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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.