Authors: Isobelle Carmody
Tags: #Young Adult Fiction
âWhat's the point in me being here,' she said, âwhen you go to bed at nine o'clock?'
âWell, why don't you join me?' he said. âIt's one of life's greatest pleasures, lying in bed and reading.'
âI read enough books to last me a lifetime when I was in publicity,' she said. âOne of life's great pleasures for me is not having to read.'
âWell, what about poetry?' he said. âYou told me the first time we met that you loved poetry but you never had time to read it. Now you have time.'
His words hit a nerve and she lashed out, irrationally. âWell, why don't you bloody well write some, then? What do you do in that study all day anyway, apart from smoking yourself to death?'
He rose to his feet. The TV remote was in his hand and he hurled it to the floor, creating a small explosion of bat- teries and plastic shards.
âIs that what you want?' he said. âYour own private scribe beavering away in the back room, producing volumes of adoring verse?'
âDon't be ridiculous. I don't care what you write about.'
âI've told you a thousand times,' he said. âIt doesn't work like that. It isn't something you can turn on and off like a radio. I can't sit down in front of a blank piece of paper and come up with a poem.'
She bent to pick up a battery that had come to rest against her foot. He went on, âIn any case, the whole idea is egregious. A private club, exclusive to the book industry and all its slimy parasites. What are you going to call this one? No Riffraff?'
There was an instant when they might both have laughed and let it drop, but neither of them did, and the opportunity passed.
âAnd which are you?' she said. âIndustry or parasite?' When he didn't answer, she did it for him. âOh, I'm sorry. You're neither. You're a poet, and therefore superior. In this world but not of it. Is that the way?'
He kicked the eviscerated remote and walked out of the house.
It is the only other time he has done it. On that occasion he did not prevent his feet from carrying him to his local. He spent the whole evening on a high stool telling the barman, and anyone else who would listen, that he was married to Maggie Thatcher; a woman who only needed three hours' sleep a night and was a jumped-up shopkeeper. He railed against the economic system, the publishing fraternity, the media, the organic sector. He scoffed chicken-flavoured crisps and pork scratchings, both of which he detested, just to prove his street credentials. He bought Woodbines and smoked them, and picked bitter tobacco strands from between his teeth. He drank pints of stout all evening, even though they never kept it cold enough in that pub and had no idea how to pull it anyway. Closing time found him reverting to his roots and expounding the evils of Catholicism and quoting from his first publication,
The Blue Virgin
. Out on the street it took him a while to remember where he was and how to get home, but he found his way and found his key and found, in the end, the hole it was meant to fit into.
She was waiting up for him in the living room but he went straight past and up the stairs and emptied his bladder, which seemed to take an hour, and then collapsed on top of the bed in the spare room. When he woke in the morning she had already gone out to work.
His breakout took him to Ireland, where he spent a few weeks in Dublin, renewing old acquaintances and reminding the organisers of courses and festivals and radio programs of his existence. Then he visited the family home in Tipperary, which his older brother had inherited and had, by then, turned into a health spa. The house had been gutted and extended and dry-lined. In its new incarnation it consisted of a dining hall, a huge yoga room, treatment and massage rooms and a little suite of offices. The courtyard had been rebuilt, tastefully, and held the guest accommodation and the kitchens. His brother had given up the drink and the inmates were all on detox programs, so he went on his own to the pub in the village, where he discovered his fame had travelled ahead of him. He was welcomed as a favourite son and not allowed to put his hand in his pocket all evening.
He slept in a little boxroom in the attic of the house and derived a certain sense of schadenfreude from the discovery that it was heaving with rats. It gave him an idea for a poem and he chewed on it for a while before he went to sleep, but in the morning its soul had vanished, leaving nothing but a thin, desiccated corpse.
He stayed in the house for three days, despite his brother's obvious discomfort. He did not belong in those incensed surroundings. His presence disturbed the hallowed atmosphere. So he made himself scarce during the hours of daylight, and if the house reawakened none of the numinous experiences of youth, then at least the land did. His brother had let it to a neighbouring farmer, with organic conditions attached in keeping with the holy principles of the spa. Clean sheep and shiny cattle grazed the parkland.
The trees in the woods were untouched. They were still as he remembered them. He got up close and down close. He felt the brown soil and the black leaf mould, ran his fingers over rough bark and smooth bark, smelled the bruised leaves underfoot. The first day was blustery and showery. Rain followed sunshine followed rain. He could stand beneath the gloom of heavy cloud and see a nearby hill or copse shining in brilliant light. He could stand in full sun and see the same places dim beneath a blue-green mist. Rainbows blazed into absurd and impossible existence, then faded and died. Across the valley he watched rain fall in silver stripes against the hill.
He remembered games: soldiers and spies and cow- boys. The Irish rebel army lying in wait for the Black and Tans. Urgent messages that had to be delivered against impossible odds. He was suddenly back there, scrambling down gullies, darting from cover to cover, leaping over rocks and streams and fallen branches. Until he turned his ankle and remembered himself, and saw himself for what he was: a revenant, plundering the imagination of a child long gone.
He walked across the fields to the village and had lunchÂ âÂ a sandwichÂ âÂ in the pub. Afterwards he returned to the farm and looked for trout to tickle in the stream. There were none, so he spent the afternoon constructing a dam instead which, as the light began to fade, he bombed with massive rocks. He returned to the house and slipped in by a side door, so as not to terrify the clientele with his happy, wet, muddy presence.
Initially, their communications were sparse, brief, cold. But over the six weeks that he stayed away, they defrosted and became longer. She kept him abreast of developments in her new enterprise, and if he never came around to the idea, he did at least learn to accept it. She was who she was and he was not going to change her. In spite of that, or maybe because of it, he loved her and missed her more with every day that passed. And in any event, he knew he couldn't go on the way he was going. He had to pull himself together. His body was rebelling against his abuse of it, and the doctor's warnings bellowed inside his head like the voice of the Old Testament God.
Finally he bit the bullet, swore off the drink again, and returned to his home and to his love.
He had never suggested that he was leaving her, but his absence had still frightened her. She rejected the advice of both her analyst and her friends, all of whom suggested that she use the time and space to stand back and take stock of herself and her situation. She could not do that. She could not bear a single evening in the empty house. So instead she revved herself up into top gear and drove her new project forward. First she upped the offer on the Bloomsbury premises to a level that she was sure would be accepted. Then she promoted the manager of the first No Sandwiches, who knew the business inside out, to a new position of overall supervisor for the whole chain. Freed from that responsibility, she browbeat estate agents and solicitors to close the Bloomsbury deal and push it through at top speed, engaged a top firm of architects to draw up plans, and bribed a reputable firm of builders with cash incentives to be ready to move in and start work the moment contracts were exchanged. Then she began to head-hunt. She wanted the best chefs and managers and kitchen and waiting staff, and she didn't care where she got them or how much she had to pay them. Inside a fortnight, she had a full complement of staff lined up and waiting for the word to come on board.
In the evenings, no matter how exhausted she was, she put on her face and her party clothes and went out. She went to everything that was worth going to, invited or not. Sometimes she went to two, or even three parties in one night. She used her years of experience to her advantage, knowing which names to drop and precisely when, never initiating a conversation about her project but waiting until she was asked what she was doing. Then she spoke about it casually, and made sure to leave the impression that the new dining club was incredibly exclusive and desirable, and not at all easy to join. And of course, as she had known they would, they signed up in their droves.
Before the breakout he had been increasingly tempted to believe that he wasn't writing because he wasn't drinking. He had been a fairly heavy drinker since he was in college, and whereas he knew that trying to write poetry tanked up on drink produced disappointing results, a certain blood- alcohol level had constituted his steady state throughout his adult life. It was in its dips that he had generally written his best poems, when financial embarrassment or ill health prevented him from going out to the pub and he was confined to lonely rooms in accommodation that was invariably sub-standard. He remembers those restless, teeth-grinding hours and days. He paced and scribbled, so deep in thought that he reached the thin membrane where conscious and unconscious minds meet, and peered through it, and entered a creative euphoria which is better than anything that alcohol or drugs can manufacture. In those cold, damp rooms he left his body, with all its hungers and discomforts, behind him, and came to a place where his soul was truly at home.
He knows it is an absurd vanity, but he believes that writing poetry is what he was put on this earth to do. Only when he is writing, entering into that deep creative passion, does he feel whole. Nothing else completes him; not the warm and comfortable home he inhabits in Islington, with its expensive hand-printed throws and its beds that masquerade as sofas; not the admiration of others; not the physical satisfactions of good food or good sex. But he can no longer find that perfect state of being within himself. It is the only thing lacking in an otherwise perfect life, but it is essential for him to find it if he is ever going to regain his self-respect.
Which is not the same thing as confidence, not at all. Confidence he has in abundance; in his relationship and in his dealings with the outer world. It is a thing he lacked as a child, throughout his adolescence and well into his adult life. He does not deny that she has been largely responsible for helping him to attain it, and he is grateful to her for that. Confidence is important in life, but it is no substitute for self-respect.
He didn't find his soul's home in the Dublin bars or in the village pub or in the naggin of whiskey he took back with him most nights to tide him through the darkness. He didn't find it either in the old house or in the childhood games or in the smells and sounds of the woodlands or the unlikely rainbows arcing across the Irish sky. Nor did he find it in the agonising climb back to dry land when he returned to Islington. He was assailed by petty irritations and sudden hot rages, most of which he successfully hid from her. Or perhaps he didn't. He remembers that they gave up sex for a while, until she appeared one day in that schoolgirl get-up. He had never gone in for bedroom games and it unnerved him, but he was too vulnerableÂ âÂ they both wereÂ âÂ for him to tell her to take it off. And he found that he soon came to like it, not so much because of the clothes, but because of who or what she became when she was wearing them.
It took another six months for the renovation work to be finished, but when the building was ready she was pleased with it. The kitchen was in the basement and the old chimney that ran up through the centre of the building had been converted into a dumb waiter to carry food to the floors above. On the ground floor was a bar and a series of open dining rooms of varying shapes and sizes. This was a public area and the tables could be booked by club members in the same way as any other restaurant. On the first and second floors, smaller dining rooms opened from large central landings with service and cloakroom areas. These were private rooms, and could be booked for special occasions for any number from two to twenty-five.
It took her most of the six months to come up with a suitable name for the place, but in the end she decided on Elsinore, because she felt it had the right blend of grandeur, bookishness and mystery. But at home he continued to refer to it as No Riffraff, and eventually she conceded and called it that, too. Initially it was not the roaring success she had expected. She had overlooked the caginess of the publishing industry. It wouldn't do for an agent to see a publisher wining and dining an author and all the key media people when one of that agent's equivalent authors had been refused the same treatment on the basis of finance restrictions. Similarly, newspaper arts editors and feature journalists had to be choosy about the invitations they accepted, but they didn't like to be seen to be so. A lot of the people who had sounded off most enthusiastically about what a wonderful idea it was never showed their faces in the place at all.
But luckily, the shortfall from the publishing industry was soon made up by people from other businesses once the word went out on the grapevine. Membership fees were nominal, unlike the more usual kinds of London clubs, and there were plenty of people who valued privacy and quiet and had the money to pay for it. All the same, from day one she had seen that it was a colossal mistake. Far from being another step forward on her way to self-discovery, it was a retrograde move. She had allowed herself to be sucked back into the same old circles, but now she had none of the thrill of the gambler's life. Instead she had taken on the role of perpetual hostess who, after the initial flurry of handshakes and introductions and mutual flattery, was relegated to the background to attend to their needs and excluded from all the most interesting bits.