Meanwhile there’s a lot going on with Botswana: I have to take a woman back there to claim an inheritance. She is white. Everyone in Botswana is dead or dying of Aids. A social worker meets us at the airport – she will be our guide, and she drives us through narrow streets of Jacobean houses, the ornately carved wooden facades of which are patterned with syringes, condoms and pineapples. We reach the lawyer’s office, but he only wants water – which we don’t have. The heat is oppressive – the social worker shows me a bruise on the inside of her thigh. I touch it and a wheel falls off the Jeep.
I commission a report on me from a group of the researchers who’ve done things for me over the years. They appear to be being thorough: following me in the street, sitting on the edge of the bath when I’m on the toilet – two of them skulk beneath the kitchen table when I’m eating my supper, they pull at the ends of my toes, and I remember the liberties that could be taken when everyone took ecstasy. At the end of a couple of weeks they present their report: it’s anodyne stuff, mostly just cut and pasted off the web – there are lots of errors, there is no new information or insight. I chide the researchers and they are mortified – although not much.
Playing golf on the links beside Harlech where I made a sand boat when I was five. Playing golf with an Indie pop band boy with the head of a mackerel, he/it wears a short denim jacket and clumpy 70s platform shoes – he/it is naked from the waist down; goose-pimpled ball sack, erect leg hairs. My eye follows his stroke into a curving, perfectly azure wave that breaks on the shore – breaks into ice cubes on the shingle beach. He throws down his club and runs towards the water – I chase him, he follows me home.
Those hanks of hair in the windows of Afro-Caribbean hairdressers; those hanks … all buttery in the neon light – my hair, buttery also, and coming out in … hanks. I go to the East End to have it replaced, on the Docklands Light Railway it’s still coming out in brown strands that turn to yellow greasy smears on the moquette.
The other passengers move away from me, I’m alone, slipping about on the front seat, as the dinky little carriage goes into the ski jump just before Limehouse station. F has opened a salon off the Mile End Road – strange, for a fiftyish middle-class woman who’s worked all her life in publishing. It must be something to do with her daughter, who she adopted alone from an agency in Sierra Leone. The little girl is now a great strapping thing with fat arms, and she’s crammed into a pink and glittery tank top. She welcomes me with a big hug, seats me in the chair, and then gets on with the job: taking entire half-pound pats of Anchor butter and slamming against my balding head. I weep with relief.
When I shut my eyes I have noticed within the red fuzz of my afterimages a particularly delicate shape – a tear shape filled in fawn, the point of the droplet fringed subtly with striations of pink, beige and grey. I pay it no attention, seeing it as simply another swirl in the cloud of flotsam that blows between my cerebellum and my optic nerve, evanescent and unknowable.
H comes to see me and suggests that I might like to have an MRI scan – he’s bought a scanner with a legacy left him by a wealthy distant cousin, and likes to play with it, the way that other newly rich people play with yachts, sports cars, racehorses – those sorts of things. The MRI scanner squats in the front room of H’s garden flat; chairs and a coffee table, all piled with paperback books and dead potted cactuses, are pushed to one side by the alien bulk of the machine. I don’t find it anything but comforting to lie down on the gurney and be conveyed into the banging core of the machine; nor does it bother me that magnetic fields are being used to plot the activity of my brain. When the imaging is completed, H offers me a cup of herbal tea and we examine the VDU screen together; the scan has picked up and replicated my tear-shaped afterimage, and by enlarging this, and unfolding the delicate ruches of the neural activity, H is able to show me that I have been thinking of the marbled boards of a 19th century book. More deft keyboard work allows H to recover the end papers, and then title page: “The Sermons of the Reverend Simon Le Coeur DD”. We read one or three together – Paley’s Argument from Design, the age of the earth according to Bishop Usher, the defection to Rome of Newman; Le Coeur’s preoccupations, while philosophic, are nonetheless predictable for a clergyman of his era. I leave H’s flat soon afterwards, and deciding to take the bus home sit waiting for it in the shelter, on the tilted plastic slab seat, eating the three Lincoln biscuits he gave me.
Out towards the mouth of the estuary a new estate has been built – it has something of constructivist air (in the sense of being made out of a child’s construction toy), that you associate with such developments in the Low Countries. And anyway, this is a low setting: thick reed beds and oily tidal flats fringe the buildings, which are raised on columnar piles in bright pastel colours. The development is huge, its rectilinear pattern of glass windows and brightly coloured panels snaking along the peninsulas, surging into the inlets – it’s big enough to house all the people I’ve ever known, and some come and go by helicopter.
M is there, his goatee as ever artfully sculpted, although he looks harried. He has taken up with a young girl of 16 who he’s installed in his new apartment – and this despite the fact he’s in his mid-sixties: I envy his energy. I visit them there and she seems not at all lost – unlike M, who is agitated and asks if I will give him a lift back into town when my helicopter comes. We look out the back windows of the flat and see that the reef of housing is rived by a gurgling creek; none of us are too bothered – we sense that the development has a cellular, bacteriological capability, and that it will continue to grow on this hospitable and muddy substrate.
The importance of the procession as both spiritual ritual and social enactment cannot be overestimated. True, not all are required to attend – and on any given occasion the crowd has a harlequinade feel: young Irish dancing girls in short, flared green dresses; snake men from Djibouti, quite naked and oiled by their own sweat, and coiled in a python or three; civil servants of the older, more staidly stout kind in wing-poke collars, pinstriped trousers, and tapping the ferrules of their umbrellas on the ground.
There is no particular sense of command in the way the tortoise handlers move forward through this gallimaufry that eddies about them (the crowd seldom obeys gravity, instead it swirls away from the halting progress in waves that break up into a spume of individuals), and indeed many question whether the handlers have any true function – either sacerdotal or political – but are instead chosen quite arbitrarily after having been seen lounging by nets full of kindling on sale outside A-road petrol stations. Still, they wear long robes, dark ones, and these sway as they urge the tortoise on. The tortoise is at once real enough – a giant and long-lived specimen of the kind found in the Galapagos – and quite clearly a fake made from onyx or soapstone and slapped over with a coat of dark green paint. Inset on its vast back is a pool of steaming liquid (no one knows if it is very hot or very cold), and the important thing is for the crowd to respond both to the tortoise’s forward motion as it is urged on among them by the handlers pulling on a series of cords tethered around its neck, and to the slopping, eccentric motion of the fluid in the pool. In this response is encoded all of the social relations that are unquestioningly obeyed throughout the land: the way we duck, and rise and fly and twirl and float says everything that anyone needs to know about us. I saw LR at the tortoise procession last night, standing cool and pale, swaying only a little in response to the rhythms and counter-rhythms of the tortoise and its back pool. I loved her very much when I was a young man, but seeing her once more so many years later it struck me yet again how foolish I’d ever been to imagine that someone of her class could ever love me.
I run into VT in town – Soho, possibly, that’s where I usually see him; he’s a maître d’, a barker, a whipper-in for fancy restaurants, that sort of thing. I associate him with the food = culture equivalence of the 1990s, but not as if he’s personally to blame. I must have sat opposite to him at mutual friends’ dinners, or talked to him at a rarely attended arty party – at any rate, I feel I know him well enough; know of his divorce, his children – one of them with coeliac disease – his taste in suits (which is good, a big, gingerish man, with emergent jowls he nonetheless manages to be fiercely dapper, today in a double-breasted lavender jacket…), his difficult childhood – in part, he said, because he had a club foot. He hales me, we chat of this and that. He’s always warm – it would be egregious if he weren’t such a gentle and inoffensive person. He has a series of eight-to-twelve inch long crescent-shaped growths that have erupted along his hairline and from the back of his head and which form a sort of irregular basketry. These appear to be of some hard material – like toenail – but are dark and segmented, and covered in a rather repulsive flaky white substance that puts me in mind of vernix. I don’t mention the growths for quite a while, but then casually ask what they are. VT says they’re psoriasis, which I don’t believe, although I don’t challenge him – he goes on his way down the street, the excrescence quite monstrous – after all, everyone’s illness is their own affair.
Is Nick Clegg the verruca of British politics? I only ask – in fact, it’s something I asked Sadie, a nice woman who held my gnarled and calloused foot between her parted thighs for half an hour in a south London consulting room early this week, then charged me £28 for the privilege. I hasten to add that Sadie’s thighs were sheathed in denim and far from being a fetishists’ assistant, she was a chiropodist.
I’d spoken to one of her colleagues on the phone and asked if they – the chiropodists – would be able to remove this growth from beneath the little toe on my left foot: “I’ve tried the proprietary stuff from the chemist’s,” I explained, “but the thing is difficult to reach, and no matter how much I coat it, pick it and then rub it with an emery board, it just goes on getting bigger. And besides, I think I can hear it at night, speaking from the bottom of the bed, mouthing platitudes about the national debt and the lack of any alternatives and core Liberal beliefs. Moreover, I’m worried about infecting my kids.”
Sadie’s colleague assured me that Sadie would do the business and booked me an appointment – but when it came to the crunchy dermis, it turned out that she was far from willing to make the cut. “There’s no point,” she averred. “There’s about a 50% chance of success, and as 50% of them fall off within a year of their own accord, it hardly seems worthwhile.”
“But what about contagion?” I asked.
“They aren’t actually contagious,” she said, “that’s a bit of myth. The virus is like the herpes one that causes cold sores – it’s everywhere all the time, it’s just a matter of it finding a chink in your immune system. Verrucas thrive between upper and lower layers of the skin where the body’s immune system can’t detect them, so the thing to do is actually to irritate the skin beneath the verruca so that it mobilises antibodies to repel the foreign body.”
“Hm,” I hm-ed, “so the verruca virus is like Liberalism, it’s everywhere all the time but you can’t see it and it has no real impact on Government policy until it manages to get in between the layers of popular and parliamentary sovereignty, whereupon it will grow into an opportunistic Cleggy-shaped thing?”
“That’s about the size of it,” Sadie concurred.
“The size of it is fucking huge!” I screeched, “and it looks like an overgrown public schoolboy!”
“Well, as I say, you’ve a 50% probability of its coalition falling apart within the year – and even if I did remove it surgically there’s a chance you could develop something worse.”
“Do you mean – ?”
“Yes, Simon Hughes. Now, that’ll be £28 please – we accept credit or debit cards, and, of course, cash.”
“If you show me your breasts I’ll give you £35,” was perhaps an inopportune remark to make to the middle-aged commuter sitting opposite me in the first-class carriage of the 14.30 Taunton service out of London Paddington on Tuesday afternoon. I was only going as far as Bath Spa, but from the expression that darkened his features I immediately realised I was already in very hot – and possibly even sulphurous – water.
The worst thing about the situation was that I didn’t even particularly want to see his breasts – I just spoke on impulse and out of boredom. Not, you appreciate, proximate boredom – that’s for kids – but a deep, gnawing, existential kind of boredom. Besides, he was reading The Times in a way that convinced me he was just as afflicted with tedium vitae as I. I thought: I’ll hand over the 35 quid, he’ll take off his tie – striped blue and lighter blue – and unbutton his shirt – white, not especially fresh – then simply part the sides so that I can ogle for a few seconds or minutes his slack, sparsely-haired moobs. That’ll be it: no fuss, no drama – I doubted that anyone else in the carriage would even notice.
Of course, if I’d paused for a second to think about my proposition I would’ve realised that it was just another attempt on my part to indulge in the pornography that swells in every moist and hidden crevice of contemporary society. Yes, that’s the thing: ever since a revelatory encounter with the late Andrea Dworkin, in Manhattan, in the late 1990s, I’ve accepted that pornography, far from being a harmless little vice, is in fact a crime – and a crime with victims like any other. Granted, it seemed unlikely that this man was in danger of experiencing himself as a sexual object (indeed, he might even have welcomed this if I’d put it to him nicely), but there it was: I was objectifying him.
The strange thing was that as he became more and more irate, and threatened to call the conductor – I found myself getting aroused. I suppose you can guess how it all ended… But then, I thought to myself as I zipped up my flies, smarmed my hair, shut the toilet door, and descended to the platform at Bath Spa, in my end is my beginning – surely a sentiment Pope Benedict would concur with?