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This ingenious and inventive novel from the award-winning author of Jem (and Sam) at once comprises an autobiography of Aldous (Gus) Cotton, an English civil servant with breathing problems and chronic sexual learning difficulties, and an erratic history of modern England. It is also and more so the story of Helen Hardress, the serious, slim, blond young woman who quickens Gus's pulse when they first meet in Normandy one summer in the early 1960s as she will, off and on, for the next twenty years. For no one's ...
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This ingenious and inventive novel from the award-winning author of Jem (and Sam) at once comprises an autobiography of Aldous (Gus) Cotton, an English civil servant with breathing problems and chronic sexual learning difficulties, and an erratic history of modern England. It is also and more so the story of Helen Hardress, the serious, slim, blond young woman who quickens Gus's pulse when they first meet in Normandy one summer in the early 1960s as she will, off and on, for the next twenty years. For no one's life is quite the same once Helen Hardress has passed through it. Least of all, that of the long-pining Gus. "Reading Ferdinand Mount is as much fun as pink gin."—Michael Gorra, New York Times Book Review "Fairness is funny, touching, picaresque, decked out with eccentric characters, improbable, artful and, rarest of all, unfailingly entertaining."—Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World "A quick, witty read with resonance."—Baltimore Sun
In the morning when it was low tide the old women in black came intheir black boots to dig up shellfish — winkles, cockles, I don't knowwhat. They swung big buckets under their arms as their caber-thicklegs stumped over the crumbly tarmac road through the withered sea-grass.When they came to the skimpy shelter of the bushes, they satdown to have breakfast. The ham was so thick in their baguettes Icould identify it from two hundred yards and could see the steamcoming off the coffee when they unscrewed the thermos. Afterbreakfast they squatted in the bushes and hoisted their black skirts inunison, great white rumps bared to the branches of the bushes — tamariskswere they, such frail protection from the wind blowing upthe Channel. Sometimes I fancied I could smell their shit, although itwas impossible to open the little round window with its violet andyellow strips round a hexagon of clear glass. I fancied, too, that on aclear day I could see across to the other side and pick out the highground where the clinic was perched in the fir trees. It was a couple ofyears since my father had taken me away, but I imagined the timetablewould not have changed much. Just about now my fellow asthmaticswould be yawning and scratching their way through their breathingexercises. There was an exquisite sense of liberation from all that as Imyself yawned and scratched, although what I had stumbled intomight seem like anything but a liberation.
`You'll take Brainerd and Timmy to the beach from nine-thirty toeleven-thirty, and they must spend at least an hour withMonsieur.Remember to tell Monsieur about Brainerd's special exercises. It's sowonderful you can speak French.'
It was a strange house with a little turret on the corner nearest thesea and a pointed red-tiled roof and the occasional fake timber cuttingacross its cream roughcast walls. The house stood alone on a scruffyroad which petered out beyond it and led nowhere, not even to thebeach. Were there once other houses on the road, since demolished orbombed to nothing in 1944? Perhaps there had been a whole rowplanned and this was the model house which had found no buyers andthe developer had lost heart.
The Stilwells had rented it for the summer, at a sickening rent theysaid, but then you know the Ville, in August it's like Park Avenue.They always called the resort the Ville. No one else then, the early1960s, seemed to use the term. Perhaps it went back to before the war,Mrs Stilwell had come as a little girl with her mother, the legendaryBuzz Nielsen (Buzz was usually a boy's nickname but she was asfeminine as crêpe de Chine). There was money on both sides, MrsStilwell told me, such old money, by our standards of course, by yourswe're all nouveau.
I liked the way she went on. She didn't expect to be interrupted butshe wasn't relentless either, and she would answer anything I askedher. And the way she put her long bony face round the door and said,Are you receiving guests, that was nice too. With her brindled copperhair swept back and tied with a black bow she looked like an earlyPresident on an American stamp. Her fluttery gestures and herbubbling talk came out awkwardly but made me take to her more. Shesmelled of fresh flowers, and she wore flowery skirts that swirled whennobody else's did. How could she get up so fresh each morning? I couldbarely raise the energy to kneel on my bed and look through thestained-glass window at the cockle-gatherers lifting their skirts. DrMaintenon-Smith, the self-styled Napoleon of Asthma, had pronouncedme cured, yet there were days still when I felt my breath come quickand shallow, and I retreated into my old solitude, that light-headedstate in which the rest of the world seemed not hostile but hazy,insignificant, like the fret which blew up along the beach withoutwarning, first blurring all outlines and landmarks into a pearly grey,then blotting them out altogether as the damp shuffled down into thelungs and the foghorn began to boom from the lighthouse out beyondthe rocks.
Jane Stilwell had taken me on as a tutor, thinking my delicate statewould make me sympathetic to Brainerd's needs. These were morecomplex and more obscure than mere asthma. He was an invalid childof the Victorian sort, subject to spasms and fainting fits which theycouldn't put a modern medical name to. Someone with my backgroundwould be sensitive and understanding when he had one of his attacks.
She was wrong. Being an old hand, I simply thought, Here he goesagain. His Bambi teeth seemed to stick out further over his blubberylower lip and his eyes filled with tears as his whole wimpish bodyshook.
`Do you want a pill?' He glared at me, to let me know that hiscondition was too appalling to be put right by anything so trifling.When the shaking had ceased, I asked if he would like to go to thebeach.
`Do you think he should? Maybe he should rest?'
`He needs some air in those lungs,' I said with unusual authority.
`And Monsieur would do him good.'
`I don't like Monsieur.' Brainerd had emergency recourse to speech.At the best of times, which this wasn't, he had a drawn-out wailingvoice that suggested that his patience had been tried too far.
`I don't like him much either,' I said. `But his exercises are OK.'
`His exercises are crap.'
`Brainerd.' His mother's tolerance suffered an abrupt caesura whenconfronted with bad language. Anyone who was well enough to swearlost all invalid privileges.
`So they are crap.'
`Brainerd Stilwell, you will put on your sweatshirt and sneakers andgo straight to the beach this minute.'
We set off with Timmy, doe-eyed, taciturn, dawdling behind us, notbecause he didn't want to go — he was a docile boy — but to wait fortempers to ease. He kept a little apart to give Brainerd a yard or two'sstart in case of trouble.
We went through the rickety glass door that led to the little gardenwith its beige gnomes glued to the cement balustrade and out throughthe gate to the beach. On fine days Brainerd would set out hiscollection along the balustrade, finds from the beach mostly: Coke tins,Seven-up, bottles of Pschitt lemonade and Orangina, queer-shapedbottles of local cider. These items, carefully spaced along the cementparapet, looked as if they were on show in a gallery. Brainerd fussedover them but refused to discuss the project, fearing mockery. Whenthe fog came down, he would scamper outside and scoop them up in acouple of carrier bags he kept for the purpose. The scooping wasunceremonious, just like anyone chucking empties into a carrier.
We idled along the smooth stumbly shingle, kicking stones, slippingon the seaweed bubbles. The first ragged wisps of mist began to floattowards us. `There's a fog, it's bad for me, we must go back,' Brainerdwailed. The thin wisps thickened into trailing scarves and then into adamp suffocating blanket. The noise of traffic from the far-awaypromenade faded and then was obliterated. Even the gravelling thumpof the sea was lost to us. All we could hear was the sound of ourbreathing and the rasp and slither of the shingle beneath our sneakers.We met an elderly couple going for a walk, and they loomed up at uswith a menace which drove Timmy to cling to my trouser leg.
We trudged on, beginning to lose all sense of distance. `We've gonetoo far,' Brainerd wailed, `we've missed it', and I was inclined to agreewith him. But we hadn't.
The bars came at us out of the mist, nearly twice my height and onlya couple of yards away so that I could see how black and wet they werefrom the mist. Beyond the bars, I could already see the childrenhuddled under the orange awning rigged up in the far corner as ashelter. The lower bars had netting on the outside to stop the smallerchildren escaping but the upper levels were open, and the nimbler oneswould roost up there for most of the period, now and then spinninground the uprights or curling their toes round the horizontals andhanging like bats. But these perches were now untenanted. Monsieurhad his entire troupe corralled under the awning. I could see his brownbald head juddering as he barked instructions. He was always clad inwhite from head to toe, T-shirt, tracksuit, sneakers and on very wetdays, not today, a flat white cap. He jogged over to unlock the gate,which was at the children's height, so he did not bother to make thenecessary crouch to come through it and barked at us from the otherside of the bars:
`Vous êtes en retard.'
`Nous pensions, à cause du temps, vous savez ...'
His leatherbrown face had all expression tanned out of it, though hiscracked voice was full of ill-humour. He shooed Brainerd and Timmythrough the gate into the stockade — `Allez, allez'. But Brainerdstopped, never missing an opportunity to display willpower, and withsome dignity entrusted a fresh acquisition to me, an Orangina bottle, asquatter version of the standard model, perhaps an earlier design(Brainerd himself was indifferent to rarity, accumulating two or threeexamples of a common item without being fussed). I watched the twoboys stumbling across the sand towards the awning past the vaultinghorse and the hanging rings and Monsieur's other instruments oftorture. Then my eye wandered back along the beach the way we hadcome, to see if there was any prospect of the weather lifting asMonsieur had promised.
To my surprise, at that moment the thick mist was suffused with avery faint gleam, and slowly the air began to move past me, leavingcool dew on my cheeks. The strands unravelled and went gliding ondown the beach, as though gathered by some spectral force. The whiteoutline of the breakers returned and with it the sound of the surf on theshingle. That peculiar world without sensation dissolved and all mysenses seemed to tingle, as when feeling comes back to a frozen limb.
The mist was light and summery now, trembling with the refractedrays of the sun behind it, so that the two figures coming the way wehad come seemed not so much obscured as shimmering. At first Ithought they were two children. There was so little difference in theirheight and the taller of the two was stalky and slender like a child. Butsomething about her walk — I could see it was a girl now — seemedgrown-up and assured. The smaller one was a dark boy, as dark as shewas fair, with a tousle of black curls and a quick jigging way of gettingalong, which made her pace seem deliberate by comparison. She waspale, extremely pale, and had a severe look, not so much reprovingperhaps as severe on herself.
`Bonjour, M'sieu'. Je regrette que nous sommes en retard.' She spokewith one of those confident English accents, quietly but with no flusterand not much apology about it.
`Don't worry,' I said, `we only just got here ourselves.'
`Ah I'm sorry, I thought you were — that must be him over there.'
`It is,' I said.
She allowed me a pale smile, neither friendly nor unfriendly, justrecognising the facts of the situation. She went to the little gate andfinding it locked called Monsieur. He trotted over and let her in. Shescarcely had to duck, she was so small, but then had to come back topull the dark boy through. He grizzled in what sounded like Frenchwith some sort of accent but eventually allowed himself to be handedover to Monsieur.
She shut the little gate behind her and came and stood beside me,leaning against the bars, and rolled a cigarette.
`I'm Helen. I'm working for the Farhadis.'
`Farhadi. They're Iranian. Close friends of the Shah and all that.'
I told her my name and my employer's details.
`Are they rich?'
`So are the Farhadis: super-rich. They've got a bodyguard and twoMercs.'
`Can't match that. I don't think anyone wants to assassinate theStilwells.'
`Not even you?'
`Not yet. I quite like her.'
`No, I don't mean that. Where — where do you come from?'
`The lower-middle class. Or, middle-lower-middle to be moreprecise. My dad's a radio engineer, but he works for the BBC, so thatputs him up a notch.'
`I didn't mean that.'
`I expect you did. You can always hear an English person listeningout for your vowels.'
She spoke in a gentle flat way, and what she said did not sound assharp as it might have. Now that she had brought the subject up, Istarted to listen to her voice, but as far as I could tell she might havecome from anywhere. She was plainness itself, an unearthly kind ofplainness, though. There was nothing remarkable about the way shelooked either — five foot one or two I suppose, jeans and an old T-shirt — nothingremarkable except her hair which was golden, a milky gold,so that at first I thought its colour was muted by the mist, but evennow that the sun was coming out it was still the same colour. Cutshort, nearly straight except for a careless curling at the ends — perhapsthat was the mist frizzling it. She might have meant it to be ano-nonsense cut, but that milky gold defied any such intention and thewayward hint of the curling made it difficult to keep my mind onanything else. Standing beside her, smoking one of her roll-ups, I feltnot shy, as you do when close to a person who is generally supposed tobe beautiful or alarming, but pleasantly inconspicuous, as you mightfeel if you were doing some household chore in the background of theAnnunciation while the angel was passing on the news in the matter-of-factway that a genuine angel would have of doing things, but stillyour eyes can't drag themselves away from the golden flicker of theangel's wingtips.
`The Thames, just below Sunbury, is the answer you wanted. Tellme, is this concentration camp really all right?' She jerked a finger atMonsieur who had shooed the children out from under the awning andwas now putting them through the usual warm-up exercises.
`No casualties so far. I usually get through a chapter while they're incustody.' I tapped the book under my arm (Moby-Dick — I was finding ituphill work).
`You're against it?'
`I'm a chemist,' she said.
`You could be a literary chemist, like, wasn't Goethe a sort ofchemist?'
`I'm not interested in the history of science. That's why I did science,to get away from history.'
`You going to be a scientist?'
`No, I'm not good enough. But you wouldn't have asked thatquestion if I'd been doing history, you wouldn't have asked me was Igoing to be a historian.'
`No, I suppose not, but why does that matter?'
`Because it shows you think of science as the sort of subject whichonly trolls and grey people do.'
`No, no, I don't.' This conversation began to annoy me, partlybecause she was at least half-right, but also because it was not a topicthat appealed to me, not here as the sun slipped out of the cloud andthe blue came back into the sea. But she went on.
`My real interest is biochemistry, but it's all, what's the word peoplelike you use, all "stinks" to you isn't it?'
I indignantly denied it, which made her smile. Though her lipscurled at one side to show that this was a superior smile, the expressionseemed put-on as though it was the way you were meant to smile whenyou had said something sarcastic but what you had said was only thesort of thing you might be expected to say and had no real force orfeeling behind it. No, on second thoughts, put-on was not the right wayto describe her, she did not seem affected. It was more that she hadsome still, reflective quality which was indifferent to her words, like atree unstirred by the rustling of its own leaves.
We were interrupted by a violent yowling from the stockade, like acat being stepped on.
`Brainerd, bound to be.'
Monsieur came through the little gate at a storming crouch.
`Il a tombé, votre garçon. Il est idiot,' he spluttered.
My charge was lying in the sand in the foetal position, clutching hisankle.
`Monsieur made me go up too high.'
`C'est pas vrai,' Monsieur shouted.
`He did too.'
`We'd better take him home,' Helen said. `You take him under thatarm, and he can hop on the other leg.'
`I can't hop.'
`Yes you can, Brainerd,' she said, and he shut up. She was engagednow and spoke in a voice of command, not loud, but in a way thatseemed to commit her whole person and so carried conviction. As weswung Brainerd over the sand, she even knew a song about hoppingwhich he consented to join in after a bit.
`Is it all right to leave your own — whatever he's called?'
`Oh Tariq will be OK. Monsieur will be so scared of trouble he'llmake sure nothing happens to him.' Her refusal to be impressed byMonsieur's parade-ground manner was itself impressive. She seemed topossess a certainty about how other people would react. Perhaps thatwas the secret of action, to rely on stability of motivation, to believethat the same stimuli would always produce the same reactions. It wasfear of the erratic and unpredictable in others that produced my ownhesitancies. To get anywhere in life, you had to make the samepresumption of regularity about people as you made about the naturalworld. And it was pleasant to be caught up in her certainty. We swungalong through the lingering mist-skeins with a high cheerfulness. For afew minutes, even Brainerd forgot that he was the invalid of thecentury.
But then the drag of the shingle on his sneakers revived his self-pity.
`I can't walk,' he said.
`Yes, you can, Brainerd, lean on my arm.'
`You're too big to be carried.'
`In war they carry people when they're wounded.'
`This isn't a war.'
There was an impasse in the lingering shimmer of the mist and all Icould hear was the shingle sliding off our beach shoes. Then over thetop of the bank, I saw Bettine's little stall which wasn't usually there soearly in the day and so posed no temptation until the afternoon beachtrip. Brainerd saw it too and his eyes gleamed at the sight of the giantpink cardboard lollies and the white hatch with Bettine's homely facepeering out.
`Can I have an ice-lolly?'
`Of course you can't have an ice-lolly at eleven o'clock in themorning.'
`I can too. When we went to the minigolf Dad gave us an ice-lolly.'
`Your mother says I mustn't give you ice-creams because it's bad foryour skin.'
`I can't walk. Look.'
Brainerd dug his toes into the pebbles so that only the laces of hissneakers were visible, hunching his shoulders to complete the postureof misery.
`Brainerd,' Helen said, `your mother hasn't said anything to me, sowould it be all right if I gave you an ice-lolly if you promise to walk allthe way home without complaining?'
For an instant, Brainerd's natural instinct for contention temptedhim to point out that this was a phoney argument, but wiser counselsprevailed.
`Yeah,' he said, `strawberry and chocolate, with nuts.'
Behind us as we stomped up the slithery bank, we heard a wailing.`It's not fair. I want an ice-lolly too.'
`Timmy, you haven't hurt your leg.'
`It's not fair.'
`Timmy, come on.'
`If I hurt my leg, will you buy me an ice-lolly too?'
He laid himself down on his side with great care as though about togo to sleep on the shingle and then felt his ankle, wincingextravagantly before he touched it.
`Timmy, don't be silly.'
Brainerd, by now reaching up to receive the lolly from Bettine'splump hands, turned round with a grin of triumph to contemplate hisbrother writhing on the pebbles.
`Oh all right then,' I said and picked Timmy up and carted him overto the little stall.
Brainerd's face creased in despair.
`It's not fair, he hasn't hurt his leg.'
`When you've made an exception, you have to stick to it, otherwiseyou lose your authority,' Helen said.
`Who said I ever had any? Anyway, you shouldn't have made anexception in the first place.'
`It's not fair,' Brainerd said, `I can't walk.'
`You promised, Brainerd,' Helen said. `Timmy's too young to knowabout promises, but you promised.'
`Carry me,' Timmy ordered, waving his red lolly, `I'm tired.'
`No, you're not, Timmy. You're a very lucky boy. You've had an ice-lollyand you haven't hurt your leg and you're walking home.'
`It's not fair,' Brainerd said again, but it was little more than amumble for the sake of it, a musing sort of utterance not a clamour foraction. And he let himself be half-carried along the shingle between us,carefully shielding the lolly with his fingers as he nibbled away withhis buck teeth.
It's not fair: somehow the phrase twitches in my memory as I write itdown and it takes me a minute or two to track down why. It was thephilosopher W.R. Scrannel (1911-66) who used the phrase in one of hislegendary lectures, or Scrannelogues as his disciples called them (I amnot sure why I describe him so formally here, I came to think of him asalmost a friend though an alarming one). After he had said it, hepaused, one of those caustic pauses that kept his audience on the edgeof their seats, before repeating the word `fair' and adding with thatsudden briskness of his that in the history of this little word lay thehistory of the past thousand years. All the beauty in the world,everything that Homo sapiens was capable of falling in love with, hadonce been expressed in that simple epithet. When we saw someone whowas fair — him or her, there was no distinction of sex in it — the worldwas flooded with meaning. But now what were we left with? Fairshares for all. What once made the heart beat faster and constituted thebest reason for being alive was now all about income tax and waitinglists. From irrational adoration to the rational distribution ofresources, that was progress.
Now that I piece his words together and recall the derisive rasp inhis voice, I see that he could not have said all this in a lecture because itwasn't really philosophy and it must have been over one of thosefeverish teas in his house at Pigotts Hill with his wife and daughterthat he gave his version of how the world came to be disenchanted.
`Oh God, what's wrong with Brainerd? The ankle, oh he has such weakankles.' Jane Stilwell enfolded her son with passion. Her copper maneseemed to lasso his neck. In the dim light of the sitting-room, madedimmer by the stained-glass turret window on the corner, I becameaware of two shadowy presences behind her, one so huge that heseemed to be as big as the china cabinet next to him and likely tounhinge its rickety glass windows and do terrible damage to the littlefigures of Norman peasantry which trembled on its grimy shelves.
`These,' she said, her eyes full of tears and with the limp figure ofBrainerd sprawled across her bosom, `these are the darling Wilmots — Dodoand Tucker.'
The huge man waddled out towards us, a distance of some six feet,but even so his progress was stately.
`I'm Waldo, Dodo to my friends who think I'm extinct,' he saidputting out a hand the size of a small turkey. His wife, who lookedeerily like Jane Stilwell down to the Presidential queue at the back ofher hair, said, `Hi, I'm Tucker.'
Excerpted from Fairness by FERDINAND MOUNT. Copyright © 2001 by Ferdinand Mount. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.