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Liver A Fictional Organ with a Surface Anatomy of Four Lobes
By WILL SELF
Bloomsbury Copyright © 2008 Will Self
All right reserved.
Chapter One Foie Humain
Val Carmichael credited Pete Stenning - who was always called 'the Martian' - with getting him off the gin and on to the vodka.
'Clever cunt, the Martian,' Val said to the assembled members, who were grouped at the bar of the Plantation Club in their allotted positions. Left to right: Val on a stool by the till, Scotty Henderson ('the Dog') on the one next to him, Dan Gillespie ('the Poof') on the one after that - a tricky position, since, if the Poof tipped back, which he often did, he would be struck by the door if someone happened to come in.
In the second row were Bernie Jobs ('the Cunt') and Neil Bolton ('the Extra'). While the other nicknames were mostly referential, as in, 'Poof bin in?', Bolton was called 'the Extra' to his rubbery-handsome face. He was a leading British character actor, and Val, who had known Bolton the longest, had issued one of his draconian decrees, to the effect that, having prostituted himself on the West End stage - and in a number of hugely successful Hollywood filmed musicals - the Extra was no longer entitled to any more familiar form of address. Bolton took this in good part.
At the back, completing this scrum of drinkers, wasPhillip McCluskey ('His Nibs'). McCluskey was the diarist on a mid-market tabloid, and celebrated on Fleet Street for the McCluskey Manoeuvre, which consisted of his putting a drunken hand up a young woman's skirt, then falling unconscious with it clamped, vice-like, around her knickers, the waistband a yanked communication cord in his sweaty hand.
The success of the Manoeuvre rested, in part, on McCluskey's saintly demeanour: until he made his move he looked - and behaved - like a choirboy who had stayed on in the stalls for five decades, ageing but never growing up. Besides, at the beginning of McCluskey's long career such behaviour was pretty standard, while latterly he was protected by his proprietor, who, as well as appreciating the reliably incendiary gossip the diarist poked through the letter-boxes of Middle England, was also an enthusiastic molester himself.
His Nibs wasn't in the Plantation that often; long lunches at Langan's or Bertorelli were essential to his métier, and this was an afternoon club. His frequent absences meant that the three other solidly dependable members were usually able to join in free intercourse with the barflies, even though their stations were some way off.
The Martian himself, and Margery De Freitas ('Her Ladyship'), sat at a small, round, melamine-topped table, set against the bit of wall that separated a niche where an upright piano lurked from the sloping embrasure that terminated in the bleary eye of a sash window. Meanwhile, on a stool midway between the piano niche and the main door, perched the Honourable Sarah Mainwaring, who, having more rightful claim to a title than Her Ladyship, was instead known as 'the Typist', a nod to the fact - not obvious from her county-set manner, her twin set and her solidly set hair - that she was the senior commissioning editor for an august - and famously high-brow - publishing house.
'See,' Val went on, 'the Martian says that all the juniper berries in the gin make it an impure spirit. Toxins build up. Cunts. Too many vitamins. Gotta stop it. But vodka's completely fucking pure: just grain - nothing else. It's a well-known fact' - Val cupped his elbow in his hand and pointed out indecipherable smoke slogans with the tip of his cigarette - 'that vodka drinkers - and I'm talking absolutely fucking pure stuff - can live for bloody ever. Ain't that so, Marshy?' He turned on his stool to acknowledge his life coach, and the Martian raised his glass of vodka and orange in salute.
The other members were sceptical and expressed it in their several ways: the Dog (Scotch) snuffled; the Poof (Campari and soda) tittered; the Cunt (Scotch also) sniggered; the Extra (lager) openly guffawed. Neither the Typist (gin and bitter lemon) nor Her Ladyship (gin and tonic) gave voice, although both evinced dissent, the former puckering her long top lip so that her thick foundation cracked, the latter pulling at one of her hideous novelty earrings, which were in the shape of bunches of red grapes.
'It is so,' the Martian pronounced. His voice was at once low and nasal, so that each carefully enunciated syllable vibrated. 'That's why I drink vodka myself, although with orange juice as a mixer, rather than tonic, on account of certain ... health issues.' Then he took a swig of his drink, replaced it on the table and ran his stubby fingers through his greenish hair.
It was this greenish hair that had given the Martian his moniker - the hair, and a slightly other-worldly manner that, although difficult to pin down, was none the less there. The Martian lived by himself in a large and mouldering house on Melrose Avenue in Kilburn. The house was damper in than out; sodden rendering flopped from the façade, and on one occasion a lump narrowly missed the postwoman.
The Martian was a printer by trade. The others never asked him about his work - shop talk was derided at the Plantation - but it was generally assumed, from the closeness he enjoyed with the Cunt - who managed Sadus, the sadomasochistic porn shop on Old Compton Street - that the Martian spent his mornings and evenings checking the registration of tormented flesh.
'Course, tonic water', the Martian continued, 'has quinine in it - even that Schweppes piss Val flogs - and quinine's what they used to take out to the colonies for malaria. Used to be more valuable than fucking gold by far. Lowers the body temperature, see, stops the malarial parasites getting into yer red blood cells, then fetching up in yer bloody liver.'
This was a long speech for the Martian, whose remarks were usually one-liners, and the other members remained silent, stunned by his verbosity.
It was left to the final occupant of the Plantation to essay a reply. Hilary Edmonds ('the Boy') stood behind the tiny semicircular bar - no more than an apostrophe of wood and cloth, denoting the absence of some far more solid thing - facing the front row of the scrum and rubbing dirt into a dirty glass with a dirty cloth. 'B-But, P-Pete,' he charmingly stuttered, 'you ain't gonna get malaria in Soho, are you?'
Perhaps not, although the Soho the miasmal Plantation Club floated above was certainly a swamp: pools of urine and spilt drink reflected the low grey skies, while for its slithering denizens the solid four-storey terraces had all the insubstantiality of reed beds.
Not that any of this was immediately apprehensible from the confines of the Plantation, which was a world entire, accessed via two flights of stairs from Blore Court, a grimy alley that linked the filmic commerce of Wardour Street to the sweetly rotten fruit and veg market in Berwick Street.
Blore Court was a time portal, a fossilized trace of a thoroughfare around which the living city had continued to grow. If a passer-by noticed this four-foot-wide crevice in the brick bluffs and ventured inside, he would be transported back to the era when a huge rookery of slums roosted here, its smoke-blackened hovels, festooned with smutty laundry, over-toppling a maze of alleyways that, as thin and dark as ruptured veins, wormed their way crazily through the face of the drunken city.
The right-hand side of Blore Court was a single sweep of brickwork sixty feet high, and unrelieved by window or door. Behind this were the offices of a film distributor, where men in shirtsleeves shouted down phones at space salesmen, and runners panted as they waited for their tin discuses.
If our hypothetical flâneur had the temerity to venture deeper into Blore Court, he might - not being one of the prostitutes' clients, who scurried, heads down, their turgid cocks dowsing for moisture - look up and notice that the left-hand side of the alley had a queerer aspect: these were the snub façades and sawn-off porticoes of a row of late-nineteenth-century retail premises, erected presumably during an odd hiatus, when the right wall of the court was temporarily lower-rise, or absent altogether.
In subsequent years these once prosperous drapers and mercers had been worked over, again and again, by the troubled genius of enterprise. Their windows had been smashed, boarded up, reglazed, then smashed again; their sign boards painted over and over, as business after business infested the light-starved showrooms, while artisan after artisan lost his - or her - eyesight in the dingy flats and garrets up above.
During the period that our story takes place - the second great epoch of the Plantation Club - Blore Court was on the skids. Chipboard covered most of the former shop windows, except for a single 'boutique' - as anachronistic as this designation - that struggled on at the Berwick Street end, trying to flog 'gear' that hadn't been 'fab' since the publication of the Wolfenden Report.
Elsewhere along the alley multiple door bells studded the flaky pilasters, tangled wiring connecting those that pushed them to a multiplicity of sole traders, the bulk of whom had put their pudenda on the market. Yet there were also dental mechanics and hat blockers, Polish translators of French and French polishers, furriers whose customers were as elusive as sable and knife grinders who were none too sharp.
At 5-7 Blore Court there was one bell push labelled, quaintly, 'French Lessons', and a second offering the services of a 'Model', presumably for an artist who required neither natural light nor a subject that appeared particularly lifelike. If our wanderer had stood outside Nos. 5-7 and looked up, he would have seen the whores' red lights cheerily illuminating the two topmost windows, and casting their russet glow on the opposite wall.
However, had he stepped in through the heavy door - an original feature, much assaulted and always ajar - he would have been assailed by the nutty odour of roasted coffee - a domestic aroma, at odds with the grimy vestibule, that was the sole legacy, besides their defunct sign, of Vinci Brothers Neapolitan Coffee Importers, who had decamped some years previously. The Brothers' ground-floor tenancy had been taken over by a Mr Vogel, whose name plate advised that he, too, was an importer, although of what none of the other tenants had the slightest idea, never having clapped eyes on him.
Climbing the stone steps, our wanderer might well gain a sense of purpose from the ring of his steel Blakeys alone. Passing by Oswald Spengler, Rare Books, and Veerswami the locksmith on the first floor, he might detect a certain 'come on' in the cartoonish sign that beckoned him up the next flight: a bulbous gloved hand with The Plantation Club, Private Members painted on its index finger. To succumb would be a grave mistake, for, were he to ascend these stairs - the treads worn wood, the runners long since fled - and push open another heavy door - this one with shreds of green baize drooling off it - he would only have been confronted by the faces of the Poof, the Dog, the Extra, etc., their fleshy convolutions trapped in the gelatinous atmosphere like whelks in aspic. Then his ears would be smitten by the discord of Val's voice - at once a whine and a grate - speaking English with an intense affectation, suggesting it was only his second language, while his mother tongue had been the now defunct theatrical - and latterly gay - argot, Polari, and enunciating the salutation that was at once a damnation: 'Who's this cunt, then?'
Although, to be fair, Val's greetings even for the most staunch of his members - and they were his members, since the club was a business, and Val its only owner - were hardly more welcoming: 'Look what the cunt's dragged in'; 'Managed to hoik her cunt up the stairs, has she'; and even the paradoxical 'Hello, cunt.'
As the stage upon which these cunts strutted and fretted was now fully revealed to our imaginary wanderer, it would be - as De Quincey, another habitual Soho boulevardier once remarked - as if the 'decent drapery' had been twitched away, and an elderly maiden aunt were caught struggling into her Playtex 24-Hour Girdle.
A single room, twenty-four feet by seventeen; to the immediate right of the door, which was set obliquely, was the bar; behind it the expected shelves of bottles and glasses, together with a small set of optics holding the gin, whisky, vodka and rum. The dusty glasses and faded labels - Bass Ale, Merrydown, Harp - had been interposed with novelty postcards sent by roving members. At the far end of the bar sat Val, beside a large and ornate, old-fashioned cash register; sometimes he sported a collared shirt and a silk cravat, but mostly a Breton fisherman's jersey plotted blue and white contour lines on to his hillock of a torso. However, Val's costume was of absolutely no significance when set beside the horror mask of his face - but more of that later.
On a tall table beside Val there was a money plant, its leaves coppery in the homely light of a standard lamp with a flock shade that was always on; behind his head an orange plastic modular shelving unit had, circa 1973, been pinioned to the ancient wallpaper - wallpaper that, with its oppressively vertical bamboo motif, was the cause, not, as most neophytes assumed, the result of the club's name. The rounded slots of the unit were crammed with girlish tat: sequinned purses; dyed peacock feathers nicked from Biba; gonks, dolls and trolls all looking faintly surprised by the pencils rammed up their jacksies. Propped on top of this excrescence there was a single artefact that summed up the desperately puerile and frantic ironizing of the establishment: a framed gold 45 rpm disc, the label of which read 'Chirpy-Chirpy-Cunt-Cunt by Middle of the Cunt'.
On the bar-room floor was a carpet the colour of middle-aged shit, while in the opposite corner to the door an ancient partition concealed, behind its plaster and laths, a lavatory the size of a draining board: an antediluvian crapper with cracked eggshell enamel and a bird-bath sink, both reeking of ammonia.
Since nobody ever said anything in the Plantation that wasn't facetious, there was a punning fittingness to the way the toilet intruded into the main body of the club; what little daylight leaked from the sash window to splash against its prow provided the only indication of the passage of time in this static universe. Which brings us back to the table habitually occupied by the Martian and Her Ladyship, beside the niche like a rock-cut tomb, in which stood the melody-devouring casket of the piano.
The Poof dabbled his fingers on its keys from time to time, so that it spurted out old show tunes that the others would join in massacring. On top of its lid there stood a china bust of Albert, the Prince Consort. It still had the bright glaze applied by the Royal Doulton pottery in the 1850s, but had been customized during the Punk era with a safety pin nose ring and a length of toilet chain.
This entire compromised space - at once private and public, intimate and horribly exposed - was illuminated solely by sash window, standard lamp, a few candles stuck in old Chianti bottles and a permanently fizzing rod of neon screwed to the nicotine ceiling, lending a mortuary ambience to the already deathly scene.
For the above is by no means exhaustive; we have omitted to mention the snapshots of former patrons, the un-taken-up invitations, the press clippings and 'outsider' canvases - their thick surfaces compressed by awful demons - that were stuck to the walls. Nor have we fully inventoried all the World Cup Willies, stolen pub ashtrays, vintage biscuit tins, voodoo dolls, brass bells, snow globes, and several more skip-loads of useless tat that had been deposited over the decades by decorating skills that were glacial in their slow indifference.
Indeed, given that our chance wanderer, had he happened upon the Plantation Club in 1999, would have found its appearance unaltered from 1989, 1979 or even 1969, it's questionable whether we can speak of this interior as being 'decorated' in any meaningful sense of the word at all; rather, the contents of the club were more akin to the symbol set gathered together by a shaman, then arranged and rearranged in the pursuit of magical effects.
With this one proviso: the shaman of the Plantation Club, Val Carmichael, had never been known to rearrange anything, and, although Maria, a Filipina hunchback, came in punctually every morning to clean, she dealt only with the wipeable surfaces, leaving all the rest of this brooding stuff to become, over the years, set not in concrete but in a far more transfixing substance, to whit: dust. 'Dust', said Trouget, who was only an occasional visitor to the club, yet perhaps its most revered member, 'is peace.'
Trouget, who was a world-famous painter - and therefore known to his fellow members merely as 'the Tosher' - was given to such gnomic utterances, and, while he himself may have discovered a certain repose in the furry interior, he none the less never ventured that far inside, preferring to position himself midway between the stools of the Typist and the Poof, erect in his habitual, tightly zipped, Bell Star motorcycle jacket (he lacked a machine himself but was keen on motorcyclists and liked them to ride him hard), while listening to the arch badinage of the others and buying them all round after round.
Excerpted from Liver by WILL SELF Copyright © 2008 by Will Self. Excerpted by permission.
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