Read chapter one of Edward St Aubyn's astounding novel Bad News.
Patrick pretended to sleep, hoping the seat next to him would remain empty, but he soon heard a briefcase sliding into the overhead compartment. Opening his eyes reluctantly, he saw a tall snub-nosed man.
‘Hi, I’m Earl Hammer,’ said the man, extending a big freckled hand covered in thick blond hair, ‘I guess I’m your seating companion.’
‘Patrick Melrose,’ said Patrick mechanically, offering a clammy and slightly shaking hand to Mr Hammer.
Early the previous evening, George Watford had telephoned Patrick from New York.
‘Patrick, my dear,’ he said in a strained and drawling voice, slightly delayed by its Atlantic crossing, ‘I’m afraid I have the most awful news for you: your father died the night before last in his hotel room. I’ve been quite unable to get hold of either you or your mother – I believe she’s in Chad with the Save the Children Fund – but I need hardly tell you how I feel; I adored your father, as you know. Oddly enough, he was supposed to be having lunch with me at the Key Club on the day that he died, but of course he never turned up; I remember thinking how unlike him it was. It must be the most awful shock for you. Everybody liked him, you know, Patrick. I’ve told some of the members there and some of the servants, and they were very sorry to hear about his death.’
‘Where is he now?’ asked Patrick coldly.
‘At Frank E. MacDonald’s in Madison Avenue: it’s the place everyone uses over here, I believe it’s awfully good.’
Patrick promised that as soon as he arrived in New York he would call George.
‘I’m sorry to be the bringer of such bad news,’ said George. ‘You’re going to need all your courage during this difﬁcult time.’
‘Thanks for calling,’ said Patrick, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’
‘Goodbye, my dear.’
Patrick put down the syringe he had been ﬂushing out, and sat beside the phone without moving. Was it bad news? Perhaps he would need all his courage not to dance in the street, not to smile too broadly. Sunlight poured in through the blurred and caked windowpanes of his ﬂat. Outside, in Ennismore Gardens, the leaves of the plane trees were painfully bright.
He suddenly leaped out of his chair. ‘You’re not going to get away with this,’ he muttered vindictively. The sleeve of his shirt rolled forward and absorbed the trickle of blood on his arm.
‘You know, Paddy,’ said Earl, regardless of the fact that nobody called Patrick ‘Paddy’, ‘I’ve made a hell of a lot of money, and I ﬁgured it was time to enjoy some of the good things in life.’
It was half an hour into the ﬂight and Paddy was already Earl’s good buddy.
‘How sensible of you,’ gasped Patrick.
‘I’ve rented an apartment by the beach in Monte Carlo, and a house in the hills behind Monaco. Just a beautiful house,’ said Earl, shaking his head incredulously. ‘I’ve got an English butler: he tells me what sports jacket to wear – can you believe that? And I’ve got the leisure time to read the Wall Street Journal from cover to cover.’
‘A heady freedom,’ said Patrick.
‘It’s great. And I’m also reading a real interesting book at the moment, called Megatrends. And a Chinese classic on the art of war. Are you interested in war at all?’
‘Not madly,’ said Patrick.
‘I guess I’m biased: I was in Vietnam,’ said Earl, staring at the horizon through the tiny window of the plane.
‘You liked it?’
‘Sure did,’ Earl smiled.
‘Didn’t you have any reservations?’
‘I’ll tell you, Paddy, the only reservations I had about Vietnam were the target restrictions. Flying over some of those ports and seeing tankers deliver oil you knew was for the Viet Cong, and not being able to strike them – that was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life.’ Earl, who seemed to be in an almost perpetual state of amazement at the things he said, shook his head again.
Patrick turned towards the aisle, suddenly assailed by the sound of his father’s music, as clear and loud as breaking glass, but this aural hallucination was soon swamped by the vitality of his neighbour.
‘Have you ever been to the Tahiti Club in St Tropez, Paddy? That’s a hell of a place! I met a couple of dancers there.’ His voice dropped half an octave to match the new tone of male camaraderie. ‘I got to tell you,’ he said conﬁdentially, ‘I love to screw. God, I love it,’ he shouted. ‘But a great body is not enough, you know what I mean? You gotta have that mental thing. I was screwing these two dancers: they were fantastic women, great bodies, just beautiful, but I couldn’t come. You know why?’
‘You didn’t have that mental thing,’ suggested Patrick.
‘That’s right! I didn’t have that mental thing,’ said Earl.
Perhaps it was that mental thing that was missing with Debbie. He had called her last night to tell her about his father’s death.
‘Oh, God, that’s appalling,’ she stammered, ‘I’ll come over straight away.’
Patrick could hear the nervous tension in Debbie’s voice, the inherited anxiety about the correct thing to say. With parents like hers, it was not surprising that embarrassment had become the strongest emotion in her life. Debbie’s father, an Australian painter called Peter Hickmann, was a notorious bore. Patrick once heard him introduce an anecdote with the words, ‘That reminds me of my best bouillabaisse story.’ Half an hour later, Patrick could only count himself lucky that he was not listening to Peter’s second-best bouillabaisse story.
Debbie’s mother, whose neurotic resources made her resemble a battery-operated stick insect, had social ambitions which were not in her power to fulﬁl while Peter stood at her side telling his bouillabaisse stories. A well-known professional party planner, she was foolish enough to take her own advice. The brittle perfection of her entertainments turned to dust when human beings were introduced into the airless arena of her drawing room. Like a mountaineer expiring at base camp, she passed on her boots to Debbie, and with them the awesome responsibility: to climb. Mrs Hickmann was inclined to forgive Patrick the apparent purposelessness of his life and the sinister pallor of his complexion, when she considered that he had an income of one hundred thousand pounds a year, and came from a family which, although it had done nothing since, had seen the Norman invasion from the winning side. It was not perfect, but it would do. After all, Patrick was only twenty-two.
Meanwhile, Peter continued to weave life into anecdote and to describe grand incidents in his daughter’s life to the fast-emptying bar of the Travellers Club where, after forty years of stiff opposition, he had been elected in a moment of weakness which all the members who had since been irradiated by his conversation bitterly regretted.
After Patrick had discouraged Debbie from coming round to see him, he set out for a walk through Hyde Park, tears stinging his eyes. It was a hot dry evening, full of pollen and dust. Sweat trickled down his ribs and broke out on his forehead. Over the Serpentine, a wisp of cloud dissolved in front of the sun, which sank, swollen and red, through a bruise of pollution. On the scintillating water yellow and blue boats bobbed up and down. Patrick stood still and watched a police car drive very fast along the path behind the boathouses. He vowed he would take no more heroin. This was the most important moment in his life and he must get it right. He had to get it right.
Patrick lit a Turkish cigarette and asked the stewardess for another glass of brandy. He was beginning to feel a little jumpy without any smack. The four Valiums he had stolen from Kay had helped him face breakfast, but now he could feel the onset of withdrawal, like a litter of drowning kittens in the sack of his stomach.
Kay was the American girl he had been having an affair with. Last night when he had wanted to bury himself in a woman’s body, to afﬁrm that, unlike his father, he was alive, he had chosen to see Kay. Debbie was beautiful (everybody said so), and she was clever (she said so herself), but he could imagine her clicking anxiously across the room, like a pair of chopsticks, and just then he needed a softer embrace.
Kay lived in a rented ﬂat on the outskirts of Oxford, where she played the violin, kept cats, and worked on her Kafka thesis. She took a less complacent attitude towards Patrick’s idleness than anyone else he knew. ‘You have to sell yourself,’ she used to say, ‘just to get rid of the damned thing.’
Patrick disliked everything about Kay’s ﬂat. He knew she had not put the gold cherubs against the William Morris-styled wallpaper; on the other hand, she had not taken them down. In the dark corridor, Kay had come up to him, her thick brown hair falling on one shoulder, and her body draped in heavy grey silk. She had kissed him slowly, while her jealous cats scratched at the kitchen door.
Patrick had drunk the whisky and taken the Valium she had given him. Kay told him about her own dying parents. ‘You have to start looking after them badly before you’ve got over the shock of how badly they looked after you,’ she said. ‘I had to drive my parents across the States last summer. My dad was dying of emphysema and my mother, who used to be a ferocious woman, was like a child after her stroke. I was barrelling along at eighty through Utah, looking for a bottle of oxygen, while my mother kept saying with her impoverished vocabulary, “Oh dear, oh my, Papa’s not well. Oh my.”’
Patrick imagined Kay’s father sunk in the back of the car, his eyes glazed over with exhaustion and his lungs, like torn ﬁshing nets, trawling vainly for air. How had his own father died? He had forgotten to ask.
Since his luminous remarks about ‘that mental thing’, Earl had been speaking about his ‘whole variety of holdings’ and his love for his family. His divorce had been ‘hard on the kids’, but he concluded with a chuckle, ‘I’ve been diversifying, and I don’t just mean in the business ﬁeld.’
Patrick was grateful to be ﬂying on Concorde. Not only would he be fresh for the ordeal of seeing his father’s corpse, before it was cremated the next day, but he was also halving his conversation time with Earl. They ought to advertise. A simpering voiceover popped into his mind: ‘It’s because we care, not just for your physical comfort, but for your mental health, that we shorten your conversation with people like Earl Hammer.’
‘You see, Paddy,’ said Earl, ‘I’ve made very considerable – I mean big – contributions to the Republican Party, and I could get just about any embassy I want. But I’m not interested in London or Paris: that’s just social shit.’
Patrick drank his brandy in one gulp.
‘What I want is a small Latin American or Central American country where the ambassador has control of the CIA on the ground.’
‘On the ground,’ echoed Patrick.
‘That’s right,’ said Earl. ‘But I have a dilemma at this point; a real hard one.’ He was solemn again. ‘My daughter is trying to make the national volleyball team and she has a series of real important games over the next year. Hell, I don’t know whether to go for the embassy or root for my daughter.’
‘Earl,’ said Patrick earnestly, ‘I don’t think there’s anything more important than being a good dad.’ Earl was visibly moved. ‘I appreciate that advice, Paddy, I really do.’ The ﬂight was coming to an end. Earl made some remarks about how you always met ‘high-quality’ people on Concorde.
At the airport terminal Earl took the US citizens’ channel, and Patrick headed for the Aliens’.
‘Goodbye, friend,’ shouted Earl with a big wave, ‘see you around!’
‘Every parting,’ snarled Patrick under his breath, ‘is a little death.’
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