Hilary Metcalfe is an English teacher who loathes his work so thoroughly that he requires a half bottle of scotch in order to grade a stack of homework. His only joys are private ones: American musicals, from South Pacific to The King and I, and his absolutely gorgeous lover, Rufus, whom he has utterly failed to domesticate. Once, he had dreams of being an actor, a star of London’s West End. Now he would settle for the knowledge that Rufus is his and his alone. He’ll get neither—but he may get something much better instead.
When Rufus stands him up on his birthday, Hilary discovers something astonishing in the subway station: a frightened, abandoned baby boy. Drunk and lonely, Hilary brings the baby home to his seedy Shepherd’s Bush flat, and soon finds he cannot live without the child. As Rufus falls into a romantic encounter with, of all people, Hilary’s sister, the three are caught in a bizarre love triangle—with a baby in the middle.
A spiritual sequel to Patrick Gale’s second London novel, Ease, this is a charming portrait of the British capital at its most cosmopolitan. For anyone who has ever wished for a life different from his own, Kansas in August is a captivating tale.
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About the Author
Patrick Gale was born on the Isle of Wight. He spent his infancy at Wandsworth Prison, which his father governed, then grew up in Winchester, before attending Oxford University. He now lives on a farm near Land’s End. One of the United Kingdom’s best-loved novelists, his recent works include A Perfectly Good Man, The Whole Day Through, and the Richard & Judy Book Club bestseller Notes from an Exhibition. His latest novel, A Place Called Winter, was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Prize, the Walter Scott Prize, and the Independent Booksellers’ Novel of the Year award. To find out more about Patrick and his work, visit www.galewarning.org.
Read an Excerpt
Kansas in August
By Patrick Gale
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Patrick Gale
All rights reserved.
'Who is it?'
Henry had just woken to thin sunlight and the sound of someone knocking on her surgery door. The knocking continued, almost out of control.
'Yes?' shouted Henry. The knocking stopped. A woman's voice answered.
'Room service.' The voice had a Canadian twang which Henry thought she recognized. 'I have your breakfast here.'
'What?' Henry clutched a sheet to her chin and sat up incredulous as the door opened and a young woman in pyjamas, dressing-gown and slippers tripped in. A perky smile was on her face and a tray, empty save for a urine sample, was borne carefully in her hands. 'Miss McGillis, you're not allowed up here without an appointment.'
'There we are,' said Miss McGillis, impervious. 'We thought you might not want to get up straight after all you've been through, so I fixed you up coffee, orange juice, waffles and a piece or two of French toast. How's that grab you?'
'Oh, that's just perfect,' said Henry, retching from the ammoniac smell. 'You can go now.'
'Be sure to have a nice day.'
'I'll try.' She waited until the door was closed, then lifted the tray and 'breakfast' on to the floor before reaching for the telephone. 'Doctor Metcalfe here, who's that? ... Yes, isn't it early! Has your Miss McGillis gone missing? The Canadian? ... Mmm. Well she should be nearing the bottom of my staircase now if you want to fetch her back where she belongs. Do try not to be so careless. She's been to the kitchen and might have done herself an injury ... Not at all. Good morning.'
She replaced the receiver, then sank back on her pillow with a sigh. A gust of wind shook the open window on its sash cord and rattled the blinds by her desk. Pulling a hand from under the bedding, she picked the yellow bits from the corners of each eye and flicked them on to the lino. She focused on the alarm clock and swore. Bloody McGillis had woken her far too early. She rolled on to her side in an effort to fall asleep once more and came face to face with a pair of navy blue Y-fronts.
Somewhere in the building there stalked an underwearless doctor. Or was he a porter? That's right. A first-year zoology student moonlighting as a hospital porter to pay off his overdraft, and he was called Rodney. No, David. Geoff, possibly? Anyway, he had been terribly sweet. Henry had worked late on a report (still untyped) and had seen him over her eggs and chips in the canteen. His had been an unfamiliar face among the late-night desperados, so she had smiled in welcome and thereby drawn him to her table and her peculiarly seductive brand of conversation. He had told her of his girl-friend, Trish – Tina? – who was on a kibbutz being shot at by Arabs, and Henry had asked him back to a tot of whisky from her filing cabinet. Terribly sweet. And now sans Y-fronts.
It seemed she had barely drifted off to sleep again when the telephone rang.
'Hello, Candy. How are you?'
'Fine. Are you awake?'
'Good. You weren't at home last night, so I assumed you were working late on something. I've just got in. Do you want to meet me for breakfast? I'm not on till nine.'
'OK. Just let me have a bath.'
'Half an hour?'
'Lovely. See you there.'
Candy was an acquaintance from school who had resurfaced, without fair warning, as a psychiatric nurse with a husband and two children. Gently growling, Henry got up, wrapped her white coat about her and tottered along the chill tiled corridor to the nearest bathroom. The only good – well, one of the good – things about spending the night at work was the unlimited supply of extremely hot water that awaited one on waking.
She dressed in yesterday's slacks and one of the clean shirts she kept in the bottom drawer of her desk, gave her short hair a fierce brushing, made her bed and then sat at her desk with the navy blue Y-fronts on the blotter before her. Whistling through her teeth, she thumbed through the books on the shelf beside her and found the Directory of Old Girls from Saint Catherine's, Selmbury. This was dusky pink, with 'Henrietta Metcalfe' inscribed in a schoolma'amish hand on one corner of the cover. Under a bogus crest it read 'Lest We Forget' in Gothic print. Henry flicked through it in search of a suitably hated name, then addressed a large brown envelope to one Unity Pope in a house called Little Spark in a suburb of Newbury. She slid the Y-fronts, lovingly folded, inside and left the sealed package in her post tray.
Ensconced in the steamiest corner of the canteeen for warmth, she attacked a full cooked breakfast while Candy, who had naturally curly hair and the sort of disposition most kindly described as sunny, toyed with a cup of tea and a round of dry toast.
'But how are you really?' asked Candy. 'Are you still happy?'
'Yes,' said Henry, 'I suppose so. Reasonably.'
'I don't know how you manage. I was saying to Derek only the other day that if he wasn't there and all I had was my work, I'd go mad.'
'Yes,' said Henry, smiling at the forbidden epithet and stabbing a badly grilled tomato.
'But there's nobody special at the moment?'
'No. You know me,' said Henry, reflecting that Candy didn't know the half of her. They had barely known each other at school – Candy having been the 'Outdoor Type' – but Candy seemed to feel that their shared education constituted sufficient common ground for a friendship.
'How's that brother of yours?' asked Candy.
'Yes. Is he still acting?'
'Well, he's teaching at the moment. But I think he still wants to be an actor.' Henry had told her all this last time they shared breakfast. Candy had a short-term memory. 'He likes dancing and singing,' she added.
'Oh, I love musicals!'
'I loathe them.'
'Does he look like you?'
'Apparently very. He's slightly less blond, though. He's the spitting image of my mother,' said Henry and thought suddenly of a squeaky-clean grave beneath a palm tree. Damn Candy for making her remember that.
'And how's your father?'
'Still in Paris.'
'It must be lovely to live there. Do you and Hilary visit him often?'
'Once a year, usually. Hilary's too poor and I don't get off for long enough.'
'Of course you don't.' There was a pause during which Henry finished her second rasher of bacon and Candy crumbled her last crust of toast. Predictably it was Candy who was the first to call out over the mounting clatter of plates and conversation. 'I just don't know how you manage. I suppose if you're a brainbox like you are, it makes it much easier to do without ... well, things.'
'I'm not a "brainbox".'
'Yes you are. You're much brighter than me, anyway.'
'All right. I am.'
Candy laughed, reassured of the happy natural order of things, and patted the nurse's cap atop her natural curls.
('You're so inane I could bite you,' thought Henry.)
As she excused herself for work and walked back along the corridors of shuffling, pyjama-trapped patients and starchy-trotting guardians, she pondered the question of friendship. She considered it odd that she found the woman whom any outside observer would assume to be one of her only friends, so utterly abhorrent.CHAPTER 2
Something stopped. Rufus opened his eyes and saw that it was the rain. His half-gummed stare crawled from the unfamiliar basement window across the near-empty bed-sit to the reassuring contour of the left arm on which his waking head rested. He dragged a hand along the floorboards beside the mattress and brought it back, black with dust, clutching a watch. Ten-thirty. The first lesson was at half-past twelve. Two hours to get home from wherever he was now, to change, grab some breakfast and his music case and get to ... to ... to wherever he had to be in two hours. Somewhere West. He let the watch fall to the sweat-creased sheet and tried to move his right arm, which had lost all feeling. Frowning with the effort, he raised his chin and swung his head to face the other way.
A girl – at least he assumed that that was what she was – was lying on her stomach, trapping his arm. She held her hands at her thighs, her face full in the pillow. It looked as though she had died some hours ago in a narrow space and been carried, board-stiff, to this resting place. The only evidence that, if dead, she had died in situ were the sky-blue skid marks where her stained hair had been rubbed around on the pillow.
As he stared at his arm disappearing beneath her moon-white form, Rufus found dim memories of a girl in blue leathers with a Mohican hairstyle to match, leaning aggressively against a night-club bar, and of a death-defying ride on her motorbike. The hair was now crushed in an unkempt mat over one shaved side of her skull. He couldn't remember her face. He pulled gently on his arm, to no avail. She gave no sign of waking, so he pulled harder and freed himself. Still she lay, arms at her sides, face in the pillow.
He strapped his watch about his wrist and stood with a mute yawn and a shiver. The basement felt damp. He glanced about for his clothes. His boxer shorts – a Christmas present from Hilary – were hanging out from under the duvet. He tugged them on and, finding his tee-shirt, pulled on that. His jeans lay on the other side of the mattress, entwined with the blue leather biking gear which he now saw to be plastic. As he started towards them, something cracked and sent a jab of pain through one foot. He stumbled – cursing in whispers – against a clammy wall and gingerly raised the wounded limb to inspect the damage. A used syringe lay crushed on the floor. He picked a jagged piece of its plastic from his sole and hobbled on towards his jeans.
Minutes later, as he let himself out and limped through puddles to a bus-stop in what turned out to be Lambeth, he remembered that he had bought an unaffordable present for his lover's twenty- fifth birthday. Patting his jacket pockets, he realized he had left it behind with the Mohican squaw. She was comatose however, and the bus was here and he had only two hours to get to wherever.
'Oxford Street, please,' he said and imagined his azure-topped hostess's doped dismay when she found he had left her a first edition of Private Lives.
'Wherever', as he remembered by the time he was leaving home in Spanish Place, was an army camp in the semi-industrial wilderness which battened on the prone flesh of Western suburbia. Near-deserted car parks, scrawny cherry trees and serried ranks of whitewashed fifties bungalows. Beyond the residential sector, a second fence marked the perimeter of an inner high security area which remained a mystery to Rufus. Most of the bungalows and certainly the tattered Nissen huts seemed deserted. There were never any troops in evidence; only patrol guards and a sprinkling of officers, purposeful in jeeps.
Mrs Phillips greeted him as limply as ever. Her dark roots were showing to such an extent that the lock which she kept flicking off her eyes was coloured half and half. One cuff of her housecoat appeared to have been scraped over the butter-dish during breakfast. She locked the front door again.
'Coffee,' she said dully, stubbing out her cigarette.
'No,' he said, 'Thank you.'
'Tom's still away,' she replied. As she passed him on her way to the sitting room she let the fingers of one hand slowly brush his thigh. He moved so as to return the pressure faintly, causing her to turn in the doorway and reach up to kiss him. Doubtless she had dabbed on her husband's favourite scent on rising, but there was strong tea on her breath.
'No. Play to me first.'
'All right,' she said.
There was a silver-framed photograph of her husband's regiment over the piano and a cluster of vivid pink hyacinths grew in a bowl on a nearby table. The comfortable, sagging armchairs, a fine rug and a Davenport-ish desk spoke of a prosperous county past and complained of the drear bungaloid present.
As she took her seat at the baby grand and found her music, a smile broke out briefly. Every week she played to him before she led him to the bed she had shared with her husband until his departure all those months ago. She selected the piece with care; different each week, invariably sad. He stood beside the piano, which needed tuning, and watched the nervous play of her lips and her sudden darts to turn a page. He suspected that this preliminary recital was the part she liked best; what she paid him for. Perhaps Tom, her husband, was deaf. Perhaps he was dead. Today it was a Beethoven slow movement. She was a far better pianist than Rufus; this was sad, because her talent was wasted, but funny, because she had never heard him play.
He had twice flunked suicide and once come close to being in love. The first attempt on his life was in his last year at a harsh grammar school in Liverpool. He had been knocked out of a prestigious television competition for young musicians, one round too early to have appeared on television, and his father had made him an appointment with an army careers officer. He had started to cut his wrists, but had forgotten to lock the bathroom door and so was messily, farcically interrupted. The second time was only a year ago. Having failed his teaching diploma at the Guildhall School of Music, he had retaken it in secret. When the news of a second failure came through he had let himself into Hilary's flat, climbed into bed and drained a bottle of valium. Hilary came back from an unexpected weekend with relations in France and thought nothing of finding his lover asleep. Stirring – the bottle had not been full – Rufus had listened to the inevitable Rodgers and Hammerstein record, watched him clear his desk and turn it into a dining-table, answered his jibes and chatter where necessary. After the terrible, weak blank of narcotic sleep, Hilary's warm domesticity and unquestioning affection had seemed unutterably lovely. That was the nearest Rufus had come to falling in love.
As Mrs Phillips neared the end he felt, as he did every week, the tide of panic and disgrace lapping at his chest and when she stood and walked unbuttoning to the bedroom, as she did every week, he rose and followed.CHAPTER 3
Hilary looked up from his marking. The King and I had just finished. Having poured out the last of the half-bottle of Scotch, he walked unsteadily across the room to change the record. South Pacific was the only one of the pile still unplayed this evening; he had saved his favourite until last. As the overture rang out, he tottered back to his desk, took a gulp of spirit and then fumbled for his red biro.
'Lady Macbeth is a wicked lady and this is why she has to go mad. She can't cope with the problums of trying to be Queen of Glasgow, and a good wife and not let anyone know what she feels like.'
'Too simple by half,' Hilary began to scribble in the margin of the child's exercise book. 'Why is she wicked? You rush on too fast; her wickedness needs at least a paragraph to itself. The same goes for her "wifely" qualities (was she a mother? etc.) Beware of writing can't, don't, shan't etc. as these are both inelegant to read and unlikely to be accepted by the examiners. You cannot always write in the way that you speak. There is no "u" in problems.'
He read on, inflicting red ink lacerations with barely a frown. This was the twenty-fifth version of What are the reasons, if any, for Lady Macbeth's insanity? which he had read that day. 15B were short on originality, even when it came to making mistakes.
The gas-fire was hissing softly and the windows were cloudy with an evening's condensation. Above the fireplace there hung a large, framed photograph of Mary Martin dancing in an oversized sailor suit. This was mirrored by a long, narrow photograph of the finale ensemble from A Chorus Line. A handful of small parcels lay in a bed of unopened envelopes beside the telephone. A half-eaten Chinese takeaway for two lay beside the desk. Rufus was four hours late and Hilary had been drinking conscientiously for three of them.
The telephone rang. He glanced at his watch and saw that it had just gone midnight. Dad and Marie-Claude calling from Paris. He downed the last half-inch of whisky and turned up the volume of There is Nothing Like a Dame before lifting the receiver.
"Appy birsday to you! 'Appy birsday to you! 'Appy birs ...'
'Hang on, Marie-Claude. There are a lot of people. I'll just ...' He turned down the volume and returned to the receiver. 'Hi.'
"Appy birsday, darling. Quarter of a century; what a big boy!'
Excerpted from Kansas in August by Patrick Gale. Copyright © 1987 Patrick Gale. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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