A Hard Time to Be a Father

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Fay Weldon won the Silver Pen Award for her last collection of stories, Wicked Women.

Here are nineteen sparkling new tales about the way we live now, as lovers, partners, children, parents. Or alone. Stories of passion, desire and necessary restraint; of the near future, the recent past; of old habits, new technology; of won't-be mothers and would-be fathers; of houses ancient and modern. Stories, in fact, to enlighten us to the true and ...

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Overview

Fay Weldon won the Silver Pen Award for her last collection of stories, Wicked Women.

Here are nineteen sparkling new tales about the way we live now, as lovers, partners, children, parents. Or alone. Stories of passion, desire and necessary restraint; of the near future, the recent past; of old habits, new technology; of won't-be mothers and would-be fathers; of houses ancient and modern. Stories, in fact, to enlighten us to the true and timeless nature of the human condition, in this new age of self-knowledge.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The prolific Weldon (Wicked Women) is at her wry, risk-taking best in this broad collection of 19 stories. The tight and cohesive work is built on a matrix of recurring characters intersecting with variations on themes (betrayal and loss, truth and scandal). In her signature style, Weldon peoples many of these pieces with women who wreak catastrophe in ways that thrill the misanthropic reader: from the art critic in "Inspector Remorse," who seduces a painter's husband out of jealousy, to Stella in "Once in Love in Oslo," who tells the woman who stole her husband that she, too, is being cheated on. Scruples and sentimentality have no role here, and the result is pure fun: when Elspeth in "Percentage Trust" learns that her lover Aziz is not a mogul but a chauffeur, she simply joins him in his bunko life. Dark humor pervades, especially in choices of names: Damask Vale-Eden and her sisters Chenille, Velvet and Caledonia are characters in "What the Papers Say"; Jude Iscary is the aptly named protagonist of "GUP or Falling in Love in Helsinki"; the derivation of the names of former husband and wife Imp and Trixie in "Noisy into the Night" is hilarious. Only the title story tries too hard to be wry. A tale called "Pyroclastic Flow" works far better in this context than in Forever Sisters, a multiauthor anthology also in current release. As always, Weldon takes no prisoners. (Feb.)
Library Journal
In this collection of short stories, Weldon (Big Girls Don't Cry, LJ 8/98) presents 19 vignettes of extended, blended, related, and unrelated relatives and their struggles to maintain or terminate relationships with other people. Most of her characters are the product of relationships based on unequal amounts of affection. Undaunted, they go on to new romances and families. "The thing you love wants to destroy you--so what? Except you find you want to live and take steps to save yourself." Her characters all learn surprising things about people they think they know well. While the stories, set in England and New Zealand, are well written and very readable, most of her male characters are dolts, rogues, and/or chauvinists. There is a depressing sameness in the inability of most of Weldon's characters to maintain a stable relationship with a spouse but a sense of optimism in their willingness to keep trying. Recommended.--Joanna M. Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island Coll. of Continuing Education Lib., Watch Hill
Kirkus Reviews
Nineteen new stories from Weldon (Wicked Women, etc.) that, even when fragmentary, sizzle with intellectual energy and acerbic wit. Weldon is noted for her tales of the war between the sexes, a war where victory doesn't always go to the strong or the deserving. Like a war correspondent, her dispatches from the battlefield both shock and instruct, but, as sex may be just one big cosmic joke, humor and satire often relieve the underlying bitterness. Pieces such as "Percentage Trust" and "Inspector Remorse"describe, respectively, a woman who coolly calculates every action in percentage terms during her affair with a man, whom she rightly doesn't trust; and a married woman and art critic who sits in church on Good Friday trying to decide whether she's a sociopath because she feels no remorse for the suicide of the wife of the artist she seduced. The wittiest story here is "What the Papers Say": a successful model and a married movie star have an affair, which, when discovered, becomes headline news. Their careers are ruined, and their lives change in unsuspected ways, but by the time mitigating facts are revealed, other tales-of an air crash, of a royal divorce-have risen to take their place. In the title story, a mordant modern allegory, Weldon mocks bureaucratic contemporary health care, fatherhood, pop psychology, and even feminism when a prospective father faints, sickens, and is rushed to a local emergency room upon hearing the word "baby." Other standouts detail parents' scandalous behavior that fortuitously prevents an unsuitable marriage ("A Great Antipodean Scandal" ); a mother's contradictory admonitions that finally make sense ("My Mother Said"); and a haunted house exorcizedby the marriage of its owner to a man who feels that he has mistreated his own house ("Spirits Fly South"). Some unevenness, but always bracing and full of zest. .
From the Publisher
"In her hands, nothing, truly nothing, is sacred." —The New York Times Book Review

Her omniscience puts one in mind of her great realist forebears, George Eliot and Doris Lessing." —Michèle Roberts, The Times

"It is a fizzy collection, so up to date you can still smell the paint . . . The spirit of storytelling is alive and well." —The Scotsman

"Sizzles with intellectual energy and acerbic wit. Always bracing and full of zest." —Kirkus Reviews

"Weldon is at her wry, risk-taking best . . . as always, Weldon takes no prisoners." —Publishers Weekly

"Vintage Weldon-no holds barred and incredibly funny." —The Charlotte Observer

"Weldon is masterful in her portrayals of females in the throes of so-called relationships. Elegantly written and bitingly smart."—The Denver Post

"Weldon's beguiling narrative style . . . sweeps the reader convincingly away." —The Orlando Sentinel

"One of the most cunning satirists of our time." —The Indianapolis Star

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781582340661
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 1/15/2000
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.56 (w) x 8.24 (h) x 0.67 (d)

Meet the Author

Fay Weldon was born in England and raised in New Zealand. Her novels and short stories are bestsellers around the world. Her film and television work has been accorded great critical acclaim. She lives and works in London.

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


WHAT THE PAPERS SAY


New York was hot and soggy and you couldn't smoke, so they checked out of their hotel where the air-conditioning groaned and shuddered, and took the train to Boston. Damask thought the journey would be pretty but it wasn't. Just indeterminate August trees, and the only spot of romance was the whoo-whoo of Amtrak, as they'd heard it in a hundred black-and-white movies, floating back from the engine. How painfully slow and bumpy anything seemed these days if it was not air travel, and after you'd been in Concorde, apparently even ordinary air travel irritated. Ariel had flown in Concorde, though because he'd had to go standby, only in the rear section where the noise and vibration already begin to get to you. Stand-by on Concorde! Damask marvelled. She was always marvelling. That was what he said he loved about her, so she did it a lot.

    Ariel was fifty-two and called after the archangel, not the blithe spirit of Shakespeare's The Tempest, nor the soap powder, as Damask, who loved him newly and passionately, would tell everyone who didn't already know (and quite often even if they did) from the press cuttings. Ariel King, Irish film star, Oscar-winner. Married. Not to Damask. Ariel was meant to be in Hollywood for promotional purposes but had managed to take a week out in order to show Damask Vale-Eden America. His wife Elspeth was on holiday with the children in the Seychelles. Elspeth liked a flat, watery place with a known circumference. Elspeth marvelled at nothing, grieved at everything. Elspeth was Ariel's conscience, and Damaskhis delight.

    Damask was a model of the plumper kind, though thin enough by ordinary standards: she was the one they liked to use when accused too savagely of heroin chic. Damask was twenty-two, and smoked like a chimney.

    Boston was even hotter and soggier than New York: the clam chowder was good, if oddly grainy, and Damask tried to light up in what she assumed was a bar area of the hotel restaurant. An angry woman in a blue sequined dress snatched the cigarette from her mouth and accused her of murder, and said she was a slut and a whore. The woman was crazy, everyone agreed, but it was a nasty incident, so Damask and Ariel flew down to Chicago where the Catholics cluster and the sense of sin is not so great — it being traditionally purged by confession and so having no way of accumulating over long periods — and the rich and successful are allowed to be fatter and happier than anywhere else in the States. You could smoke, mostly, but after you'd been to the Art Institute and the John G. Shedd aquarium and walked in the parks and taken a boat out on the lakes, there didn't seem much to do. How could anywhere be so hot and windy at the same time? They couldn't go to grand hotels, in case Ariel was seen by someone he knew: so they went to the run-of-the-mill kind, where there wasn't a concierge to tell you what was what, and they had to depend for their entertainment on tourist traps, as if they were just anyone. The hotels were OK, but there was no swanning about, no half-mangoes with giant strawberry for room-service breakfast; and sex felt oddly perfunctory: not overwhelming, now for once there was time for it. Ariel was guilty about Elspeth, so his performance led them to joke about Viagra, and Damask was, frankly, not all that keen on anything that tended to take her by surprise, making her screw up her face: she didn't want to get wrinkles. But that was OK. `This thing,' as they assured each other, `is about more than sex.'

    After Chicago they went to Washington DC and on a guided tour of the White House, and even caught a glimpse of Bill Clinton himself, in the midst of a posse of security men, whose necks seemed wider than their heads. `Isn't he handsome?' marvelled Damask, and a fellow tourist remarked, 'Well, yes, a girl like you would think so.' Damask did have Lewinski-like qualities, it is fair to say: a kind of buoyant overflowingness, a spontaneity, and a rich, loose, red mouth. She had been named Damask by her mother, with just that same kind of spontaneity, only somehow messier. Damask was one of five sisters, by four different fathers, none of them ever resident. They'd all lived in Cornwall in a pretty bohemian house on a cliff top, but rising seas had eroded the coastline and they'd had to leave when Damask was sixteen: such eccentricity no longer suited the times, and even the ocean knew it.

    Damask and Ariel left Washington DC and went to Nashville on SouthWest Airlines, an August-only deal, only $42 a head, and by coach to Memphis and Gracelands, because Ariel had a thing about Elvis Presley, and where it would be a very good idea indeed if he wasn't seen. Ariel had won his Oscar for playing Beethoven in Prometheus. And in his new movie Pure of Heart he played a Christian Scientist prepared to lay down his life for his faith. The studio had high hopes for it: the sequel, Heartlands, was about to go into production. Ariel was indeed seen at Gracelands, as it happened, by a passing fashion photographer, who recognised them both and double took, in every sense of the word, but when it came to it neither Damask nor Ariel noticed. Lovers always tend to believe they are invisible.

    Back to Nashville for a night out at The Old Opry, which Damask couldn't stand. New men in black hats and girls singing twangy therapist songs. She was an acid-house girl herself: she couldn't bear lyrics.

    `Did you know,' said Ariel, `that if they want to prevent fish from getting sucked into grills they play acid house into the water. The boom, boom, boom, drives them to the far end of the pool.'

    Yes, this relationship was cooling off. Neither wanted to admit it, but both knew it. He from experience and she because she knew perfectly well he was too old for her and in taking up with him in the first place had only been trying to annoy her mother. It is not nice to find yourself with no home, albeit it is the ocean's fault, at sixteen, and to have to go to live with an aunt, along with your twin sister Velvet, with whom you do not get along though everyone thinks because you are twins you must. And your mother, though remaining fond, seems to have simply given up on her role, and no longer sees it as her responsibility to provide board and lodging. She has to be punished, just a little, as the years go by.

    Velvet had recently become pregnant by a Rastafarian, which was a far more drastic kind of thing to do than merely going off secretly with a man thirty years older than herself, as Damask had done. But Velvet had always taken things to extremes: she was alleged to be Damask's identical twin but during their growing years was always fatter or thinner or taller or shorter than Damask: Velvet too had tried to start a career modelling, but was too inconsistent in shape and behaviour, too scatty in attitude, and the rich red lips seemed to look bad-tempered rather than to pout; how two people so nearly alike could be so different in photographs was a marvel to their mother Caledonia. Velvet and Damask Vale-Eden. School had been a torment. `Take no notice,' said their mother. `They're just envious, all the Annes and the Joans and the Marys. The Browns and the Smiths and the Joneses. Don't try to be like other people, girls, because you're not.'

    Perhaps Ariel and Damask got together not just because sudden fame went to his head, and the brave must surely deserve the fair, and not just because she rated a man who won Best Actor about as high as Lewinski rated the President, which was just about as high as you can get, but because of this question of the names. Ariel's father was an Israeli out of Germany, a socialist of the pre-war kibbutz movement: his mother a nice girl called Anne from Dublin, but they'd had no more mercy than had Caledonia. How mixed up everyone becomes!

    The soft green grass and the fireflies and the low, full moon of Nashville made outdoor love-making tempting: they walked back to their hotel from The Old Opry and into what was either a park or someone's front garden, what did they care? They fell upon the ground and embraced, and he sang `Moon River' and she wished he didn't. The photographer had followed them all the way from Gracelands, patiently, pitter-pat. Lawn sprinklers suddenly started, security lights flared, dogs barked, the errant couple started up in surprise, Damask's fine cotton dress, drenched, clung to her body, all her fine bosom revealed, his cotton chinos to his manly form; the couple fled into the dark, re-arranging clothes as best they could.

    That was Nashville.

    They flew to San Francisco but there was no air-conditioning. Really, August is not the best time for cities. Then Hollywood lost patience with its errant star and tugged the cord and Ariel obeyed, and it was time for Damask to fly back to Heathrow. She would arrive back first thing on Sunday morning, ready for a shoot her agent arranged for the Monday. She looked forward to it. Swimsuits for the Living Family magazine and its Mail Order Catalogue: but a classy catalogue for once, and the more unclothed Damask was, the better she always looked. The creamy curves of her shoulders and arms, the smooth stretch of long full legs — she would never be totally chic, everyone agreed, but chicness in itself was beginning to feel unfashionable. Once skinny, attitudey chic reached the high streets, things had to go the other way.


At the British Airways Terminal of LA airport Ariel and Damask kissed and hugged each other goodbye.

    `I'm no Humbert Humbert,' Ariel said. They'd seen the remake of Lolita in Chicago. `I can't do this to you. This week has been the happiest of all my life, and it breaks my heart. But I renounce you, I set you free, find the man you love, my darling, be happy always. And call me when you can. Use the mobile number.'

    Mobiles are best for clandestine phone calls. You can switch them off in your spouse's presence, switch them on when privacy is available.

    Damask resisted the temptation to winge and sulk. To be happy, she knew, is always the best revenge. It is only natural for a girl to want the man she's just spent a week with to yearn passionately to spend the rest of his life with her, but she could see it was unrealistic. Had she already been a well-established world figure she might have had a chance; to share headlines keeps a relationship afloat — look at Mick and Jerry. But if they tilt either way too sharply and suddenly, there's bound to be trouble sooner or later. No, let him go back to Elspeth, who'd never had a headline in her life but only made body text, and was two stone overweight, three by most people's standards, and pale and plain and reclusive and terribly, terribly serious. Damask had her future to think of, and besides she was a good, kind girl and knew how to behave.

    `I shall never forget you,' Damask said softly to Ariel, `never. Whoever I'm with for the rest of my life I'll remember you: the best and tenderest first lover in the whole world. My mother always says I'm lucky and so I am!'

    A nice girl indeed, Damask, though of course Ariel wasn't her first lover, but it was pleasant for him to think he was and that he had made such a fine and lasting impression on her. Damask became a little fidgety and wanted to go off to the smoking area, so she did not hold him back when he kissed her for the last time, and left, leaving her with an hour to catch her flight.

    On the flight back — Club-class: Ariel had paid — she thought of him with affection, but no longer with love. She felt more mature and more experienced now: that was the thing about older men; you osmosed worldly wisdom from their bodies. She hated using condoms. Such a waste. Everyone knew — alas, there was no word for it that didn't put you off — that coital bodily fluids were the best thing for the complexion, whatever orifice was engaged. So she used an old-fashioned cap. The pill made you put on weight, and she couldn't afford to, her size being so finely tuned to the needs of the market — enough for wow! But not enough for yuk! — as her agent put it. Damask was not afraid of AIDS; she believed in a benign fate; all she wanted was not to be pregnant and not to have to take time off for a termination which would interfere with her bookings.

    Velvet, her twin, had had two abortions, each more traumatic than the last: the previous Christmas when the whole family had for once gathered together, in a borrowed house, there was Velvet, the youngest by twenty minutes, making everyone miserable by weeping and groaning and lamenting. What a sight the family made! Six pairs of red lips around the table, straight firm noses, clear skins, wide blue eyes, firm chins — Caledonia has had a face-lift — so like one another some swore the mother must have given birth by parthenogenesis — there really should have been nothing in life to complain about. Only Velvet was given to fits of misery: the others felt she lacked style. All the girls save Velvet were doing well: Chenille was a practising lawyer; Satin, who these days called herself Joan, was an analytical chemist; Georgette was doing a PhD on the influence of the Napoleonic Wars on figurative painting; and Damask's modelling career seemed to be taking off.

    But now it was the end of August. And Velvet was pregnant again, though this time happily, if drastically, and engaged to be married. Having got rid of the genes of a racing driver and a professor, as Georgette had crossly observed, she had settled for those of a yardie. A Rastafarian rock star.

    `All men are equal, none of my girls are racists, I am so proud of my Velvet,' Caledonia had crooned when they'd all got together at Easter, and she'd taken another whisky, and inhaled marijuana for her nerves, but her eyes looked slightly cross-eyed with the effort of not worrying about the polyglot nature of the future. It was an embarrassment. When young white women run off with beautiful black men it is seen as if lust is uppermost in their minds; and lust is not ladylike. Such a difficult line to tread when bringing up children: you want them to absorb your own intellectual, sexual and artistic messages in the proportion in which you yourself enjoy them, and which works well enough for you, but the children never quite seem to get the proportions right. Velvet interpreted a joyous sexuality as the alrightness of being sex mad. Encourage Satin to read a book and she ended up a misogynist scientist. One rash overnight visit for the mother, taking Georgette along to a painter's studio, and the girl spends the rest of her life amongst paintings, knowing everything, but so far as Caledonia is concerned, appreciating very little. Preach forgiveness and Chenille spends her life protecting the criminal classes from their just deserts. Only Damask seemed to get everything just about right: the balance poised in the daughter as it was in the mother. So what if Damask went off on holiday with a married actor, at least you knew she'd be back in time for work. Of the twins, it was always Velvet had the unluck and Damask the luck. A single slip-up from Velvet and she'd be pregnant and you'd know in advance there'd be a power cut and a botch-up should she be whisked into hospital for some emergency operation. Whereas Damask — Damask rode the crest of any wave going: Damask would be swept along on the tide of popular taste: the Living Family catalogue today, but tomorrow's Ms Versace, as bosoms and smiles became the rage, and there was no more profit in poky ribs and puncture marks. Yes, Damask, second to last, was the most successful, the most balanced, of Caledonia's daughters.

    Caledonia, herself the younger daughter of a former Foreign Secretary, now deceased, and executor of his estate, was involved in a long-running lawsuit with the publishers of his biography, a book full of disgraceful and humiliating tittle-tattle, most detrimental to his memory. The estate claimed damages for various posthumous insults to the elder statesman's reputation. It would make a legal precedent if it succeeded: the past claiming damages from the future, as it were, rather than the other way round. It was at a sensitive stage. The family hoped for £1/2 million at least: Caledonia would at last be able to buy a proper new home. For five years she had been house-sitting for absent lovers, or staying with friends, or one way or another putting off her domestic duties.

    And Damask? Damask just wanted the family to be happy and all together. She was a good, sweet girl. And now she had sensibly parted from Ariel, and allowed him to go back to his serious wife, as a good, sweet girl should.

    And that was that, or so Damask thought. She loved the flight back with its endless unnecessary servings of dainty snackettes, and its little movie screens, and Ariel was on one of them, playing the faithful husband of a faithless spouse. He always played the good guy, the old-fashioned hero: Harrison Ford the younger. Me, me, she thought, that man on that screen loves, loved, well, something, once, me. It was thrilling. She slept. But the past is never over, no matter how much we might wish it were.

    When she came out into the light at the end of the Heathrow tunnel it was into a mob of paparazzi, news crews and press men: grabbing and snatching, pressing forward like the surge of the waves which once carried her home away: crashing into her happiness. What can be happening, she wondered, what's going on, it can't be me. But it was. Photos of Damask coming out of Arrivals, stunned and staring, jaw dropped, looking far from her best, not even any eye shadow, made the front pages the next day. And alongside Damask, re-runs of Saturday's pics of Elspeth back from holiday, two stone the lighter and for once looking fabulous, if of course grieved. And the captions ran the gamut from `Fury Wife Chops Out AK' to `Daffy Damask Steals the King' to `Face of a Marriage Breaker'. Elspeth was suing for divorce through a PR firm, and claiming untold millions. And there were the two sweet blonde King kiddies too, weeping all over the pages, front, middle and back. And everywhere, everywhere, was the pic that had got Elspeth going. Damask drenched to the skin, bosom half-bared, rising like Venus out of long grass, fireflies glittering her hair, from her horizontal embrace in the Nashville night with the clothed Ariel King. Picture of the year. It made the photographer half a million. It ended the King marriage. Cheesecake sur l'herbe, as it was known, after Manet, and became the trigger for great media debates on everything from the selfishness of parents, to adultery as sin, to the merits and otherwise of love-making out of doors and the life-cycle of fireflies. But that was later, and only after what Damask had said at the airport, and when Georgette had made her rash comparison to Déjeuner sur I'herbe. None of the sisters were to be left alone. Pitter-pat, pitter-pat, went the sweet tough newsgirls after the lot of them: do you have any comment, don't you want to put your side of the story? We'll be nice to you, the others won't. You, the five beautiful sisters with four different fathers (and if the last two hadn't been twins no doubt it would have been five), do we blame you, pity you? Can you just tell us where your mother is? Caledonia? What kind of name is that? Caledonia's father was once in the running for Tory Prime Minister: haven't we some old pics of some old scandal: hasn't the daughter got some ongoing lawsuit? And there were the biographer's calumnies all over the literary pages again and the book selling like hot cakes but the profits to the biographer. Out came the therapists, the geneticists and counsellors: the infidelities of the father visited unto the second generation: compulsive marriage-breaking in the genes. The media couldn't believe its luck.

    Because of course at the airport Damask, instead of reacting with appropriate shock, horror, confusion and apology to her uncovering as a bad girl, had coolly observed, `Why blame me? Why not blame him?' And had fled to take refuge with Velvet, press pursuing. Otherwise it might all have died away sooner.


On the Sunday, Damask and Velvet prowled up and down in their besieged apartment in Parson's Green in South London. Damask had made her escape through the kindness of a couple of journos from the Mail who had whisked her into their car, evaded the following pack, and delivered her to Velvet's place for what they had hoped would be a quiet interview. Only Damask had managed to slam the doors in their faces before they could follow her in. They shouted at her through the letter-box: all they wanted to know, they said, was what Ariel was like as a lover? How did he rate? Did she wish to comment on Elspeth's statement that she'd have been happier with a dildo? Didn't Damask want to comment on that? Eventually they went away. Damask and Velvet pulled the curtains, locked the doors, took the phone off the hook, and smoked a couple of joints.

    In the middle of Sunday night Velvet started to miscarry, and had to go to hospital in an ambulance. The press were still there outside. Velvet — when finally she wrote the story of her abortions for a miserable £5,000: `I Murdered My Unborn Babies' — attributed the disaster to the shock of it all, though actually she had been bleeding on and off for days, and no one in the family knew, frankly, whether to be glad or sorry, and anyway concern for Velvet's emotional state was not currently at the top of the family's agenda. `Velvet Loses Rasta Baby' had almost become a so-what. Though it gave rise to yet more column inches — dire warnings from health experts saying that for every two abortions, expect one miscarriage.

    It was as if the nation had gone to sleep one night careless and randy, as usual, and woken up the next in such a fit of respectability you couldn't believe it. Cruel Damask, the media reported, couldn't even be bothered to go to hospital with her own sister: perhaps she was too busy making phone calls to married men? Oh yes, they knew her sort!

    Caledonia had gone into hiding but broke radio silence by getting through to Georgette, also under seige, and saying of Damask, her one-time favourite, `Darling, it's so vulgar for a woman to have her name in the paper. I can never forgive Damask for this.' And then, relenting. `But don't tell her so, Georgie. She has enough to put up with.'

    On Monday morning early, Damask called a taxi and fought her way through the ravening cluster on the steps and got to the studio with only a small crowd following. She was met there by her agent and the client. She was no longer needed on the shoot. She was notorious, and notoriety was not needed on Living Family: they had a young, wholesome image.

    `But the magazine won't come out for a month,' pleaded Damask. `It'll all be forgotten by then.'

    The client shook his head. He knew better. Her agent raised sceptical eyebrows. Her dewy implorings counted for nothing. She wasn't looking her best. Jet lag, shock and terror at her new image as perceived by the world, had rubbed the bloom off her. A nice damask plum. Her agent raised sceptical eyebrows. Versace had been on the phone first thing. They didn't want the association. Sure, ribs and drugs were on the way out, and health and sex on the way in, but why use a model the whole world hated? Her bosom was way too big anyway, they'd assumed it was silicone and could be easily diminished: but real flesh? It might go wrong and she'd sue. So thank you, Miss Vale-Eden, but no thanks. And only twenty-two, poor girl, and trusting. She who'd once believed in her own good luck.

    Stories are spun out of nothing and sink back to nothing, leaving a few ruined lives behind, living sacrifice in the cause of headlines, being there first, getting the exclusive. Or else see it as a horse race, a starting point and a finishing point, when the Editor finally says enough of that: and a mad gallop in between. Who's to blame, the man or the woman? And they're off, like horses from the starting-post, ripping up the turf as they go! Others see it as feeding frenzy: piranha fish at work. Nothing once it's over but the bare bones of the victim, glimpsed on the riverbed, whitened and bleached and thin.


On the other side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, from coast to coast, Ariel was the brute, the monster, the seducer, Damask the young victim. Wrongly described in one paper as being sixteen years old, facts picked up like Chinese whispers, she ended up little more than a child. King the paedophile, though nobody quite used the p-word in case he sued. The New Yorker ran pieces on the media as the new morality and the innate helplessness of New Woman in the face of her own sexuality. The New York Times linked the scandal with Clinton. Great Lives, Silly Loves, Poor Wives: CNN did a special out of Atlanta. There was a report that Elspeth King had sold her story for $500,000, and had met up with her (married) PR agent while holidaying in the Seychelles: but it suited nobody to know that. That story quickly died. The studio stopped production of the new Ariel King movie Heartlands out of sensitivity to public feeling, throwing away $30 million and a dozen new hopeful film careers on the way.

    On the Heathrow side of the Atlantic Damask became the hate figure, the girl all other women fear (or are said to), the stealer of husbands, the marriage breaker, the careless, selfish, dangerous bitch. The media dug up family photos, decided her upbringing was not to blame. Caledonia was exonerated. Blame the daughter, not the mother! Caledonia, lone mother, doing her best in the face of personal disaster. A series of wicked abandoning men. She'd brought up a family, hadn't aborted a single one (or none that anyone discovered) and had never been a charge on the state. Caledonia, pursued, gave herself up to the Mail, offered them her story if they'd only keep the others off her back. She gave the £100,000 to the Prince's Trust charity. Bred a lady, always a lady, the papers agreed. So long as it's the aristocracy, bad behaviour is allowed to turn into a delightful eccentricity. So much remains of noblesse oblige. Caledonia was off the hook. Except the law then swung against her. She was a public figure, wasn't she? How could she claim loss of privacy? She got damages of one penny and the biographer laughed all the way to the bank.

    All this because of one love-making observed and interrupted amongst the fireflies and the green grass of Nashville, Tennessee, after a night out at The Old Opry. A longing look from Damask, English Rose, a bosom unconfined, a lusty clasp from Ariel, film star out of Hollywood, and pow!

    Someone looked up Ariel's birth certificate back in Dublin. Barry turned out to be his given name. `If I'd known it,' Elspeth was reported as saying, `I wouldn't have married him. It was Ariel, archangel, which so enchanted me.' A hundred new features were spawned. The power of the name! The Israeli father turned out to be a fantasy. The true father was an absentee builder. Elspeth's sued him for $8m he hasn't got.

    An Oscar he might have, but until Prometheus he hadn't been a huge earner and now Heartlands was being withdrawn. His agent advised, `Lie low for a year or two, restart a career as a villain, what are your options now? When will you guys ever learn?' The agent shook his head but he was just going through the motions. He was on Viagra, he had his own problems: in love with a twenty year old who wasn't responding, Viagra or not. He couldn't be bothered with a client who'd fucked up, and would in all likelihood never earn any money again. Ariel tried to change agents but only the real shysters would take him on. He thought back to the day he'd first met Damask. It had been at some fashion show in London: it was the mother who'd interested him until the daughter showed up: `a titled family', someone had told him, though being fierce egalitarians, they never used the title. Dubious motives, Ariel suddenly saw, brought with them their just deserts and more. It was wrong of him to have taken advantage of the sexual pulling power of an Oscar. He was ashamed of himself. He was a more serious person than he had imagined. Perhaps the Studio knew what it was doing, type-casting him the way it had. He began to feel not so much oppressed by the Devil as saved by God, taught a necessary lesson. When Damask got through on the mobile, weeping, he was kind and fatherly. All things pass.

    For two and a half weeks the story ran before the editors said enough, within which time lives and fortunes changed. Then someone showed up in LA from the Seychelles — a beach guard. He came with snapshots, which could not be denied. Elspeth in déshabillé, on holiday, embracing her PR man on the beach. He was slipping a slice of pineapple from his lips to hers, and they were not pretty lips. Behind them one of the little girls had her hand to her mouth in horror. One final outburst, the manic squeal of a balloon deflating, shooting round the room. And the life just went out of the story. The goods and the bads became blurred, and that was a disappointment. And another story broke: an aircrash and a royal divorce, and no one cared about the Vale-Edens any more. The thick, wodged envelopes from the Cutting Agencies became thinner, thinner, slowed to a trickle through the family letter-boxes, stopped.

    Caledonia re-appeared. While in hiding, she had found a new rich lover, twenty years younger than herself. A Scottish land-owner, a laird of lairds, bored by fog and cold, wanting warmth and central heating, too grand and rich to be afraid of publicity. He came south with her; they married and set up house together.

    Velvet and Damask went home to their mother; Velvet developed ME and had to be waited on by Caledonia hand and foot. At the end of the year she got better and after the horror of `I Murdered My Unborn Babies' became first a serious feature writer, then an almost intellectual columnist, and actually married a banker. All the sisters came to the wedding. Satin had become spokesperson on ethics for an international drug company and earned a fortune, Georgette had given up detecting art forgeries and ran a gallery, and Chenille had given up law to write legal thrillers. The lot of them, in fact, were in the media. If you can't beat them, join them.

    One day Damask got a phone call from Ariel. He was in Scotland, playing the lead in a major Hollywood special-effects movie. He was an alien on the run; a kindly being who could control the weather. It meant big money. His agent had been wrong. He had a week off. They went to Edinburgh together and saw the Castle and ate Arbroath smokies, and to Glasgow to see the Mackintosh chairs, and to the Isle of Skye to taste the home-made whisky, and to Dundee where they stood on the Tay Bridge and recited McGonagall, and as far down as York to visit the Roman Museum there. They shared a bed for warmth and companionship but nothing else. She had stopped smoking, and was training as a photographer. Ariel kept dropping in at Catholic chapels for a quick Ave Maria, but Damask didn't mind that. Once he'd put up with her smoking: now she put up with his religion. They had a wonderful week and when they got off their respective flights, he at Aberdeen and she at Heathrow, no one took the slightest notice.

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Table of Contents

What the Papers Say 3
The Ghost of Potlatch Past 21
Once in Love in Oslo 29
GUP - or Falling in Love in Helsinki 42
Come on, Everyone! 59
Percentage Trust 67
Inside the Whale - or: I Don't Know But I've Been Told 77
Move Out: Move On 87
New Year's Day 97
Inspector Remorse 105
My Mother Said 115
A Libation of Blood 124
Pyroclastic Flow 140
Spirits Fly South 149
Stasi 173
A Great Antipodean Scandal 182
New Advances 203
Noisy into the Night 204
A Hard Time to be a Father 218
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