Read the opening chapter of Some Hope, the third book from the Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn.
Patrick woke up knowing he had dreamed but unable to remember the contents of his dream. He felt the familiar ache of trying to track something that had just disappeared off the edge of consciousness but could still be inferred from its absence, like a whirlwind of scrap paper left by the passage of a fast car.
The obscure fragments of his dream, which seemed to have taken place beside a lake, were confused with the production of Measure for Measure he had seen the night before with Johnny Hall. Despite the director’s choice of a bus depot as the setting for the play, nothing could diminish the shock of hearing the word ‘mercy’ so many times in one evening.
Perhaps all his problems arose from using the wrong vocabulary, he thought, with a brief ﬂush of excitement that enabled him to throw aside the bedcovers and contemplate getting up. He moved in a world in which the word ‘charity’, like a beautiful woman shadowed by her jealous husband, was invariably qualiﬁed by the words ‘lunch’, ‘committee’, or ‘ball’. ‘Compassion’ nobody had any time for, whereas ‘leniency’ made frequent appearances in the form of complaints about short prison sentences. Still, he knew that his difﬁculties were more fundamental than that.
He was worn out by his lifelong need to be in two places at once: in his body and out of his body, on the bed and on the curtain pole, in the vein and in the barrel, one eye behind the eyepatch and one eye looking at the eyepatch, trying to stop observing by becoming unconscious, and then forced to observe the fringes of unconsciousness and make darkness visible; cancelling every effort, but spoiling apathy with restlessness; drawn to puns but repelled by the virus of ambiguity; inclined to divide sentences in half, pivoting them on the qualiﬁcation of a ‘but’, but longing to unwind his coiled tongue like a gecko’s and catch a distant ﬂy with unwavering skill; desperate to escape the self-subversion of irony and say what he really meant, but really meaning what only irony could convey.
Not to mention, thought Patrick, as he swung his feet out of bed, the two places he wanted to be tonight: at Bridget’s party and not at Bridget’s party. And he wasn’t in the mood to dine with people called Bossington-Lane. He would ring Johnny and arrange to have dinner with him alone. He dialled the number but immediately hung up, deciding to call again after he had made some tea. He had scarcely replaced the receiver when the phone rang. Nicholas Pratt was ringing to chastise him for not answering his invitation to Cheatley.
‘No need to thank me,’ said Nicholas Pratt, ‘for getting you invited to this glittering occasion tonight. I owe it to your dear Papa to see that you get into the swim of things.’
‘I’m drowning in it,’ said Patrick. ‘Anyhow, you prepared the way for my invitation to Cheatley by bringing Bridget down to Lacoste when I was ﬁve. Even then one could tell she was destined to command the heights of society.’
‘You were much too badly behaved to notice anything as important as that,’ said Nicholas. ‘I remember you once in Victoria Road giving me a very sharp kick in the shins.
I hobbled through the hall, trying to hide my agony so as not to upset your sainted mother. How is she, by the way? One never sees her these days.’
‘It’s amazing, isn’t it? She seems to think there are better things to do than going to parties.’
‘I always thought she was a little peculiar,’ said Nicholas wisely.
‘As far as I know she’s driving a consignment of ten thousand syringes to Poland. People say it’s marvellous of her, but I still think that charity begins at home. She could have saved herself the journey by bringing them round to my ﬂat,’ said Patrick.
‘I thought you’d put all that behind you,’ said Nicholas.
‘Behind me, in front of me. It’s hard to tell, here in the Grey Zone.’
‘That’s rather a melodramatic way to talk at thirty.’
‘Well, you see,’ sighed Patrick, ‘I’ve given up everything, but taken nothing up instead.’
‘You could make a start by taking my daughter up to Cheatley.’
‘I’m afraid I can’t,’ lied Patrick, who couldn’t bear Amanda Pratt. ‘I’m getting a lift from someone else.’
‘Oh, well, you’ll see her at the Bossington-Lanes’,’ said Nicholas. ‘And we’ll see each other at the party.’
Patrick had been reluctant to accept his invitation to Cheatley for several reasons. One was that Debbie was going to be there. After years of trying to thrust her away, he was bewildered by his sudden success. She, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy falling out of love with him more than anything else about their long affair. How could he blame her? He ached with unspoken apologies.
In the eight years since his father’s death, Patrick’s youth had slipped away without being replaced by any signs of maturity, unless the tendency for sadness and exhaustion to eclipse hatred and insanity could be called ‘mature’. The sense of multiplying alternatives and bifurcating paths had been replaced by a quayside desolation, contemplating the long list of missed boats. He had been weaned from his drug addiction in several clinics, leaving promiscuity and party-going to soldier on uncertainly, like troops which have lost their commander. His money, eroded by extravagance and medical bills, kept him from poverty without enabling him to buy his way out of boredom. Quite recently, to his horror, he had realized he would have to get a job. He was therefore studying to become a barrister, in the hope that he would ﬁnd some pleasure in keeping as many criminals as possible at large.
His decision to study the law had got him as far as hiring Twelve Angry Men from a video shop. He had spent several days pacing up and down, demolishing imaginary witnesses with withering remarks, or suddenly leaning on furniture and saying with mounting contempt, ‘I put it to you that on the night of ...’ until he recoiled, and, turning into the victim of his own cross-examination, collapsed in a ﬁt of histrionic sobs. He had also bought some books, like The Concept of Law, Street on Tort, and Charlesworth on Negligence, and this pile of law books now competed for his attention with old favourites like Twilight of the Idols and The Myth of Sisyphus.
As the drugs had worn off, a couple of years earlier, he had started to realize what it must be like to be lucid all the time, an unpunctuated stretch of consciousness, a white tunnel, hollow and dim, like a bone with the marrow sucked out. ‘I want to die, I want to die, I want to die,’ he found himself muttering in the middle of the most ordinary task, swept away by a landslide of regret as the kettle boiled or the toast popped up.
At the same time, his past lay before him like a corpse waiting to be embalmed. He was woken every night by savage nightmares; too frightened to sleep, he climbed out of his sweat-soaked sheets and smoked cigarettes until the dawn crept into the sky, pale and dirty as the gills of a poisonous mushroom. His ﬂat in Ennismore Gardens was strewn with violent videos which were a shadowy expression of the endless reel of violence that played in his head. Constantly on the verge of hallucination, he walked on ground that undulated softly, like a swallowing throat.
Worst of all, as his struggle against drugs grew more successful, he saw how it had masked a struggle not to become like his father. The claim that every man kills the thing he loves seemed to him a wild guess compared with the near certainty of a man turning into the thing he hates. There were of course people who didn’t hate anything, but they were too remote from Patrick for him to imagine their fate. The memory of his father still hypnotized him and drew him like a sleepwalker towards a precipice of unwilling emulation. Sarcasm, snobbery, cruelty, and betrayal seemed less nauseating than the terrors that brought them into existence. What could he do but become a machine for turning terror into contempt? How could he relax his guard when beams of neurotic energy, like searchlights weaving about a prison compound, allowed no thought to escape, no remark to go unchecked.
The pursuit of sex, the fascination with one body or another, the little rush of an orgasm, so much feebler and more laborious than the rush of drugs, but like an injection, constantly repeated because its role was essentially palliative
– all this was compulsive enough, but its social complications were paramount: the treachery, the danger of pregnancy, of infection, of discovery, the pleasures of theft, the tensions that arose in what might otherwise have been very tedious circumstances; and the way that sex merged with the penetration of ever more self-assured social circles where, perhaps, he would ﬁnd a resting place, a living equivalent to the intimacy and reassurance offered by the octopus embrace of narcotics.
As Patrick reached for his cigarettes, the phone rang again.
‘So, how are you?’ said Johnny.
‘I’m stuck in one of those argumentative daydreams,’ said Patrick. ‘I don’t know why I think intelligence consists of proving that I can have a row all on my own, but it would be nice just to grasp something for a change.’
‘Measure for Measure is a very argumentative play,’ said Johnny.
‘I know,’ said Patrick. ‘I ended up theoretically accepting that people have to forgive on a “judge not that ye be not judged” basis, but there isn’t any emotional authority for it, at least not in that play.’
‘Exactly,’ said Johnny. ‘If behaving badly was a good enough reason to forgive bad behaviour, we’d all be oozing with magnanimity.’
‘But what is a good enough reason?’ asked Patrick.
‘Search me. I’m more and more convinced that things just happen, or don’t just happen, and there’s not much you can do to hurry them along.’ Johnny had only just thought of this idea and was not convinced of it at all.
‘Ripeness is all,’ groaned Patrick.
‘Yes, exactly, another play altogether,’ said Johnny.
‘It’s important to decide which play you’re in before you get out of bed,’ said Patrick.
‘I don’t think anyone’s heard of the one we’re in tonight. Who are the Bossington-Lanes?’
‘Are they having you for dinner too?’ asked Patrick. ‘I think we’re going to have to break down on the motorway, don’t you? Have dinner in the hotel. It’s so hard facing strangers without drugs.’
Patrick and Johnny, although they now fed on grilled food and mineral water, had a well-established nostalgia for their former existence.
‘But when we took gear at parties, all we saw was the inside of the loos,’ Johnny pointed out.
‘I know,’ said Patrick. ‘Nowadays when I go into the loos I say to myself, “What are you doing here? You don’t take drugs anymore!” It’s only after I’ve stormed out that I realize I wanted to have a piss. By the way, shall we drive down to Cheatley together?’
‘Sure, but I have to go to an NA meeting at three o’clock.’
‘I don’t know how you put up with those meetings,’ said Patrick. ‘Aren’t they full of ghastly people?’
‘Of course they are, but so is any crowded room,’ said Johnny.
‘But at least I’m not required to believe in God to go to this party tonight.’
‘I’m sure if you were you’d ﬁnd a way,’ laughed Johnny. ‘What is a strain is being forced into the lobster pot of good behaviour while being forced to sing its praises.’
‘Doesn’t the hypocrisy get you down?’
‘Luckily, they have a slogan for that: “Fake it to make it.”’
Patrick made a vomiting sound. ‘I don’t think that dressing the Ancient Mariner as a wedding guest is the solution to the problem, do you?’
‘It’s not like that, more like a roomful of Ancient Mariners deciding to have a party of their own.’
‘Christ!’ said Patrick. ‘It’s worse than I thought.’
‘You’re the one who wants to dress as a wedding guest,’ said Johnny. ‘Didn’t you tell me that the last time you were banging your head against the wall and begging to be released from the torment of your addiction, you couldn’t get that sentence about Henry James out of your mind: “He was an inveterate diner-out and admitted to accepting one hundred and ﬁfty invitations in the winter of 1878,” or something like that?’
‘Hmm,’ said Patrick.
‘Anyhow, don’t you ﬁnd it hard not to take drugs?’ asked Johnny.
‘Of course it’s hard, it’s a fucking nightmare,’ said Patrick. Since he was representing stoicism against therapy, he wasn’t going to lose the chance to exaggerate the strain he was under.
‘Either I wake up in the Grey Zone,’ he whispered, ‘and I’ve forgotten how to breathe, and my feet are so far away I’m not sure I can afford the air fare; or it’s the endless reel of lazy decapitations, and kneecaps stolen by passing trafﬁc, and dogs ﬁghting over the liver I quite want back. If they made a ﬁlm of my inner life, it would be more than the public could take. Mothers would scream, “Bring back The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, so we can have some decent family entertainment!” And all these joys accompanied by the fear that I’ll forget everything that’s ever happened to me, and all the things I’ve seen will be lost, as the Replicant says at the end of Blade Runner,“like tears in rain”.’
‘Yeah, yeah,’ said Johnny, who’d often heard Patrick rehearse fragments of this speech. ‘So why don’t you just go ahead?’
‘Some combination of pride and terror,’ said Patrick, and then, changing the subject quickly, he asked when Johnny’s meeting ended. They agreed to leave from Patrick’s ﬂat at ﬁve o’clock.
Patrick lit another cigarette. The conversation with Johnny had made him nervous. Why had he said, ‘Some combination of pride and terror’? Did he still think it was uncool to admit to any enthusiasm, even in front of his greatest friend? Why did he muzzle new feelings with old habits of speech? It might not have been obvious to anyone else, but he longed to stop thinking about himself, to stop strip-mining his memories, to stop the introspective and retrospective drift of his thoughts. He wanted to break into a wider world, to learn something, to make a difference. Above all, he wanted to stop being a child without using the cheap disguise of becoming a parent.
‘Not that there’s much danger of that,’ muttered Patrick, ﬁnally getting out of bed and putting on a pair of trousers. The days when he was drawn to the sort of girl who whispered, ‘Be careful, I’m not wearing any contraception,’ as you came inside her, were almost completely over. He could remember one of them speaking warmly of abortion clinics. ‘It’s quite luxurious while you’re there. A comfortable bed, good food, and you can tell all your secrets to the other girls because you know you’re not going to meet them again. Even the operation is rather exciting. It’s only afterwards that you get really depressed.’
Patrick ground his cigarette into the ashtray and walked through to the kitchen.
And why did he have to attack Johnny’s meetings? They were simply places to confess. Why did he have to make everything so harsh and difﬁcult? On the other hand, what was the point of going somewhere to confess if you weren’t going to say the one thing that mattered? There were things he’d never told anyone and never would.
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