside myself, looking on.) I appeared to be brutally indifferent, like a South American dictator. My face was fleshy as though years of professional cruelty had added strips of flesh, pemmican, raw hide, to my own boyish face. My features were moist, the moisture consistent with being in a stifling car in a tight uniform in a tropical place. I had the sensation of being choked by the scrambled egg on the uniform, the copper wire, which formed the gold wreath decoration, cutting into my jowls.

The other day, as I walked down towards the Portobello Road, I saw a large, chauffeur-driven Lexus pass by. Sitting in the back, asleep, his face desperately tired, probably from a trans-Atlantic, or even trans-Pacific, flight, was my old friend and former partner, Pete Krupat. The car stopped briefly at the lights outside the Artiste Assoiffé restaurant, and he and I were only feet apart -- perhaps not even two feet -- but he was asleep. It was ten in the morning. His clever eyes and pinkish mouth -- a mouth which had uttered charming wedding speeches, announced increased profits and performed generous sexual acts -- was dragging downwards as though middle age were applying a gravitational pull. His eyes, with their quite pronounced lids, were not so much closed as shuttered for the season. He had that resigned helplessness which hospital patients and people in the thrall of religious experience have.

    His face looked quite different, in fact, from my own, overbearing dream face. I pondered the connection between my dream and my chum's unguarded nap. Now that I no longer have a job, I have decided that I must open myself to the bounty which life has to offer. There are many explanations and there are many ways of living. I am, in my new situation, aware of what I have missed, but also I believe -- and this is more troubling -- that there must be many aspects of life's richness of which I have no inkling.

    There's more to life than work, Stephanie used to say. She was right, although her reason for saying that was not strictly philosophical, more of a protest at the evident fun I had in advertising. Last year our agency, Krupat, Murray and Silas (I am Dan Silas) was bought by the Japanese group Kumishko, so releasing me into the thinner air which the unemployed breathe. My package included medical care, full pension entitlements and a lump sum which at first seemed large but now, divided by the number of years I am likely to live, seems rather small. I do still have some shares in the agency which I am proposing to sell back to them. Pete Krupat was asked to stay on: the Japanese admired his demeanour, seeing in him something substantial which they evidently did not see in me. Krupat said that the Japanese had no irony and could not understand me. `I'm a boring fart, a plodder,' he explained generously, `and that's why they like me.'

    He is a global vice president. But a strange thing has happened: I no longer understand exactly what it was I did in advertising. I can only say that I specialised in the arts of presentation and persuasion, having seen that while many people could draw storyboards or write copy, very few could manipulate meetings. Apart from the second Tuesday of every month, the meeting of the garden committee, I no longer have meetings. I now believe that my talent was a very minor one, and extravagantly over-rewarded.

Every morning, after walking the dog, I wait for the post. Our postman, despite his vigorous life, does not look healthy. His skin is showing signs of trouble within; a tinge has spread over his cheeks, a sort of threadwork of veinous blood vessels, suggesting cardiovascular irregularities. The surface of his skin is being irrigated by diverted blood; that is my diagnosis. I would guess that the beneficial effects of walking miles every day are nullified by his daily breakfast of sausages, egg and bacon. I have seen him with his fellow postmen gathered for these huge breakfasts at Lil's Café, near the Electric Cinema. There's hardly a person left in the developed world who does not know that this sort of diet is fatal, yet Cockneys must have it. All Cockneys are unhealthy as a result. As the postman approaches the front door, the dog readies himself. He barks ferociously as the letters and circulars and junkmail cascade on to the mat and launches himself unsuccessfully upwards towards the brass flap. Sometimes I open the door and thank the postman. I half believe that a postman who knows you won't throw your mail away, which postmen with domestic problems are said to do. What I am hoping for from the post I'm not sure; a summons of some sort probably.

Yesterday just such a summons arrived, an invitation to be the keynote speaker at a reunion of Hollybush High School, Hollybush, Michigan. The reunion was to take place in the Holiday Inn on Interstate 97 at the junction with US 23, and there would be dancing to Mike and the Mellotones, who played at the Senior Prom in 1968 which was held in the old gym with the bleachers folded back. The floor was criss-crossed with the markings of the basketball court. The theme that year was Hawaiian Sunset; there were palm trees and strings of pastel-coloured light-bulbs. Mike and the Mellotones made a brief attempt to create the sumptuous, sighing, somewhat nauseous guitar sound that the Polynesians invented, but soon they gave up and played the Beatles and the Beach Boys, I think, although the music of those years has fused into a kind of Muzak in my mind. Nineteen sixty-eight was the year Bobby Kennedy was killed and of course I'll never forget that, particularly the television pictures of him lying bleeding on the floor at the back of that hall in California, strangely unmoved by the chaos around him.

    The letter accompanying the invitation was from Gene Brewer, our Class President. It is dear that he has kept in pastoral touch with the class for nearly thirty years. I haven't seen any of them since my family moved back to England at the end of our senior year. The invitation was printed in that small-town fashion, in silvery ink, and decorated with a pair of palm trees leaning inwards towards the words Grand Reunion , lending them tropical glamour. I sniffed it to see if there was anything of the old place adhering to it. Gene's return address, in looping handwriting, in the top left-hand corner of the envelope showed that he had moved only as far as Flint, the home of General Motors, my father's employer, and also the place -- I now recalled -- where we had gone looking for black hookers in our junior year. We did find some once; they were frightening and contemptuous and we left chastened, although Ron Dakin swore that he went back. We greeted him for months with `Dropped off yet, Ronnie baby?' even though we did not really believe that he had returned alone to those rancorous women with their big wet mouths.

    Gene said that Gary Beaner wanted to see me again; Gary had been in and out of mental homes for many years, but was currently living with his mother, long widowed, in Holland, Michigan. He had suggested that Gene contact me. Gene said that he believed I could help Gary in his recovery. He said that Gary had important news for me, the sort of historical knowledge, I guessed, which mad people often find a burden to bear alone. He and I had been very close for the three years I was at Hollybush. His uncle owned the Music Box, an old barn converted to a dance hall on their apple farm just outside Hollybush. Gary never danced. He sometimes watched, apparently amused and distracted, but he never joined in. He said his uncle kept him too busy with the root beer concession. He was awarded a scholarship to Harvard in our senior year, the only one in the history of Hollybush High. It was there that he first had a breakdown, lying face down in the snow in front of the Widener Library saying he was learning to swim, still a requirement for all freshmen in Mrs Widener's bequest. Her son drowned on the Titanic .

    My father was sent back to Europe to launch a new car for the Benelux countries, the GM Ranger. Later he was to say that the launch failed because of cultural misconceptions back in Flint. The Benelux public were unable to see an advantage in a car made expressly for them. Their countries were very flat -- le Pays Plat as Jacques Brel mournfully confirmed- and people suspected that the Ranger could not climb hills. Only forty-three were sold. My father left the auto industry and applied himself to the relatively new science of marketing.

    So I lost touch with my class. I was living in the world of Antonioni's Blow Up with a soft corona of hair on my head and velvet items in my wardrobe. After intensive private coaching I made it into Oxford to read Philosphy, Psychology and Politics. In my newly acquired vocabulary, Hollybush High seemed to have been a category error, as though I had been living by the wrong premises, and consequently drawing the wrong conclusions. Like my father, however, I retained a belief in the boxfresh character of America, a country free of monkish ignorance and superstition, as Thomas Jefferson put it. It was that ignorance which sank the Ranger.

    American heroes like Jefferson, and more recent heroes like Thomas Alvar Edison and Henry Ford, had a strong hold on my imagination. They stood for progress, a notion already being sullied by contempt for the military-industrial complex. Very little of this scepticism had reached Hollybush. In fact `a true highlight of the senior year' (the Redskin Yearbook ) was a visit to the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn just outside Detroit.

    In Edison's laboratory Gloria Swarthout and I listened, entranced, to the guide. He had a beard like Lincoln's, severely cut on a straight line parallel with the ground just where his lower jaw began its downward curve. He told us that in 1929 Mr Ford had persuaded Mr Edison -- these `misters' were heavy with reverence -- to re-enact the moment when he had first made an electric light glow, fifty years before. Mr Ford had brought the whole laboratory, including some New Jersey earth, from Menlo Park to his open-air museum. `Mr Edison was real happy with the reconstruction, "But Henry," he said, "there's jes one detail that ain't right" Mr Ford was kinda perturbed, ya know. "What's that, Mr Edison?" "It's ninety-nine per cent c'rect, but it was never this tidy." My, they laughed. They laughed fit to bust. Mr Ford, he was so pleased with the whole occasion that he had this chair here, where Mr Edison sat, fixed permanent to the floor in the exact spot.'

    And there it was, still bearing the ghostly impression of Mr Edison's trousers, I imagined.

    You can't enter into a warm relationship with European heroes in the same way. They are marmoreal or starchy, quite inaccessible. These Americans were a reproach to the old world with its feudal constraints. Standing at the exact spot (although translocated, itself a tribute to American enterprise) where electric light was first conjured from gas and glass, I saw how important Edison was to the American character. America was bright and vigorous, and Edison was directly responsible for this happy state of affairs. The electric light was an invention with profound existential consequences.

    Gloria and I, pulsing like Edison's filaments, stayed behind as the party shuffled out to see where Edison had created the first commercial power station. We ducked into the glass-blowing shop (an important trade in the manufacture of light bulbs, of course) and we kissed, her tongue fluttering over my lips in what she called the `butterfly kiss'. My hands went immediately to her very full breasts, which I was falling slightly out of love with, a churlish reaction to their old-style bounteousness and possibly to their decoy value. We caught up with the main party a few minutes later to hear the guide say, `Everything he worked on was designed to make life safer or simpler or happier. That's why he and Mr Ford hit it off so well.'

    In the grounds of Mr Ford's museum, not far from the Cape Cod Windmill and the Pioneer Log Cabin, was the Cotswold Forge, a perfectly reconstructed -- from numbered stones -- blacksmith's house from Gloucestershire. It was there in a small back room that I was able to get my hand, for a moment or two, into the terra incognita of Gloria's panties. I put her new laxity down to the fact that the school year was ebbing away and that she was hoping she could deny my departure by a series of tactical concessions. Also, she was aware that the tide of sexual liberation, which had inundated places like New York and Chicago, was lapping at mid Michigan, eroding the distinctions between nice girls and sluts. She was aware, because I kept telling her about it. I also suggested that we were being left behind; disingenuously I said that we didn't want to be seen as hicks.

    A few years later when I was invited to a party at a genuine Cotswold house, I had a powerful feeling of having been there before and I experienced some nostalgia for the silky moistness of that initial encounter. That mysterious and independent part of her seemed a lot more interesting, a lot more ambivalent, than her cheerleader's breasts, which I had so admired when she was urging on the Redskins, but which had now become overly familiar. The cheerleaders, captained by Karen Wardie, wore tight sweaters with an H stitched on the front. The sexual symbolism of young girls in short skirts leaping in the air and uttering shrill squeaks was not apparent to me then.

As I read Gene's note again, poised to accept the invitation, subject to placing the dog successfully, I remembered how intense the last few weeks before the senior trip to Washington, DC had become. We had moved on in the voyage of sexual discovery. Gloria had an old Studebaker that her doting father had given her. She would never get into the back seat, because there were certain girls who vaulted nimbly into the back and she had heard how they were spoken of; we made do in the front. Before the débâcle of the GM Ranger, my father was a loyal GM man and we were a GM family, always ready to defend the company's qualities, but I came to love that Studebaker with its ice-cream-cone nose. Its seats were red leather which became agitated as we did, and released an appealing smell of beeswax, applied by a previous owner. Gloria was excited by the sight of semen and would watch the mysterious eruption she set off and sometimes cup it in her hand and then she was ready to come as I, rather half heartedly by now, followed her stifled but explicit instructions, until she shrieked once sharply (just as she did when leading the cheers) and subsided into contentment, demanding from me sentiments I could barely fake. Boys of that age can be cruel; I take no pride in this. But these memories, commonplace as they are, came back strongly as I composed a fax accepting the invitation. I wondered if I could incorporate the lost ecstasy of youthful sexual encounter into my keynote speech, even as I wondered if there were words to encompass the strange feeling that I had done this before, a million times, that I was as old as the lakes and the woods outside the steamy windows of the Studebaker. The truth is that first sexual encounters bind you to the human race in ways you do not necessarily seek.

    What would I talk about? My area of expertise, the selling of ideas for shifting consumer goods, now seemed trivial. Krupat's tired face, passing so close by me, told me that we had wasted our essence in this selling business. All the clever, fashionable, prize-winning things we produced -- my cabinet is full of golden lions, seagulls and bears, of many denominations -- all these are now as appealing as Christmas decorations in January. And I am determined not to look back more than is necessary. I'm with Henry Ford on this one: the only history that is worth a damn is the history we make today. (Although I used to believe the theory that explanations of history were the same as the explanations of science, an idea which might have appealed to Mr Ford if he had known about it.)

Yesterday, the day I received the invitation, Pete Krupat had invited me to have lunch. To demonstrate that I was still in good standing, we were to meet at the agency. I decided not to tell him about my close-up of his unguarded sleeping face. I would have a few years ago, but now a little distance had entered our relationship, because of our contrasting circumstances; instead I would take the line that everything had turned out for the best for both of us.

    His office in the new building looked down on to an inner well which contained a café and a pre-war Gaggia cappuccino machine, a wonderful article I had found in a failing restaurant near the terminus in Milan and bought for the agency. It was probably legally still mine, I thought, as I watched it sending up impatient puffs of steam. I could see Pete Krupat behind the glass wall of his office. With world-weary shrugs aimed at me, he was taking a call.

    `So Pete, what's it like working for the Nips?'

    `We may think of them as Nips, they may look to us like Nips, but we have trained ourselves never to call them Nips. Dan, we have a small legal problem, that's what I quickly wanted to discuss before lunch.'

    `What's that?'

    `Stephanie has obtained an order preventing the sale of your remaining shares. She says, apparently, that you are reluctant to give her money.'

    `She says in person, or her lawyer says she says?'


    `So what are you going to do?'

    He paused and composed his face. He has slightly olive features, rounded but far from emollient.

    `I'm going to abide by the law. We can't buy your shares until she agrees. The Japanese don't like skeletons in the cupboard.'

    `They didn't seem to mind them in Changi.'

    He looked at me sorrowfully.

    `Dan, Dan, things have changed around here. There is a downside, of course.'

    `You speak to her, you sort it out. And then we won't mention the villa to the Nips.'

    When we sold the majority of our shares, Krupat kept out of the accounts, with my connivance, the fact that a villa on the western shores of the Island of Crete, overlooking a bay of the purest blue, had been bought with the company's money. I had to admit, even as I uttered it, that this blackmail did not conform with my new desire to discover the divinity in my fellow beings, but Pete Krupat was trying to make a cheap moral point without taking into account the full complexity of human relations, particularly mine with Stephanie, to whom he had been cosying up, it seemed.

    Lunch was subdued as a consequence. Krupat's face, which I knew so well, bore some recent marks. The discovery of other cultures is never without its problems; he had apparently taken a few lumps from the Japanese. There was a small crease just above his chin, and his hair, which surged backwards in the leonine nineteen-seventies style, was thinning, so that under the twinkling lights of the restaurant I could see his pink brown scalp. Until now, his hair had appeared to be of the extravagantly luxuriant variety. He had two sets of children; the second family very young. I guessed that his interest in Stephanie's welfare was prompted by familial anxieties. Jacqueline was a close friend of Stephanie and the fact that he had chosen to marry Jacqueline while I hadn't married Stephanie, probably required him to denigrate me. Stephanie and Jacqueline had been art buyers in the agency. Working in tandem they gave off an exciting promise of depravity. What I was unable or unwilling to explain to Krupat was that since I had been dismissed I was contemplating a more open and receptive relationship with life. This is not the sort of ambition which you can advertise without attracting ridicule. Our lunch proceeded haltingly.

    Krupat offered to give me a lift home in his car, which was outside thrumming expensively. The Lexus symbol was in pale gold. I told Krupat, no thanks, I was finding enjoyment in rediscovering London on foot, but he was intent on seeing a reproach in this and turned quickly to the car where the chauffeur had the door open smoothly.

    I walked from Soho all through the embalmed streets of Mayfair and through Hyde Park where the leaves were beginning to loosen their grip on the trees and the ducks along the Serpentine were exhibiting seasonal restlessness. After my small victory over Krupat, I felt connected. The disconsolate trees, the milling ducks, the vapour blown wearily from the horses' nostrils as they cantered by, the blue bruised sky, the rainy squalls on the round pond, the model yachts heeling over, the freshly planted brigades of pansies, still unnaturally perfect -- they were all signalling something to me, although I could not quite decipher the message. Back in Michigan I had been a fan of Emerson ever since Mr Zabruder made us learn passages from Self-Reliance by heart: Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confuted themselves childlike to the genius of their age ...' Although Kumishko Corp did not at first sight look much like divine providence, I was ready to accept the connection of events, the message the ducks were conveying in their quacky staccato; I was ready to trust myself.

The dog was waiting right by the door. Before I unlocked it I could hear him snuffling and whimpering excitedly. His dumb loyalty brought tears to my eyes. Unforeseen things do that to my eyes these days. I was watching a programme at two in the morning about the repatriation of pet orang-outangs to the jungle where they come from, and I found myself weeping freely. The dog licked my hand in sympathy. I carried him to the Square as a recompense for having been left alone and allowed him off the leash and into the dell for a few minutes where he pissed exuberantly on the ground cover before dashing into a thicket of spiky shrubs. When he returned quizzically, I picked him up and inverted him. I buried my face in his soft belly for a moment inhaling the meat and pastry savour of dog, and carried him back to my study where I composed my fax to Gene, saying that I would speak about Self-Reliance and asking, as if in an afterthought, whether Gloria would be coming.

Gloria Swarthout. In my memory, Gloria and Monticello are for ever joined. We had seen all the monuments and stood at the exact spot in the Capitol where you could -- if I remember right -- hear someone whispering fifty feet away. We had seen the little underground train which congressmen rode and we had visited one of our senators in his office. And next day we drove out to Monticello, stopping to see the Civil War battlefield of Bull Run and passing through Charlottesville to view the University of Virginia and with its great cupola, designed by Jefferson. (There was no end to this man's talents.) And the bus took us up the steep road past an old watermill to the great house which is depicted on the back of the nickel, where it looks like an observatory. We saw the tunnel under the house which the slaves used, so preserving classical order on the surface, and we inspected the extraordinary clock with interior and exterior faces. Gloria and I were lagging behind the party as it stepped out into the garden via the orangery. The grand door closed on us and there was Mr Jefferson's bed, handily equipped with his own-design device for holding books. Gloria, perhaps responding to some historical imperative, pulled up her full, panelled skirt and slipped off her panties and we made love there, for the first time. We made love quickly, in about three minutes, and then retraced our steps through the library and front hall to the dining room, shocked and elated, where Jefferson had designed a dumb waiter which retrieved bottles of wine from the cellar below. (It wasn't fully automatic; a slave named Jupiter or Old Jupiter loaded the bottles of Bordeaux on to a sort of conveyor set into the fireplace and up they came, to the delight of his rustic pals.)

    Standing in the hall underneath an Indian robe of buffalo skin, Gloria whispered that she would love me for ever. Her breath was warm from the lovemaking. And we pretended to be absorbed there in some paintings and other memorabilia, and had to knock on the windowpane to be let out into the leafy Virginian summer air, scented with dogwood, a grand tree which Jefferson called the `Juno of our Woods'.

Copyright © 1998 Justin Cartwright. All rights reserved.