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Authors: Edward St. Aubyn

The Patrick Melrose Novels (7 page)

BOOK: The Patrick Melrose Novels
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‘And did he pay you?'

‘Only after I lost my temper.'

‘Didn't Victor help?' asked Eleanor.

‘Victor shies away from crass things like money.'

The road had cut into cork forests, and trees with old or fresh wounds where belts of bark had been stripped from their trunks grew thickly on both sides.

‘Has Victor been doing much writing this summer?' asked Eleanor.

‘Hardly any. And it's not as if he does anything else when he's at home,' Anne replied. ‘You know, he's been coming down here for what? Eight years? And he's never even been over to say hello to those farmers next door.'

‘The Fauberts?'

‘Right. Not once. They live three hundred yards away in that old farmhouse, with the two cypresses out front. Victor's garden practically belongs to them, but they've never exchanged a word. “We haven't been introduced,” is his excuse,' said Anne.

‘He's terribly English for an Austrian, isn't he?' smiled Eleanor. ‘Oh look, we're coming up to Signes. I hope I can find that funny restaurant. It's in a square opposite one of those fountains that's turned into a mound of wet moss with ferns growing out of it. And inside there are heads of wild boars with polished yellow tusks all over the walls. Their mouths are painted red, so it looks as if they could still charge out from behind the wall.'

‘God, how terrifying,' said Anne, drily.

‘When the Germans left here,' Eleanor continued, ‘at the end of the war, they shot every man in the village, except for Marcel – the one who owns the restaurant. He was away when it happened.'

Anne was silenced by Eleanor's air of crazed empathy. Once they'd found the restaurant, she was at once relieved and a little disappointed that the dark watery square was not more redolent of sacrifice and retribution. The walls of the restaurant were made of blonde plastic moulded to look like planks of pine and there were in fact only two boars' heads in the rather empty room, which was harshly lit by bare fluorescent tubes. After the first course of tiny thrushes full of lead shot and trussed up on pieces of greasy toast, Anne could only toy with the dark depressing stew, loaded onto a pile of overcooked noodles. The red wine was cold and raw and came in old green bottles with no label.

‘Great place, isn't it?' said Eleanor.

‘It's certainly got atmosphere,' said Anne.

‘Look, there's Marcel,' said Eleanor desperately.

‘
Ah, Madame Melrose, je ne vous ai pas vue
,' he said, pretending to notice Eleanor for the first time. He hurried round the end of the bar with quick small steps, wiping his hands on the stained white apron. Anne noticed his drooping moustache and the extraordinary bags under his eyes.

Immediately, he offered Eleanor and Anne some cognac. Anne refused despite his claim that it would do her good, but Eleanor accepted, and then returned the offer. They drank another and chatted about the grape harvest while Anne, who could only understand a little of his
midi
accent, regretted even more that she was not allowed to drive.

By the time they got back to the car, the cognac and tranquillizers had come into their own and Eleanor felt her blood tumbling like ball bearings through the veins under her numbed skin. Her head was as heavy as a sack of coins and she closed her eyes slowly, slowly, completely in control.

‘Hey,' said Anne, ‘wake up.'

‘I am awake,' said Eleanor grumpily and then more serenely, ‘I'm awake.' Her eyes remained closed.

‘Please let me drive.' Anne was ready to argue the point.

‘Sure,' said Eleanor. She opened her eyes, which suddenly seemed intensely blue against the pinkish tinge of frayed blood vessels. ‘I trust you.'

Eleanor slept for about half an hour while Anne drove up and down the twisting roads from Signes to Marseilles.

When Eleanor woke up, she was lucid again and said, ‘Goodness that stew was awfully rich, I did feel a little weighed down after lunch.' The high from the Dexedrine was back; like the theme from
The Valkyrie
, it could not be kept down for long, even if it took a more muted and disguised form than before.

‘What's Le Wild Ouest?' said Anne. ‘I keep passing pictures of cowboys with arrows through their hats.'

‘Oh, we must go, we must go,' said Eleanor in a childish voice. ‘It's a funfair but the whole thing is made to look like Dodge City. I've never actually been in, but I'd really like to—'

‘Have we got time?' asked Anne sceptically.

‘Oh, yes, it's only one-thirty, look, and the airport is only forty-five minutes away. Oh, let's. Just for half an hour. Pl-ea-se?'

Another billboard announced Le Wild Ouest at four hundred metres. Soaring above the tops of the dark pine trees were miniature imitation stagecoaches in brightly coloured plastic hanging from a stationary Ferris wheel.

‘This can't be for real,' said Anne. ‘Isn't it fantastic? We have to go in.'

They walked through the giant saloon doors of Le Wild Ouest. On either side, the flags of many nations drooped on a circle of white poles.

‘Gosh, it's exciting,' said Eleanor. It was hard for her to decide which of the wonderful rides to take first. In the end she chose to go on the stagecoach Ferris wheel. ‘I want a yellow one,' she said.

The wheel edged forward as each stagecoach was filled. Eventually, theirs rose above the level of the highest pines.

‘Look! There's our car,' squealed Eleanor.

‘Does Patrick like this place?' asked Anne.

‘He's never been,' said Eleanor.

‘You'd better take him soon, or he'll be too old. People grow out of this sort of thing, you know.' Anne smiled.

Eleanor looked massively gloomy for a moment. The wheel started to turn, generating a little breeze. On the upward curve, Eleanor felt her stomach tighten. Instead of giving her a better view of the funfair and the surrounding woods, the motion of the wheel made her feel sick and she stared grimly at the white tips of her knuckles, longing for the ride to be over.

Anne saw that Eleanor's mood had snapped and that she was again in the company of an older, richer, drunker woman.

They got off the ride, and walked through a street of shooting arcades. ‘Let's get out of this fucking place,' said Eleanor. ‘It's time to collect Nicholas anyhow.'

‘So tell me about Nicholas,' said Anne, trying to keep up.

‘Oh, you'll find out soon enough.'

 

6

‘
SO THIS
ELEANOR WOMAN
is a real victim, right?' said Bridget. She had fallen asleep after smoking a joint in the loo and she wanted to compensate with a burst of belated curiosity.

‘Is every woman who chooses to live with a difficult man a victim?'

Nicholas undid his seatbelt as soon as the plane landed. They were in the second row and could easily get off ahead of the other passengers if, just for once, Bridget did not unsheathe her compact from its blue velvet pouch and admire herself in its powdery little mirror.

‘Shall we go,' sighed Nicholas.

‘The seatbelt sign is still on.'

‘Signs are for sheep.'

‘Bahaha-a-a,' bleated Bridget at the mirror, ‘I'm a sheep.'

This woman is intolerable, thought Nicholas.

‘Well, I'm a shepherd,' he said out loud, ‘and don't make me put on my wolf's clothing.'

‘Oh, my,' said Bridget, cowering in the corner of her seat, ‘what big teeth you have.'

‘All the better to bite your head off.'

‘I don't think you're my granny at all,' she said with real disappointment.

The plane stopped its creeping progress and there was a general clicking of opening buckles and discarded seatbelts.

‘Come on,' said Nicholas, now all businesslike. He very much disliked joining the struggling tourists as they jostled each other down the aisle.

They arrived at the open door of the plane, pale and overdressed, and started to clank their way down a flight of metal steps, caught between the air crew who pretended to be sorry at their departure and the ground crew who pretended to be pleased by their arrival. As she went down the steps, Bridget felt slightly nauseous from the heat and the smell of spent fuel.

Nicholas looked across the tarmac at the long queue of Arabs slowly climbing on board an Air France plane. He thought of the Algerian crisis in '62 and the threat of betrayed colonists parachuting into Paris. The thought petered out as he imagined how far back he would have to begin in order to explain it to Bridget. She probably thought that Algeria was an Italian dress designer. He felt a familiar longing for a well-informed woman in her early thirties who had read history at Oxford; the fact that he had divorced two of them already made little difference to his immediate enthusiasm. Their flesh might hang more loosely on the bone, but the memory of intelligent conversation tormented him like the smell of succulent cooking wafting into a forgotten prison cell. Why was the centre of his desire always in a place he had just deserted? He knew that the memory of Bridget's flesh would betray him with the same easy poignancy if he were now climbing on to the bus with a woman whose conversation he could bear. Theoretically, of course, there were women – he had even had affairs with them – who combined the qualities which he threw into unnecessary competition, but he knew that something inside him would always scatter his appreciation and divide his loyalties.

The doors folded shut and the bus jerked into motion. Bridget sat opposite Nicholas. Under her absurd skirt, her legs were slim and bare and golden. He detached them pornographically from the rest of her body, and found he was still excited by the idea of their availability. He crossed his legs and loosened his entangled boxer shorts through the stiff ridges of his corduroy trousers.

It was only when he considered to whom these golden legs belonged that his fleeting erection seemed a small and inconvenient reward for a state of almost permanent irritation. In fact, scanning the figure above the waist, along the fringed sleeve of her black suede jacket, and up towards the bored and stubborn expression on her face, he felt a spasm of revulsion and estrangement. Why was he taking this ludicrous creature to stay with David Melrose who was, after all, a man of some discernment, not to say a merciless snob?

The terminal building smelled of disinfectant. A woman in blue overalls drifted across the glaring floor, the circular pads of her polishing machine humming as she swung it gently back and forth across the black and brown translucent pebbles trapped in cheap white marble. Still stoned, Bridget lost herself in the flakes of colour as if they were the flint and quartz stars of a white sky.

‘What are you staring at?' snapped Nicholas.

‘This floor is something else,' said Bridget.

At passport control she could not find her passport but Nicholas refused to start a scene just when they were about to meet Eleanor.

‘Rather eccentrically, in this airport one crosses the main lobby before collecting one's luggage,' said Nicholas. ‘That's probably where Eleanor will be waiting for us.'

‘Wow!' said Bridget. ‘If I was a smuggler,' she paused, hoping Nicholas might challenge her, ‘this would be my dream airport. I mean, there's this whole lobby where you could slip someone your hand luggage, full of goodies, and then go and fetch your legal luggage for Customs.'

‘That's what I admire about you,' said Nicholas, ‘your creative thinking. You might have had a brilliant career in advertising; although I think as far as smuggling goes the Marseilles authorities have more pressing problems to wrestle with than any “goodies” you might import in your handbag. I don't know if you're aware of it but…'

Bridget had stopped listening. Nicholas was being a wanker again. He always got like this when he was uptight; in fact he was like this all the time except when he was in bed, or with people he wanted to charm. Lagging behind, she stuck her tongue out at him. Nyah, nyah, nyah … boring, boring, boring.

Bridget covered her ears and looked down at her dragging feet, while Nicholas strode on alone, pouring sarcasm on ideas increasingly remote from Bridget's tame remarks about smuggling.

Looking up again, Bridget saw a familiar figure. It was Barry leaning against the pillar next to the news-stand. Barry could always sense when he was being looked at and, depending on his mood, attributed this to ‘paranoia' or ‘ESP'.

‘Bridge! Incredible!'

‘Barry! All you need is love,' said Bridget, reading out loud the words on Barry's T-shirt and laughing.

‘This really is incredible,' said Barry, running his fingers through his long black hair. ‘You know I was thinking about you this morning.'

Barry thought about Bridget every morning, but it still struck him as further evidence of mind control that he had not only thought about her today but run into her at the airport as well.

‘We're going to Arles for the Progressive Jazz Festival,' said Barry. ‘Hey, why don't you come along? It's going to be really fantastic. Bux Millerman is playing.'

‘Wow,' breathed Bridget.

‘Hey, listen,' said Barry, ‘take Etienne's number anyway. That's where I'll be staying and maybe we can like meet up.'

‘Yeah,' said Bridget, ‘great.'

Barry pulled out a giant Rizla rolling paper and scribbled a number on it. ‘Don't smoke it,' he said humorously, ‘or we'll never get in touch.'

Bridget gave him the Melrose number because she knew he would not use it, and that this whole meeting-up thing was not going to happen. ‘How long have you been here?' she asked.

‘Ten days roughly and the only piece of advice I can give you is
don't drink the pink.
That wine is full of chemical shit and the hangover is worse than the comedown off a sulphate binge.'

BOOK: The Patrick Melrose Novels
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