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Booker Prize-winning author Barry Unsworth's first novel, published for the first time in the United States.
Foley and Moss are partners in a successful small business, making plaster pixies for the tourist trade. Foley is the artistic member of the partnership; he thinks up the ideas and designs and has pretensions to even greater artistry in his cherub lamps and fixtures. Moss, the seemingly quiet one who supplied the capital for the venture, manufactures them. Barry Unsworth ...
Booker Prize-winning author Barry Unsworth's first novel, published for the first time in the United States.
Foley and Moss are partners in a successful small business, making plaster pixies for the tourist trade. Foley is the artistic member of the partnership; he thinks up the ideas and designs and has pretensions to even greater artistry in his cherub lamps and fixtures. Moss, the seemingly quiet one who supplied the capital for the venture, manufactures them. Barry Unsworth sets his scene magnificently—a Cornish village, Lanruan, thriving on specious tourism, and its local characters: Graham, the primitive painter; Bailey, the loud-mouthed Northerner who comes to Lanruan to make his fortune; Barbara, the nearest thing the village possesses to a bad girl; and above all Gwendoline, who, inadvertently, begins the rift in the partnership between Foley and Moss. The Partnership is a disquieting, darkly funny tale about hidden desires and the unspoken attachments we have for one another.
Foley directed the thin jet of sealing fluid over the pixies at pointblankrange, aiming the spray carefully and with growingviciousness at their grinning identical faces, as though instead ofmerely closing up their pores he intended to disfigure them for life.He experienced this futile hatred for each new batch, as he nearedthe end; a rage at their numbers, their sameness, the mechanicalaccuracy of their reproduction. Tray after tray of them came up tohim from his tireless partner Moss below until he sometimes feltan urge, not however so far obeyed, to befoul their plastercomposure in some way, by spitting on them usually, thoughgrosser defilements had occurred to him. He had not confidedthese impulses to Moss and did not intend to, not because ofshame, in fact he was rather proud of this dark, elemental side tohis nature; he was reticent in the matter because he had come tobelieve that the less Moss knew about him the better, generallyspeaking.
It was the last tray he was on, anyhow; this dozen completedthe two gross and made up the order. Two hundred and eighty-eightlucky pixies, each sitting grinning on the rim of a mottoedashtray. All they needed now was the paint; three colours woulddo the lot as long as they were bright enough. The faces were mostdifficult: you had to have people to paint them who would followthe intention of the moulding and not attempt to mitigate thehideousness of the features. Usually only an experienced painterof pixies had the necessary self-control. It was, though, essentialthat the face should retain that leer that holiday-makersdemanded, the authentic lucky pixie-look ofslightly lecherousdomestic complicity that was considered to augur well for theyear to come.
The spray kept up a faint but steady hiss. The liquid itself wastoo finely dispersed to be visible — the pixies' faces were notdiscernibly moistened by it — but its force, playing over the benchon which the pixies were set, caused flakes of plaster and smallparticles of gold-leaf to sidle about the room, briefly and withapparent circumspection. It was still April and quite cold outside,though the room itself was close because Foley had put on hiselectric fire when he started work that morning. Warm currents,weighted by the acrid exhalations of the spray, rose slowly,misting over the closed window.
Foley's eyes were stinging a little from the fumes and as soon ashe had finished the spraying he went over to the window andopened it, remaining there for some moments to look out acrosssloping sheep-fields to shrub-green cliffs and the pewter-colouredsea beyond. He had felt of late some spleen against the sea, againstthe whole view in fact, for its refusal to be more dramatic. When,three years before, they had moved into this house and set aboutconverting it for the pixie business he had been excited by the seaview, coming as he did from a basement flat in Battersea. He hadsecured this room for his own to work in, relegating Moss and hisovens to the dark room on the ground floor. Moss had, of course,been more amenable then, more open to suggestion in every way.Foley had congratulated himself at the time on his shrewdness andtact. Now he was not so sure. At any rate he had failed to live up tothe landscape, beginning quite early to miss the minutiae, thechanging scenes of life, to which years of living in London hadaccustomed him. It was true that nothing sordid or petty heredistracted the eye; the trees scattered between the house and cliffswere undeniably impressive, especially in the drained or pallidlight of certain days when, outlined against the sky, they had anarresting hallucinatory grace, due to the stunting effect of the seawinds which in the course of many winter offensives had combedtheir branches back against the natural bent, tortured them really,but invariably into the semblance of order, into beauty, like thedelicate, impossible trees on Japanese ceramics.
For all this Foley envied Moss his lowlier view of the farmyardand a segment of lane. Indeed he tended now to hold the wholething against his partner, as though that former tractability hadbeen the result of cunning foresight on Moss's part. Moss couldsee hens from his window and hikers or campers occasionally; hecould see Royle the farmer, their landlord, going to and fro abouthis business; he could watch Phyllis the farm girl feeding the hensand observe, if he felt so inclined, the progress of the strong blackhairs on her legs. It was not much, perhaps, but compared withwhat he had himself, a feast of life and colour. He never saw signsof human life from his window at all, unless you could count theintimations of ships on the horizon. Thirty miles to the south,miles of tangled headlands webbed by rocky inaccessible bays,was the capital town; and in the other direction, only two milesaway but completely hidden by the curve of the coast, wasLanruan, whose shops supplied them with groceries and took agood part of their pixie out-put.
Relieved at having come to the end of this particular lot, Foleyallowed his distaste for the pixies to soften into the feeling ofsuperior discrimination which he had cultivated in order not tofeel circumscribed by the work he did. Turning from the windowhe regarded the pixies steadily for some moments. Moss and hewere assisting in an outrage against the whole human race, hethought, with some pleasure at being able to include Moss. Thesecreatures were, after all, made in the human image, thoughfashions, he conceded, changed in pixies as in all else. They hadbegun with an idealised, pre-Raphaelite type, wistful of featureand attenuated of frame, but this had slowly coarsened into thepresent more truly native product, less elegant, lewder, withcunning hints of deformity, and some elements of the comicpostcard superimposed, particularly in the bottled vacuousness ofthe expression.
He was tempted to descend on Moss and ask him straight outwhether in his opinion three years of making plaster souvenirs forsummer visitors was not bound to affect the health of the psyche,stopping up, for example, certain essential sympatheticresponses; or, putting it another way, whether he and Moss couldgo on immersing themselves in the acid of seasons without beingcorroded in the end. He had a habit while working of devisingsuch questions, sometimes in elaborately metaphorical form, forMoss, phrasing and re-phrasing them with great care so that theymight be perfectly clear and comprehensive and allow no scopefor evasion on Moss's part. But by the time they had reached thischiselled perfection there no longer seemed any point in puttingthem, they had lost the quality of interrogation. In any case he wasquite aware that Moss's casuistry was a fiction of his owndevising, his partner in fact being an unsubtle pedestrian personwho would regard such issues with solemn indulgence and noplay of mind whatever.
This time the temptation passed almost before the questionhad been framed, certainly before it had been polished. Itsufficed to summon Moss to mind as he would doubtless be atthis moment, in his room below, prising out further pixies fromthe moulds, constantly patting things with his big dusty hands,patting the warm pixies, patting the tops of the ovens to gaugethe heat, breathing heavily. Before such an image all queryquietly died. Besides, Moss was always wounded by slightingreferences to the pixies, and it would be a bad mistake, he felt, tobring up just now any subject that might lead to disagreement.There was still some strain between them, a certain wariness,since their quarrel of three days ago, when Moss had upbraidedhim for staying out late, a mistake this, because although Foleywas a malleable person he would always fly into anger whenforced into a corner and his dignity threatened. The quarrel hadbeen momentous in that it was the first to mar their three years'association, the first time, at least, that recriminations had beenexplicit. Though it was he himself, Foley reflected ratheruneasily, who had done most of the recriminating; Moss hadsimply gone quiet and hurt. And it was he who had subsequentlyretreated, becoming even more secretive than before. Moss hadsimply remained himself, if possible more intensely so. Moss hadbeen difficult lately. It was as though the spring had containedsome ingredient indigestible to him, an irritant, an intestinal gritthat darkened his outlook, souring his former solicitude into asort of domineering fussiness.
Neither of them had since made any healing reference to thequarrel, either humorous or apologetic, which might have made itpublic and manageable, part of the folklore, so to speak, of theirassociation. The whole incident, Foley felt, would have to be leftalone now. But it was certainly not a time for needless irritations;it was a time, quite clearly, for tact.
Dismissing Moss's sensibilities from his mind for the timebeing, Foley began to pack the pixies into a number of largecardboard boxes. This he did with great care, covering thebottoms of the boxes and each layer of pixies with a thick pad ofpacking straw, making sure that no two pixies were touching,since breakages were expensive. He enjoyed packing. It was anactivity exactly suited to his cautious, treasuring, pattern-formingnature. He liked packing anything: even the loathedpixies took on a preciousness with their fragility as he beddedthem in the straw. This morning, however, he was not able toenjoy the process for itself alone, since it brought him up against aproblem which until then he had been deliberately avoiding. Itconcerned the choice of a painter for the pixies.
Later on, when they were really busy, they would use all availablepainters, but at this time of the year they had a sort of rota system,which seemed fairer. It was the turn of Albert Smart, who lived bydigging graves and doing odd jobs. There was nothing againstAlbert, a lanky respectful man, good with his hands. Moreover hewas more or less constantly in need, since deaths were not so veryfrequent in such a sparsely populated district and he had a number ofsmall children to support. Look at it how he would, Foley could notdeny that all considerations of justice and humanity were on Albert'sside. But if he ignored these claims and took the pixies into Lanruaninstead, and gave them to someone there to paint, he could call onGwendoline, not only today but on Friday too, when he went in tocollect them, and Moss would be hoodwinked because it was ablameless business trip.
Albert's sad claims faded as Foley nestled one after the other ofthe pixies down into the yielding but springy straw. Something inthis, something intimate and exploratory and at the same timesystematic, gave added force to his desire to see Gwendoline. Hemight sit on the floor, on her red carpet, watching her move about,that big-boned yet graceful and curiously docile body of hers. It wasthis doe-like softness he sensed in her, together with her narrow-eyed,sleepy expression, which had attracted him first. He was quitesure she was still a virgin, despite her aspect of fecundity.
Planning seductions was an occupation extremely agreeable tohim. He engaged in it frequently, even when through a dearth ofsuitable acquaintance he was obliged to imagine his heroines.Like packing, it made a strong appeal to the scheming orderlinessof his character and it also gave him a long-drawn-out illusion ofmastery. He had, however, never succeeded in seducing anyone, ifseduction is an unremitting manipulation of another personality.He had some of the qualities: he was good-looking, ready ofspeech, sensual enough and not given to pity — more capableindeed than many of ignoring inconvenient appeals to chivalry. Inspite of these natural advantages something always went wrong,something in himself. He invariably succumbed to the response hearoused, lost his impetus. He could not help posing himself andwaiting in a flame of self-love for the over-stimulated moth toimmolate herself on his candle. Sometimes this happened, sometimesit did not, but it was never clear in the end who was seducingwhom, and Foley found this, however enjoyable at the time,retrospectively lacked the true qualities of a campaign.
With Gwendoline at least he felt he had made a good start. Onhis previous visit, in parting, he had rested his hand for a momentin the small of her back, in that hollow formed by the spine andthe first convexities of the buttocks. He had felt the grain of hersilk blouse slide under his palm against the softer, more resilient,flesh beneath. Today he would wait for some accidentalproximity, and kiss her. If she rebuffed him he could put it, withan air sufficiently respectful, down to passion. This would do himno harm. No woman could fail to enjoy being the provoker ofungovernable impulses, provided they turned out to be governable.If, on the other hand, which he felt on the whole more likely,she acquiesced, the kiss could become habitual, and a prelude tobetter things.
Foley finished the packing in a voluptuous heat. Carrying theboxes down to the rear door, ready for loading into the car, theharsher aspects of life again obtruded. Moss now would have tobe encountered. Not being kept informed of what was going onwas one of the things his partner had lately shown himself toresent. Pausing only to assemble his features into an expression ofduty shouldered, he went into the casting-room.
As he had visualised, Moss was bending over the big workbenchin the middle of the room, extracting baked pixies fromtheir lemon-coloured rubber moulds. He had his back to the doorand did not hear Foley come in. Footsteps were inaudible in thisroom because of the thick deposit of plaster dust and shavingswhich covered the floor. From some source not immediatelytraceable Moss's wireless was emitting gusty orchestral music.
`I have to go down to the wretched village again,' said Foley.Moss turned the moment he began speaking, and straightenedhimself. He was a big man, a full head taller than Foley. The frontof him, his jersey and denim trousers, were white with fine grainsof plaster, and a floury dust adhered to his cheeks and eyebrowsand the ridge of his nose, giving him a farcical doomedappearance. Beneath this mask Foley saw two distinct expressionspass over his face one after the other: a sort of automaticsolicitude, evoked by the tone of the words, and then, almostimmediately, as their meaning came home to him, a waryblankness.
`What a bore for you, Ronald,' he said in his customary deepand rather resonant voice, luxuriant with the vowels of his nativeEssex.
Foley stood silent for a moment, seeking uneasily for inflectionsof irony in the remark. `Yes, isn't it?' he said. `But we must keepthings going, you know, Michael, we must keep our end up.' Asort of subdued heartiness based on cliché was his habitualconversational stance with Moss whenever, as now, he wasconscious of practising a deception. `Spread the good word,' headded, scanning Moss's face. It was amazing, he thought, howthat face suggested gullibility, a willingness to be favourablyimpressed. It was largely a matter of those round, blue, believingeyes and the unusually high arch of the brows above them, but themouth too added to this impression by its fullness, its appearanceof innocent greed. Only if one disregarded the credulous mouthand eyes and dwelt on the largeness and bluntness of the head, theheavy, prominent bones of temple and jaw, might it have beensurmised that Moss was an extremely obstinate and inflexibleperson. Particularly so in the matter of human appraisals. Hisacquaintance was not extensive, but they all had a sense of beingnetted in his opinion of them and they usually suffered in hispresence, fluttering into insincerities as they tried to expressthemselves without coming into conflict with his almost invariablyinadequate conception of their characters. Foley, on theother hand, being preoccupied with himself, found it easier toapproach people tentatively. Indeed he kept an open mind for solong that in the end he often lacked the interest or energy to closeit.
`You seem to go down there often these days,' said Moss, againwithout any apparent intention of irony. `Is it really necessary foryou to go today?'
`Well, yes it is, as a matter of fact. It's the ashtray pixies, youknow, the lot we've just finished. The people want them for thisFriday. Why I don't know, there's nobody about yet, but thereyou are. It's important we should be on time with them becausethis is the first order.' He was conscious of having been tooexplanatory.
`Of course I know all that,' Moss said. `It's that woman whowears wooden beads that knock against one another, and the manis bald.' He had resumed work on the pixies. Foley watched forsome time in silence, impressed as always by the tenderness withwhich he handled them. His thick blunt fingers released themfrom the clasp of the rubber with an amazing gentleness, acontinuously renewed care, as though he were delivering themfrom the cramping womb. They were all mutants on emerging:these moulds were old now, their edges worn and blunted,and this caused accidental and sometimes monstrous accretions,little ridges and humps, swellings, goitres, phalluses. Sometimesthe pixies came out like drowned things, seaweeded or encrustedwith dredge. All this had to be put right by Moss, who had a smallfile for the purpose.
`Whose turn is it for the painting, someone in the village?' heasked without looking up.
`I thought I'd take them to Graham,' Foley said.
`Is it Graham's turn again already?'
`Well, yes it is, as a matter of fact.' A furtive anger was beginningto rise in Foley at the other's graceless persistence in thesequestions, which had driven him now to a direct falsehood. `Ithought I might call in on Barbara Gould at the same time,' hesaid. `She is back again now, for the summer.'
`Barbara Gould,' said Moss. He crumbled away with his fingersa thin ridge from the pixie's shoulders. `I don't think we shouldhave much to do with her,' he said.
Moss assumed his special worldly manner, forbearing andcensorious, which he kept for those times when he felt Foleyneeded some coaching in the facts of life. `The life she leads,Ronald. It's common knowledge in the village.'
`What has that to do with us?' Foley demanded warmly. Hisguilt and annoyance, diverted into the defence of Barbara, hadbecome, he felt, a generous emotion, one which ought to besustained. `There's no common knowledge in that village excepthow to fleece the summer visitors,' he said, `and no uncommonknowledge at all.'
`I have heard that she is insatiable,' Moss said, as though it weresomething like leprosy.
`Who on earth says that? Anyway, it would be a misfortune,surely, if it were really true. Her morals don't concern us in anycase. What does it matter to me how many men she sleeps with? Ilike talking to her, she gives me the London news.'
Before this burst of frankness, Moss's air of wisdom had wilteda little. `Everybody knows about her in the village,' he said. `It's upto you, of course.'
`It's not catching, you know,' Foley said. `Do you think I'll becorrupted, or what? Michael, you simply can't consider people inthis way. People aren't just so many moral vitamins.' Foley'sprecarious sense of advantage led him into something like a sneer.`Tom's all right, he's a nutritious character, but keep away fromDick, he'll constipate you, he's deficient in citizenship, he has anuncontrollable impulse to expose himself on public commons andheaths.'
He paused for a moment to struggle with his idea. Moss wassilent, as though staggered by this figurativeness.
`Anyone can be poisonous, actually,' Foley said. `People don'tgive other people what is wholesome for them necessarily, evenwholesome people, I mean. It's a sort of surplus, whatever it is theperson has a lot of. It depends on the system of the receiverwhether it's poisonous or not.'
His vehemence seemed finally to amuse Moss, who actuallybegan to chuckle a little. `You must keep one foot on the ground,you know, Ronald,' he said. `Idealism is all very well, but itdoesn't get the work of the world done.'
`Idealism?' Foley was sometimes bewildered by Moss'sapparent shifts of ground, suspecting some design in them; but hewas always forced to acknowledge that so far from cunning wasthis inconsequence that Moss wasn't even aware of it. Now, forexample, he had simply fallen back, perhaps out of self-defence,on his role of hard-headed practical man.
`I wasn't being idealistic at all,' Foley said, making an effort tobreak out of his own allotted role of fanciful fellow, in whichindeed, because of Moss's conviction, there was somethinghypnotic, compelling assent. `I was only trying —'
`Never mind, never mind,' said Moss, still smiling. He seemedin great good humour now, and Foley knew that this was becausehe himself was behaving in character, in Moss's view at least.Moss had assigned to him from the beginning an ArtisticTemperament — it was typical of him to think in broad categories— and this apparently implied a sort of picturesque ineptitude forthe bread-and-butter aspects of life, rather than the possession ofany definite talents. But in Foley's case there was talent too, asMoss would have been quick to point out to anyone who seemedunaware of it. Was it not Foley who designed the pixies, made themodels and the moulds? And he himself who did the heavy work,the crude preparatory processes, and kept the accounts?
Excerpted from The Partnership by Barry Unsworth. Copyright © 1966 by Barry Unsworth. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted July 13, 2012