Sandra Harris—wife, astronomer (known for discovering the planet Athena), television phenomenon, and “professional searcher after truth”—has had an epiphany. She leaves her boring attorney husband and runs off with Mad Jack Stubbs, her trumpet-playing lover, and his groupie entourage, for a tour of Southern France. Pursued by her husband, Mad Jack’s wife, and the paparazzi, Sandra lives entirely for the moment—and great sex. In between, she ponders her past (institutionalized mother, Nazi war criminal father) while trying to ignore the deafening tick of her biological clock. Fay Weldon’s novel is a mirror held up to the face of its reader; an illuminating, reflective tale about sex, ambition, and the love that makes fools of us all.
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Leader of the Band
By Fay Weldon
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1988 Fay Weldon
All rights reserved.
I, Starlady Sandra, professional searcher after truth, rejector of fantasy, organiser of eternal laws into numerical form, confiner of cosmic events and swirling next-to-nothingness into detail not only comprehensible but communicable to a TV audience, was in flight from my own life, my own past, and the revenge of my friends.
I went south with the Band towards the sun and the gigs and the Folkloriques of summer France, rattling and sweating and leaning into Mad Jack the trumpet-player whenever I could, one leg numb with the effort of keeping myself on my seat while the minibus swerved and jerked and started and stopped; the other leg pressed into his, flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone, and happy beyond wild dreams of happiness, drugged out of my mind with love, zonked out of my wits by sex.
Many are in flight, of course; take to their spiritual heels by way of drink or drugs, and sometimes come back and sometimes don't, but I was off in body as well as mind: run, run, I cried to myself, and run, run I did, leaving home, husband, work behind me, deserting mid-sentence, mid-function, mid-programme, without due notice or warning, leaving others in a terrible fix. I was in love. And those I left behind counted for nothing, nothing: they were ridiculous in their insignificance: even the bruises on my neck where my husband tried to strangle me seemed no more than stigmata, self-generated. But of course, in reality, those I had offended failed to recognise their insignificance, and went on being the centre of their own lives, and came after me, furious, murderous.
Those who pursued me were:
My lover's wife
The gutter press, the sidewalk papers.
The Producer of Sandra's Sky, who was also –
My friend Jude, subject of a story I should not have written, as was
Alison, my erstwhile friend.
*History: personal, political, national.
No escape for any of us, of course, from the three starred items above; we carry them with us in a cloud around our heads, products of our guilt, waste-matter of our fate. What we can't help, what we could have — and how they belabour us, squawking, with their horrible claws and flapping wings, no matter how fast we run, how deep we bury our heads into unmentionable parts of other people's anatomy. But I tried, I tried. For all our sakes, I tried. And this autobiographical novel is an account of how I tried, written a year after the events recorded. Autobiographical, I say, believing I have invented nothing, but how can I be sure, peer behind my own conviction? For the further back into the past I go the more wishful thinking clouds my memory: the more difficult it is to sort my way through the fog, stumbling against those blocks of recollection put forward by my ego in the interests of my self-esteem.
I went south with the Band in a Renault van designed to hold six in comfort but re-fitted in the interests of profit to hold ten in discomfort. And these and this is what the van contained:
Pedro (33) guitar
Sandy (47) double bass
Hughie (26) drums
The Front Line:
Stevie (56) trombone
Karl (72) clarinet
Jack (44) trumpet. Oh, Jack, Mad Jack, leader of the band!
Frances (15) Jack's daughter Jennifer (40) Sandy's wife
Bente (23) Hughie's girlfriend
and myself, Sandra Harris, Sandra Sorenson, Starlady Sandra, Sandra the lady astronomer, all terms apply. The Band knew me as Sandra Harris, secretary, and sometimes one or other would look puzzled and say 'don't I know you from somewhere?' and I'd look vague and say 'oh, I've been around the jazz scene a while'. Starlady Sandra, liar.
Sandy's double bass took up one of the seats, and the van's back door was blocked by Hughie's drums, round which Karl had erected a kind of wooden frame, into which the other instruments, accoutrements, various stands and PA system could slot, but whose stability Hughie doubted, frequently, loudly and at length as we travelled, thus much offending ancient Karl; and there were boxes of wine in the aisle, and the bags and cases of those who did not want to risk getting them wet — for thunderstorms swirled across the wheatfields of France, through which we rocked and slithered, and the roof-rack tarpaulin napped and fluttered and offered the luggage on top scarcely any protection at all — and Jennifer's iceboxes and dustpans and emergency supplies blocked the side door, and grubby articles of clothing discarded as the storms stopped and the heat began littered what was left of the floor, and Christ knew what would have happened had we been in a collision. As Stevie, a tidy man, kept remarking: making Hughie laugh wildly and take his corners more dangerously. You know what young men are. Nor of course was there any air-conditioning — only a kind of blower, which, when switched on by the driver, blasted out hot air from beneath the stacked drums, and of course overheated and filled the vehicle with smoke and fumes and was so noisy that pleas from the back to switch it off went for a suffocating time unheard: until Hughie realised his drums were suffering and pulled into a layby so abruptly the women squealed and the men shouted. And I was happy, pressed into Jack; and thus love makes fools of us.CHAPTER 2
The van was the best the Band could afford. For the Band was no wealthier than the sum of its members. How could it be? Its sound was New Orleans Revival with a touch of folk: it was out of fashion and therefore out of pocket: it was glad enough often enough to play and sing for its supper and no more.
The name of the band was the Citronella Jumpers. Acid green stickers and posters covered the battered sides of the yellow van. 'Revive with the revivers', they begged, a mysterious enough message in its native England: incomprehensible here in France.
The gig was Karl's. That is to say, he it was who had been approached to join the Festival, offered free accommodation and subsistence by Monsieur le Directeur, in return for entertaining the entertainers at the Folklorique of Blasimon-les-Ponts. Karl's sister was Monsieur le Directeur's aunt. Karl had a hearing aid: he was a Marxist, and had been to Eton. But Jack was musical director; Jack was leader of the Band. Jack chose the numbers, beat in the time, kept musical discipline — but it was Karl's gig. That is to say, the moral responsibility for our being in France was Karl's, and Karl's alone. When things went wrong, Jack shrugged; I loved him the more for his insouciance. I, who was in the habit of organising, taking responsibility; who know that to make money you must spend money, who would in a trice have invested in a new van and reprinted the posters and required Monsieur le Directeur to pay for them, who would have written out a schedule daily and had the Festival Office xerox it free, so that all the Band met up at the same time at the same place; who would have consulted maps before we set out, thus saving at least five driving hours of our journey, who would have had in writing the terms of our contract and presented them to each of the Band and made sure all understood them before setting out; who would have ensured that our accommodation was not in a disused town hall twenty kilometres from the Festival centre, who would have named as drivers for the purposes of insurance the two Band members who drank least and not the two who drank most — I did none of these things. I shrugged like Jack and twined my limbs with his, and thought who cares? What has efficiency to do with music? Art and efficiency are at odds. The worse the Band was organised, the better the Band would play. Jack said so. Jack knew how to live. I could feel the life of his body in mine; how could I doubt it? Besides, I loved him.
Now let my story begin. For three days we journeyed. For four days we had stayed at the disused town hall, the Hôtel de Ville of the village of Roc Fumel, twenty kilometres from the town of Blasimon-les-Ponts, where the Band played by day in the cafés and in the market square; and by night in the Cabaret — when it could get itself together that is. And for eight nights and seven days my mind had been held caught, captive, stopped like a video with the pause button pressed. On the ninth night, for some reason, it started up again, busier than ever.
For some reason, I say, but in my heart I knew why, though I resisted the knowledge. My disguise had been penetrated. Jack knew. Sandra the secretary had become Starlady Sandra, and love was no longer enough: she needed all her wits about her, yet again.CHAPTER 3
So Let Us Begin With — A Burst of Radioactivity
I explained my theories on form, style and content to Jack, the mad trumpet-player, but I don't think he was listening. He was asleep. It was three or so in the morning: he'd had a hard day's night; the cabaret audience would rather have had rock than jazz and let the Band know it. The musicians finished early and aggrieved, and for once we came home before two, but instead of making love Jack fell asleep, or pretended to. How was I to tell which? I hadn't known him long. Men are so full of surprises. I ran my forefinger down his hairy thigh but there was no response — in him, at any rate. His flesh was somehow turned away from me. Was it my doing or the world's? There were rich fields for speculation here, but I resolutely turned my mind away from them, quelling as best I could those feelings of resentment and spite which welled up in me. So my grandmother had taught me to do, and her mother her likewise — a lesson which goes back to Victorian times. Too much thought, it was supposed, could overheat and damage the female brain, too much response tip it into hysteria, too much speculation lead it into dangerous erotic areas. Better by far for a woman to train her mind to dwell on pleasant notions and images, to avoid introspection or self-analysis, to sidestep the consciousness of her desires, or else the winds of passion might blow the poor frail thing altogether away. Well, they may have been right. For here I was; I, the lady astronomer, altogether swept away, lying on a truckle bed, under a single harsh blanket, a hard bolster beneath my head, in a high square room empty save for four beds — two unused — and a child's desk, the plaster of its walls crumbling, its wooden floors disintegrating, in a disused town hall in a village not far from Bordeaux, France. Swept away, blown away, Sandra the lady astronomer: she who was used to the grace and comfort of Greenwich, London, from whence the mean time originates. It didn't bear thinking about.
I tried Jack's thigh again. Nothing. He had firm, agreeably sinewy flesh — the spirit, forget my body, quite melted with expectation. Never mind. The pangs of unsatisfied desire are easily enough dealt with, as I had learned during my years with Matthew. Treat them like a stomach ache: see them as something disagreeable but temporary and the pangs subside, and no damage done — or not much, not much. In other words, I thought of something else. I had rather hoped not to be obliged so to do with Jack. Indeed, until this moment, when he used his body as an instrument of pain, not pleasure, I had on the whole managed not to.
I heard sniffling from the next room. It was Frances, Jack's daughter; she was crying. If I could hear her crying, what could she not hear (on a good night) of Jack's and my love-making? I did my best to be quiet — and he might or might not have been trying; as I say, I hardly knew him well enough to tell — but I couldn't suppose my best was, good enough, as my history teacher Miss Martin would say of my essays, and his was certainly not.
'What do you mean, Sandra, you can only do your best? Your best isn't good enough. The truth is in your marks, and this one is A minus. Not good at all, Sandra. You with a minus!'
I had suggested to Frances that she slept in the room above, not next door — this French town hall, this Hôtel de Ville, could sleep thirty-two with ease — eight rooms with four beds in each, mattressed and blanketed as some civil defence exercise — and the band and entourage occupied only five rooms and ten beds, so Frances could surely have her choice, but she claimed upstairs was haunted and, besides, the stairs were rotten, and supposing her foot went through them in the middle of the night, in the dark — the only light switch which worked was downstairs, by the front door — and so on and so forth, and chose the room next door to Jack and me. So she would have to take the consequences: I had done my best. The girl was fifteen; she was in any case her father's responsibility, not mine.
The sniffling stopped. Frances had nothing to cry about that night; nothing but quiet emanated from Jack's and my two pushed-together beds, except that now, half-expected, half-resisted, I began once again to be conscious of, inside my head, silent to the outside world, that awareness somewhere between hearing and feeling, of the wild pitter-patter of thought. Jack's fault. Look at it like this. He had plucked out the needles of my sensuality, raised them like control rods out of a reactor, and now the processes of the mind took off again — electrons and neutrons whizzing here and there where they had no business to be, only barely in control, in their effort to get themselves back in balance.
Form, style, content — in that order of importance. The cosmos is composed of intricate patterns which contain the key to its purpose. That is what I mean by form. The cosmos also has a certain style which can be recognised and predicted. We can, by observing the particular style of our own galaxy, project ahead our own discoveries: that is to say, know what we are looking for before we find it. (Neighbouring galaxies have different styles, which we do not yet understand, but presently will.) Content, mere stars, planets, black holes, and so forth, are the mere stuff of the universe: pawns moved here and there to demonstrate form and style. Content is last and least.
I explained so much and more to Mad Jack the trumpet-player, but, as I say, I don't think he was listening: he was asleep. And just as well, if I wished my disguise unpenetrated. Why should a research assistant be offering this instruction aloud, in the middle of the night: albeit a secretary working at the Greenwich Observatory, for such the Band and Jack supposed me to be. Now everyone knows astronomers are nuts: their clerical staff are supposed to be sane.
Of course, I, Sandra Harris, was in truth no research assistant but — until eight days ago, when I had blown it — was next in line to being Astronomer Royal. I it was, now let me reveal to you, who five years ago discovered the Planet Athena (since taken up by astrologers everywhere as the planet which explained all the things they hadn't so far been able to) and with it, at the age of thirty-seven, discovered the penalties of success, worldly fame and a high income. That is to say, that men don't like you for it. Listen, it's not all that difficult to discover a planet, if you have a mathematical training and my instinctive understanding of form, style and content, and can perceive, by the tingling of your toes just where the gap in the universe must be. But try telling that to a would-be lover.
Just a tiny little planet, honestly, Jack, and its discovery a small matter in the light of other of my astronomical achievements. To discover a planet is not to invent it, any more than Columbus invented America. But from the fuss, you would have thought so. What a to-do! I would have called it Harris, as the planet Herschel was named after Herr Herschel, that being my prerogative, but what sort of name is that for a planet? The planet Harris? It was before the days I became Sorenson, which just might have been possible. Athena, I thought. Someone childless, as I am, projecting a somewhat pure and disdainful image, as I do. Or try to. Princess Grace-ish.
Excerpted from Leader of the Band by Fay Weldon. Copyright © 1988 Fay Weldon. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Contents1. Travelling South,
3. So Let Us Begin With — A Burst of Radioactivity,
4. Breakfast at the Hôtel de Ville,
5. Mother's Got a Headache,
6. A Telephone Call,
7. Trying to Get Through,
8. Bringing to Life,
9. Scene in a Car Park,
10. A Summons from Afar,
11. Return of the Citronellas,
12. So, Starlady Sandra,
13. Breakfast Time,
14. Under the War Memorial,
15. Lying in the Shade,
16. Truth Being Stranger Than Fiction,
17. Chew You Up and Spit You Out,
18. Tell Me About Your Wife,
19. Where Will We Live?,
20. The Unclassed,
21. How's Your Pains?,
22. A Certain Rhythm,
23. Highs and Lows,
24. A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,
I Alison's Story: A Libation of Blood,
II Jennifer's Story: Come On, Everyone!,
III Jude's Story: GUP — or Falling in Love in Helsinki,
A Biography of Fay Weldon,