Read an Excerpt
Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing. It's nothing. Just sad dreams. Or something like that . . . Swing low in your weep ship, with your tear scans and your sob probes, and you would mark them. Women-and they can be wives, lovers, gaunt muses, fat nurses, obsessions, devourers, exes, nemeses-will wake and turn to these men and ask, with female need-to-know, "What is it?" And the men say, "Nothing. No it isn't anything really. Just sad dreams."
Just sad dreams. Yeah: oh sure. Just sad dreams. Or something like that.
Richard Tull was crying in his sleep. The woman beside him, his wife, Gina, woke and turned. She moved up on him from behind and laid hands on his pale and straining shoulders. There was a professionalism in her blinks and frowns and whispers: like the person at the poolside, trained in first aid; like the figure surging in on the blood-smeared macadam, a striding Christ of mouth-to-mouth. She was a woman. She knew so much more about tears than he did. She didn't know about Swift's juvenilia, or Wordsworth's senilia, or how Cressida had variously fared at the hands of Boccaccio, of Chaucer, of Robert Henryson, of Shakespeare; she didn't know Proust. But she knew tears. Gina had tears cold.
"What is it?" she said.
Richard raised a bent arm to his brow. The sniff he gave was complicated, orchestral. And when he sighed you could hear the distant seagulls falling through his lungs.
"Nothing. It isn't anything. Just sad dreams."
Or something like that.
After a while she too sighed and turned over, away from him. There in the night their bed had the towelly smell of marriage.
He awoke at six, as usual. He needed no alarm clock. He was already comprehensively alarmed. Richard Tull felt tired, and not just underslept. Local tiredness was up there above him-the kind of tiredness that sleep might lighten-but there was something else up there over and above it. And beneath it. That greater tiredness was not so local. It was the tiredness of time lived, with its days and days. It was the tiredness of gravity-gravity, which wants you down there in the center of the earth. That greater tiredness was here to stay: and get heavier. No nap or cuppa would ever lighten it. Richard couldn't remember crying in the night. Now his eyes were dry and open. He was in a terrible state-that of consciousness. Some while ago in his life he had lost the knack of choosing what to think about. He slid out of bed in the mornings just to find some peace. He slid out of bed in the mornings just to get a little rest. He was forty tomorrow, and reviewed books.
In the small square kitchen, which stoically awaited him, Richard engaged the electric kettle. Then he went next door and looked in on the boys. Dawn visits to their room had been known to comfort him after nights such as the one he had just experienced, with all its unwelcome information. His twin sons in their twin beds. Marius and Marcus were not identical twins. And they weren't fraternal twins either, Richard often said (unfairly, perhaps), in the sense that they showed little brotherly feeling. But that's all they were, brothers, born at the same time. It was possible, theoretically (and, Richard surmised, their mother being Gina, also practically) that Marcus and Marius had different fathers. They didn't look alike, especially, and were strikingly dissimilar in all their talents and proclivities. Not even their birthdays were content to be identical: a sanguinary summer midnight had interposed itself between the two boys and their (again) very distinctive parturitional styles, Marius, the elder, subjecting the delivery room to a systematic and intelligent stare, its negative judgment suspended by decency and disgust, whereas Marcus just clucked and sighed to himself complacently, and seemed to pat himself down, as if after a successful journey through freak weather. Now in the dawn, through the window and through the rain, the streets of London looked like the insides of an old plug. Richard contemplated his sons, their motive bodies reluctantly arrested in sleep, and reef-knotted to their bedware, and he thought, as an artist might: but the young sleep in another country, at once very dangerous and out of harm's way, perennially humid with innocuous libido-there are neutral eagles out on the windowsill, waiting, offering protection and threat.
Sometimes Richard did think and feel like an artist. He was an artist when he saw fire, even a match head (he was in his study now, lighting his first cigarette): an instinct in him acknowledged its elemental status. He was an artist when he saw society: it never crossed his mind that society had to be like this, had any right, had any business being like this. A car in the street. Why? Why cars? This is what an artist has to be: harassed to the point of insanity or stupefaction by first principles. The difficulty began when he sat down to write. The difficulty, really, began even earlier. Richard looked at his watch and thought: I can't call him yet. Or rather: Can't call him yet. For the interior monologue now waives the initial personal pronoun, in deference to Joyce. He'll still be in bed, not like the boys and their abandonment, but lying there personably, and smugly sleeping. For him, either there would be no information, or the information, such as it was, would all be good.
For an hour (it was the new system) he worked on his latest novel, deliberately but provisionally entitled Untitled. Richard Tull wasn't much of a hero. Yet there was something heroic about this early hour of flinching, flickering labor, the pencil sharpener, the Wite-Out, the vines outside the open window sallowing not with autumn but with nicotine. In the drawers of his desk or interleaved by now with the bills and summonses on the lower shelves on his bookcases, and even on the floor of the car (the terrible red Maestro), swilling around among the Ribena cartons and the dead tennis balls, lay other novels, all of them firmly entitled Unpublished. And stacked against him in the future, he knew, were yet further novels, successively entitled Unfinished, Unwritten, Unattempted, and, eventually, Unconceived.
Now came the boys-in what you would call a flurry if it didn't go on so long and involve so much inanely grooved detail, with Richard like the venerable though tacitly alcoholic pilot in the cockpit of the frayed shuttle: his clipboard, his nine-page checklist, his revving hangover-socks, sums, cereal, reading book, shaved carrot, face wash, teeth brush. Gina appeared in the middle of this and drank a cup of tea standing by the sink . . . Though the children were of course partly mysterious to Richard, thank God, he knew their childish repertoire and he knew the flavor of their hidden lives. But Gina he knew less and less about. Little Marco, for instance, believed that the sea was the creation of a rabbit who lived in a racing car. This you could discuss. Richard didn't know what Gina believed. He knew less and less about her private cosmogony.
There she stood, in light lipstick and light pancake and light woolen suit, holding her teacup in joined palms. Other working girls whose beds Richard had shared used to get up at around eleven at night to interface themselves for the other world. Gina did it all in twenty minutes. Her body threw no difficulties in her way: the wash-and-go drip-dry hair, the candid orbits that needed only the mildest of emphasis, the salmony tongue, the ten-second bowel movement, the body that all clothes loved. Gina worked two days a week, sometimes three. What she did, in public relations, seemed to him much more mysterious than what he did, or failed to do, in the study next door. Like the sun, now, her face forbade any direct address of the eyes, though of course the sun glares crazily everywhere at once and doesn't mind who is looking at it. Richard's dressing gown bent round him as he fastened Marius's shirt buttons with his eaten fingertips.
"Can you fasten it?" said Marius.
"Do you want a cup of tea making?" said Gina, surprisingly.
"Knock knock," said Marco.
Richard said, in order, "I am fastening it. No thanks, I'm okay. Who's there?"
"You," said Marco.
"No, fasten it. Come on, Daddy!" said Marius.
Richard said, "You who? You don't mean fasten it. You mean do it faster. I'm trying."
"Are they ready?" said Gina.
"Who are you calling! Knock knock," said Marco.
"I think so. Who's there?"
"What about macks?"
"They don't need macks, do they?"
"Mine aren't going out in that without macks."
"Boo," said Marco.
"Are you taking them in?"
"Boo who? Yeah, I thought so."
"Why are you crying!"
"Look at you. You aren't even dressed yet."
"I'll get dressed now."
"Why are you crying!"
"It's ten to nine. I'll take them."
"No, I'll take them."
"Daddy! Why are you crying?"
"What? I'm not."
"In the night you were," said Gina.
"Was I?" said Richard.
Still in his dressing gown, and barefoot, Richard followed his family out into the passage and down the four flights of stairs. They soon outspeeded him. By the time he rounded the final half-landing the front door was opening-was closing-and with a whip of its tail the flurry of their life had gone.
Richard picked up his Times and his low-quality mail (so brown, so unwelcome, so slowly moving through the city). He sifted and then thrashed his way into the newspaper until he found Today's Birthdays. There it stood. There was even a picture of him, cheek to cheek with his wife: Lady Demeter.
At eleven o'clock Richard Tull dialed the number. He felt the hastening of excitement when Gwyn Barry himself picked up the telephone.
Richard exhaled and said measuredly, ". . . You fucking old wreck."
Gwyn paused. Then the elements came together in his laugh, which was gradual and indulgent and even quite genuine. "Richard," he said.
"Don't laugh like that. You'll pull a muscle. You'll break your neck. Forty years old. I saw your obit in The Times."
"Listen, are you coming to this thing?"
"I am, but I don't think you'd better. Sit tight, by the fire. With a rug on your lap. And an old-boy pill with your hot drink."
"Yes, all right. Enough," said Gwyn. "Are you coming to this thing?"
"Yeah, I suppose so. Why don't I come to you around twelve-thirty and we'll get a cab."
"You fucking old wreck."
Richard sobbed briefly and then paid a long and consternated visit to the bathroom mirror. His mind was his own and he accepted full responsibility for it, whatever it did or might do. But his body. The rest of the morning he spent backing his way into the first sentence of a seven-hundred-word piece about a seven-hundred-page book about Warwick Deeping. Like the twins, Richard and Gwyn Barry were only a day apart in time. Richard would be forty tomorrow. The information would not be carried by The Times. The Times, the newspaper of record. Only one celebrity lived at 49E Calchalk Street; and she wasn't famous. Gina was a genetic celebrity. She was beautiful, every inch, and she didn't change. She got older, but she didn't change. In the gallery of the old photographs she was always the same, staring out, while everyone else seemed disgracefully protean, kaftaned Messiahs, sideburned Zapatas. He sometimes wished she wasn't: wasn't beautiful. In his present travail. Her brother and sister were ordinary. Her dead dad had been ordinary. Her mother was still around for the time being, fat and falling apart and still mountainously pretty somehow, in a bed somewhere.
We are agreed-come on: we are agreed-about beauty in the flesh. Consensus is possible here. And in the mathematics of the universe, beauty helps tell us whether things are false or true. We can quickly agree about beauty, in the heavens and in the flesh. But not everywhere. Not, for instance, on the page.
In the van, Scozzy looked at 13 and said,
"Morrie goes to the doctor, right?"
"Right," said 13.
13 was eighteen and he was black. His real name was Bently. Scozzy was thirty-one, and he was white. His real name was Steve Cousins.
Scozzy said, "Morrie tells the doc, he says, 'I can't raise it with my wife. My wife Queenie. I can't raise it with Queenie.'"
Hearing this, 13 did something that white people have stopped really doing. He grinned. White people used to do it, years ago. "Yeah," said 13 expectantly. Morrie, Queenie, he thought: all Jews is it.
Scozzy said, "The doc goes, 'Unlucky. Listen. We got these pills in from Sweden. The latest gear. Not cheap. Like a carpet a pill. Okay?'"
13 nodded. "Or whatever," he said.
They were sitting in the orange van, drinking cans of Ting: pineapple-grapefruit crush. 13's fat dog Giro sat erectly between them on the hand-brake section, keeping still but panting as if in great lust.
"'Take one of them and you'll have a stiffy for four hours. A bonk with a capital O.' Morrie goes home, right?" Scozzy paused and then said thoughtfully, "Morrie rings up the doc and he's like, 'I just took one of them pills but guess what.'"
13 turned and frowned at Scozzy.
"'Queenie's gone shopping! Won't be back for four hours!' The doc says, 'This is serious, mate. Is there anybody else indoors?' Morrie says, 'Yeah. The au pair.' The doc says, 'What she like?' 'Eighteen with big tits.' So the doc goes, 'Okay. Stay calm. You'll have to do it with the au pair. Tell her it's an emergency. Medical matter.'
"Medical matter whatever," murmured 13.
"'Ooh I don't know,' says Morrie. 'I mean a carpet a pill? Seems like an awful waste. I can get a stiffy with the au pair anyway.'
There was silence.
Giro gulped and started panting again.
13 leaned back in his seat. Grin and frown now contested for the suzerainty of his face. The grin won. "Yeah," said 13. "Do it on the carpet is it."
". . . What fucking carpet?"
"You said carpet."
"Pill on the carpet."
"Jesus Christ," said Scozzy. "The pills cost a carpet. Each."
13 looked mildly unhappy. A mere nothing. It would pass.
"A carpet. Jesus. You know: half a stretch."
Nothing-a mere nothing.
"Fucking hell. A stretch is six months. A carpet is half a stretch. Three hundred quid."
It had passed. 13 grinned weakly.
Scozzy said, "You're the one who's always in fucking prison."
With fright-movie suddenness (Giro stopped panting) Richard Tull appeared in the left foreground of the van's glass screen and fixed them with a wince before reefing on by. Giro gulped, and started panting again.
"Woe," said Scozzy.
"The man," 13 said simply.
"He's not the man. The man's the other one. He's his mate." Scozzy nodded and smiled and shook his head with all these things coming together: he loved it. "And Crash does his wife."
From the Trade Paperback edition.