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Authors: Edward St. Aubyn

The Patrick Melrose Novels (5 page)

BOOK: The Patrick Melrose Novels
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Anne had teased him about it just the other day, and said, ‘Oh, darling, you shouldn't have.'

‘Have what?'

‘Made breakfast.'

‘I haven't.'

‘Oh, I thought when you shouted, “Breakfast,” you meant it was ready.'

‘No, I meant that I was ready for breakfast.'

*   *   *

Anne had not been far wrong, Victor was indeed in his bathroom downstairs brushing his hair vigorously. But, as always, a few seconds after he stopped the wave of hair which had tormented him since childhood sprang up again.

His pair of ivory hairbrushes had no handles. They were quite inconvenient, but very traditional, like the wooden bowl of shaving soap, which never thickened as satisfactorily as foam from a can. Victor was fifty-seven, but looked younger. Only a drooping in his flesh, a loss of tension around the jaw and the mouth and the tremendous depth of the horizontal lines in his forehead, revealed his age. His teeth were neat and strong and yellow. Though he longed for something more aerodynamic his nose was bulbous and friendly. Women always praised his eyes because their pale grey looked luminous against his slightly pitted olive-brown skin. All in all, strangers were surprised when a rapid and rather fruity lisp emerged from a face which could well have belonged to an overdressed prizefighter.

In pink pyjamas from New & Lingwood, a silk dressing gown, and a pair of red slippers, Victor felt almost sleek. He had walked out of the bathroom, through his simple whitewashed bedroom with its green mosquito netting held in place over the windows by drawing pins, and out into the kitchen, where he hovered, not yet daring to call Anne.

While Victor hesitated in the kitchen, Eleanor arrived. The Buick was too long to twist its way up Victor's narrow drive and she'd had to park it on the edge of a small pine wood at the bottom of the hill. This land did not belong to Victor but his neighbours, the Fauberts, well known in Lacoste for their eccentric way of life. They still used a mule to plough their fields, they had no electricity, and in their large dilapidated farmhouse they lived in just one room. The rest of the house was crowded with barrels of wine, jars of olive oil, sacks of animal feed, and piles of almonds and lavender. The Fauberts had not altered anything since old Madame Faubert died, and she had never changed anything since she arrived as a young bride, half a century before, bearing a glass bowl and a clock.

Eleanor was intrigued by these people. She imagined their austere and fruitful life like a stained-glass window in a medieval church – labourers in the vineyard with grape-filled baskets on their backs. She had seen one of the Fauberts in the Crédit Agricole and he had the sullen air of a man who looks forward to strangling poultry. Nevertheless, she treasured the idea that the Fauberts were connected to the earth in some wholesome way that the rest of us had forgotten. She had certainly forgotten about being wholesomely connected with the earth herself. Perhaps you had to be a Red Indian, or something.

She tried to walk more slowly up the hill. God, her mind was racing, racing in neutral, she was pouring with sweat and getting flashes of dread through the exhilaration. Balance was so elusive: either it was like this, too fast, or there was the heavy thing like wading through a swamp to get to the end of a sentence. When there were cicadas earlier in the summer it was good. Their singing was like blood rushing in her ears. It was one of those outside inside things.

Just before the top of the hill she stopped, breathed deeply, and tried to muster her scattered sense of calm, like a bride checking her veil in the last mirror before the aisle. The feeling of solemnity deserted her almost immediately and a few yards further on her legs began to shake. The muscles in her cheeks twitched back like stage curtains, and her heart tried to somersault its way out of her chest. She must remember not to take so many of those yellow pills at once. What on earth had happened to the tranquillizers? They seemed to have been drowned by the floodtide of Dexedrine. Oh, my God, there was Victor in the kitchen, dressed like an advertisement as usual. She gave him a breezy and confident wave through the window.

Victor had finally summoned the courage to call Anne, when he heard the sound of feet on the gravel outside and saw Eleanor waving at him eagerly. Jumping up and down, crossing and uncrossing her arms above her head, her lank blonde hair bobbing from side to side, she looked like a wounded marine trying to attract a helicopter.

She formed the word ‘Hello' silently and with great exaggeration as if she were speaking to a deaf foreigner.

‘It's open,' Victor called.

One really has to admire her stamina, he thought, moving towards the front door.

Anne, primed to hear the cry of ‘Breakfast', was surprised to hear ‘It's open' instead. She got out of bed and ran downstairs to greet Eleanor.

‘How are you? I'm not even dressed yet.'

‘I'm wide awake,' said Eleanor.

‘Hello, darling, why don't you make a pot of tea,' said Victor. ‘Would you like some, Eleanor?'

‘No, thanks.'

After making the tea, Anne went up to dress, pleased that Eleanor had arrived early. Nevertheless, having seen her frenzied air and the sweat-streaked face powder, Anne did not look forward to being driven by her, and she tried to think of some way to do the driving herself.

In the kitchen, with a cigarette dangling from her mouth, Eleanor rummaged about in her handbag for a lighter. She still had her dark glasses on and it was hard to make out the objects in the murky chaos of her bag. Five or six caramel-coloured plastic tubs of pills swirled around with spare packets of Player's cigarettes, a blue leather telephone book, pencils, lipstick, a gold powder compact, a small silver hip-flask full of Fernet-Branca, and a dry-cleaning ticket from Jeeves in Pont Street. Her anxious hands dredged up every object in her bag, except the red plastic lighter she knew was in there somewhere. ‘God. I must be going mad,' she muttered.

‘I thought I'd take Anne to Signes for lunch,' she said brightly.

‘Signes? That's rather out of your way, isn't it?'

‘Not the way we're going.' Eleanor had not meant to sound facetious.

‘Quite,' Victor smiled tolerantly. ‘The way you're going it couldn't be closer, but isn't it rather a long route?'

‘Yes, only Nicholas's plane doesn't get in until three and the cork forests are so pretty.' It was unbelievable, there was the dry-cleaning ticket again. There must be more than one. ‘And there's that monastery to see, but I don't suppose there'll be time. Patrick always wants to go to the Wild West funfair when we drive that way to the airport. We could stop there too.' Rummage, rummage, rummage, pills, pills, pills. ‘I must take him one day. Ah, there's my lighter. How's the book going, Victor?'

‘Oh, you know,' said Victor archly, ‘identity is a big subject.'

‘Does Freud come into it?'

Victor had had this conversation before and if anything made him want to write his book it was the desire not to have it again. ‘I'm not dealing with the subject from a psychoanalytical point of view.'

‘Oh,' said Eleanor, who had lit her cigarette and was prepared to be fascinated for a while, ‘I would have thought it was – what's the word? – well, terribly psychological. I mean, if anything's in the mind, it's who you are.'

‘I may quote you on that,' said Victor. ‘But remind me, Eleanor, is the woman Nicholas is bringing this time his fourth or fifth wife?'

It was no use. She felt stupid again. She always felt stupid with David and his friends, even when she knew it was they who were being stupid. ‘She's not his wife,' she said. ‘He's left Georgina who was number three, but he hasn't married this one yet. She's called Bridget. I think we met in London, but she didn't make a very strong impression on me.' Anne came downstairs wearing a white cotton dress almost indistinguishable from the white cotton nightgown she had taken off. Victor reflected with satisfaction that she still looked young enough to get away with such a girlish dress. White dresses deepened the deceptive serenity which her wide face and high cheekbones and calm black eyes already gave to her appearance. She stepped lightly into the room. By contrast, Eleanor made Victor think of Lady Wishfort's remark, ‘Why I am arrantly flayed; I look like an old peeled wall.'

‘OK,' said Anne, ‘I guess we can leave whenever you like.

‘Will you be all right for lunch?' she asked Victor.

‘You know what philosophers are like, we don't notice that kind of thing. And I can always go down to the Cauquière for a rack of lamb with
sauce Béarnaise.
'

‘
Béarnaise?
With lamb?' said Anne.

‘Of course. The dish which left the poor Due de Guermantes so famished that he had no time to chat with the dying Swann's dubious daughter before hurrying off to dinner.'

Anne smiled at Eleanor and asked, ‘Do you get Proust for breakfast round at your house?'

‘No, but we get him for dinner fairly often,' Eleanor replied.

After the two women had said goodbye, Victor turned towards the refrigerator. He had the whole day free to get on with his work and suddenly felt tremendously hungry.

 

4

‘
GOD
,
I FEEL AWFUL
,' groaned Nicholas, switching on his bedside table lamp.

‘Poor squirrel,' said Bridget sleepily.

‘What are we doing today? I can't remember.'

‘Going to the South of France.'

‘Oh yes. What a nightmare. What time's the plane?'

‘Twelve something. It arrives at three something. I think there's an hour difference, or something.'

‘For Christ sake, stop saying “something”.'

‘Sorry.'

‘God knows why we stayed so late last night. That woman on my right was utterly appalling. I suppose somebody told her long ago that she had a pretty chin, and so she decided to get another one, and another, and another. You know, she used to be married to George Watford.'

‘To who?' asked Bridget.

‘The one you saw in Peter's photograph album last weekend with a face like a crème brûlée after the first blow of the spoon, all covered in little cracks.'

‘Not everyone can have a lover who's rich
and
beautiful,' said Bridget, sliding through the sheets towards him.

‘Oaw, give over, luv, give over,' said Nicholas in what he imagined to be a Geordie accent. He rolled out of bed and, moaning, ‘Death and destruction,' crawled histrionically across the crimson carpet towards the open door of the bathroom.

Bridget looked critically at Nicholas's body as he clambered to his feet. He had got a lot fatter in the past year. Maybe older men were not the answer. Twenty-three years was a big difference and at twenty, Bridget had not yet caught the marriage fever that tormented the older Watson-Scott sisters as they galloped towards the thirtieth year of their scatterbrained lives. All Nicholas's friends were such wrinklies and some of them were a real yawn. You couldn't exactly drop acid with Nicholas. Well, you could; in fact, she had, but it wasn't the same as with Barry. Nicholas didn't have the right music, the right clothes, the right attitude. She felt quite bad about Barry, but a girl had to keep her options open.

The thing about Nicholas was that he really was rich and beautiful
and
he was a baronet, which was nice and sort of Jane Austeny. Still, it wouldn't be long before people started saying, ‘You can tell he used to be good-looking,' and someone else would intervene charitably with, ‘Oh, no, he still is.' In the end she would probably marry him and she would be the fourth Lady Pratt. Then she could divorce him and get half a million pounds, or whatever, and keep Barry as her sex slave and still call herself Lady Pratt in shops. God, sometimes she was so cynical it was frightening.

She knew that Nicholas thought it was the sex that kept them together. It was certainly what had got them together at the party where they first met. Nicholas had been quite drunk and asked her if she was a ‘natural blonde'. Yawn, yawn,
what
a tacky question. Still, Barry was in Glastonbury and she'd been feeling a bit restless and so she gave him this heavy look and said, ‘Why don't you find out for yourself?' as she slipped out of the room. He thought he
had
found out, but what he didn't know was that she dyed
all
her hair. If you do something cosmetic, you might as well do it thoroughly, that was her motto.

In the bathroom, Nicholas stuck out his tongue and admired its thickly coated surface, still tinged with blackish purple from last night's coffee and red wine. It was all very well to make jokes about Sarah Watford's double chins, but the truth was that unless he held his head up like a Guardsman on parade he had one himself. He couldn't face shaving, but he dabbed on a little of Bridget's make-up. One didn't want to look like the old queen in
Death in Venice
, with rouge trickling down cholera-fevered cheeks, but without a little light powder he had what people called ‘a distinctly unhealthy pallor'. Bridget's make-up was rather basic, like her sometimes truly appalling clothes. Whatever one said about Fiona (and one had said some thoroughly unpleasant things in one's time) she did have the most amazing creams and masks sent over from Paris. He sometimes wondered if Bridget might not be (one had to slip into the softening nuances of the French tongue)
insortable.
Last weekend at Peter's she had spent the whole of Sunday lunch giggling like a fourteen-year-old.

And then there was her background. He did not know when the house of Watson and the house of Scott had seen fit to unite their fortunes, but he could tell at a glance that the Watson-Scotts were Old Vicarage material who would kill to have their daughter's engagement in
Country Life.
The father was fond of the races and when Nicholas had taken him and his keen-on-roses wife to
Le Nozze di Figaro
at Covent Garden, Roddy Watson-Scott had said, ‘They're under starter's orders,' as the conductor mounted the podium. If the Watson-Scotts were just a little too obscure, at least everyone was agreed that Bridget was flavour of the month and he was a lucky dog to have her.

BOOK: The Patrick Melrose Novels
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