Thursday, September 07, 2017

Still, by Adam Thorpe (an excerpt)

The point is, guv, Mr and Mrs Trevelyan APPROVED of what Mr Trevelyan’s second cousin once removed did to his boy, who was called Ashley. Agatha remembers them approving. When the subject pops up now and again, as it does, not even a hairline crack has appeared in the huge windowless wall of their APPROVAL. Actually, this wall is a dam. It’s keeping out what’d sweep everything away in a tide of moral filth and squalor. This APPROVAL appals Agatha. She’s eighteen, just. There’s a big gap between her and her parents. She’s not Victorian but Edwardian OK Georgian. Her cognisant life has been spent out of the shadow of that miserable old tent. It’s made a difference. Her heroine is Sylvia Pankhurst. She’s hung around at the back of two demonstrations for Women’s Suffrage in Hyde Park. She’s seen a woman dig her elbow in a policeman’s stomach. Her friend Amy tells her that there are secret classes in hand-to-hand combat and How To Disable A Policeman. Zelda wouldn’t believe me when I told her this. I said these suffrage women make Germaine Greer look like a kitchen sink. Zelda has this idea that everyone before 1968 were parents, they just spent all their time yelling up the stairs about the noise and collecting Tupperware and getting their hair done. I said 1968 was a wash-out, it was a fake, it was a student vacation in the woods where the camp-fire and the brown acid does weird things for an evening or two. She thinks I’m hung up about ’68 because I was too old for it. You were too young for it, I tell her, you were too young for it. Anyway, 1968 is completely outrun by what’s happening around Agatha. These people are inventing things like Cubism and Old Age Pensions and Militant Feminism and National Insurance and the Modernist Novel. It’s really incredible what’s going on behind these gigs and omnibuses and Model T Fords and mahogany doors with brass knockers and ridiculous clothes that swish and hats that fall off in a wind, they’re so tall, so broad. It’s really incredible. Blimey, think where it could have got to. But the contraption is on the move. Sir Philistine Fascist is shaking his Spectator in the Criterion. He’s plotting how to quell the natives. Break their spirit. Give them baubles. Kill ’em in large numbers. Ho yes, Sir Philistine won’t be that easily taken. Wha’dya think of it, Trevelyan? Ha? Arthur Trevelyan peeps out briefly from behind his Times. His knee is being attacked by the Spectator. Trevelyan is having a hard time just at this moment. I won’t go into details but it’s to do with Izal cornering the market in anti-typhoid measures in India. Trevelyan Disinfectants has sat back on its buckets and is paying the price. Izal have made huge inroads in London hospitals. Izal Disinfectants & Antiseptics are cheaper. Trevelyan had pinned his recovery on the enormous requirements of the sub-continent, the teeming filth and flies, the mass swab that the Empire demanded and which he was absolutely primed to provide. But Izal is 2d cheaper per bucket. He doesn’t like Sir Philistine Fascist banging his knee with the Spectator. It’s vulgar, apart from anything else. But Sir Philistine is a knight, he has connections, he has the ear of Bonar Law. Quite so, quite so, says Mr Trevelyan. My wife is a nervous case, for instance. They are all nervous cases. Society is rapidly becoming a nervous case. I suggest the medieval instrument whereby the scold was silenced. It fitted around the mouth and was locked with a key. I shall take out a patent and go into immediate production if you provide the investment, Sir Philistine. Sir Philistine roars his approval, turning heads. It’s good for these heads, they need the exercise, most of them have been asleep under their newspapers and illustrated periodicals for about forty years. I’ll tell ya what, Trevelyan, growls Sir Philistine, I’ll back ya to the hilt as long as it’s not the other damn opening you’re plugging up, what? He roars again. Trevelyan nods politely and disappears back into the obituaries. Terrible to say, but Sir Philistine’s vulgar quip has stirred Mr Trevelyan into a mild sexual need. An antique orgy is briefly squeaked down in front of the day’s dead, hiding the bishops and judges and generals and stuff. He closes his eyes and lets it play itself out. One of the participants is Ruthie. Ruthie does not fit in with the general picture, which is kind of eighteenth-century classical-pastoral. She giggles too much and says gerrofwivyer and her unlaced flopping corset is out of place amongst the gossamery Psyches with their fat thighs and tumbling hair under the ilex. He must see Ruthie. He must fit her in before dinner. He stirs and studies his fob with a frown. Apart from the fact that the guy has a wing collar and mutton-chop whiskers and an antique suit it might be now, it might be one of those City pinstripes with veined cheeks checking his Rolex in between meetings that keep the free market free and the world in jail. Sir Philistine Fascist is snoring. He always does this, it’s embarrassing, he dribbles some sort of coppery stuff. Trevelyan’s mouth goes up at one corner, shoving his whiskers around. He’s anticipating, he’s anticipating. Saliva gathers in his throat. He swallows it down along with some sweet smoke and a taste of antique sherry. He hasn’t been smoking, he hasn’t been drinking, it’s just the air, the air is expensive in here, it’s exclusive to the club and it’s been built up over about a century to this very collectable miasma. He settles back and closes his eyes. He has pouches under his eyes. He’s only forty-five but he has pouches. He likes to close his eyes sometimes and listen to the baize doors thumping away off and the brash and vulgar world tiptoeing past on its muffled hooves like a memory but Sir Philistine’s snore is really bad today and Trevelyan clears his throat loudly which always helps. Sir Philistine grunts and twitches his nose like a fly’s landed on it and then he lets off. It’s foul, it really is, there’s something very rotten inside Sir Philistine’s guts, my great-great-grandfather closes down the hatches of his nose and breathes through his mouth. The fellow knows Bonar Law. Bonar Law might form the next government. Members are always pooping. You can’t bar a fellow for letting orf. You can only bar a fellow for not wearing a tie. That’s the worst thing, that’s criminal. The second worst thing is to expire under a newspaper so no one notices. Sometimes no one notices until decomposition sets in. When it is eventually noticed there’s a lot of whispering and flunkeys bobbing about and then suddenly the chair is empty. Then this guy comes in and swabs it discreetly because there’s often some sort of evacuation and even if there isn’t it’s a symbolic gesture, it’s a reassurance, it means you can sit in it as soon as the smell of disinfectant has evaporated and the leather’s dry but no one does for about a week, just in case. Mr Trevelyan likes members to expire on site because he can smell his product. It’s always Trevelyan’s. The reason it’s always Trevelyan’s is because he’s done a cut-price deal with the club. The day they use Izal he’ll resign and probably go shoot himself. So he keeps this deal up, even though it hurts. Especially when times are lean. And they are increasingly lean. His eyelid tic is due to this leanness. It tics away uncontrollably in meetings and just before he goes to sleep. I’m leaving him in the chair because Agatha and William are having an interesting conversation in the attic about ten streets away and I don’t want to miss it. Notice how I’m really concentrating and not thinking about Zelda and HIG too much. This is because I’ve had a break. I’ve been off set for about a month. The Mussolinis, anyway, were wondering why I was spending so much time in the library. They don’t like the idea of their employees spending too much time in the library. It means they might he spending HCDVA time on research, instead of their own personal time, like after midnight or just before dawn. So they gave me three extra classes and five hundred essays to mark. It was really about fifty essays but the students can rewrite, it’s a divine right, it’s liberal and progressive and so they take all your comments and the notes they took down when they wasted an hour of your life asking you why you gave their work of incisive genius a lousy grade and they hang ’em together and come back and you give them a slightly less lousy grade and encourage the use of the comma and the full stop and even the semicolon from time to time and the whole process repeats itself. Meanwhile Zelda was seeing Hair In the Gate. I got very depressed. I took my phone off the hook because these dumbo students kept shouting down it. Now they’ve all got straight As because I’m a great essay-writer, I know my stuff, there’s nothing I do not know about stuff like the impact of the moving image on social discourses and the impact of social discourses on the moving image – it’s all in here, tap tap, and I can’t blow the Hair Out of the Gate. So I’m concentrating. Zelda says hey, it’s platonic. I say I never believed that stuff about Plato. So I’m concentrating and not in the HCDVA library. I’m in my study, I’m busking a bit part in The Life and Times of St Jerome. We go out once in a while, my sweetheart and I. To the zoo, last week. It has great colobus, they like doughnuts, they keep looking around like neurotics who’ve just realised why they’ve lost. I could watch them for hours. Zelda prefers the cheetah. I can’t stand the cheetah. I can’t stand watching the fastest animal in the world searching for somewhere to get the acceleration up and not finding it, not ever finding it. I’m patient. One day I will tell him to lay his hands off. Not yet, not yet.