Copyright © Adam Thirlwell 2003
To June Goldman
As Moshe tried, gently, to tighten the pink fluffy handcuffs surrounding his girlfriend's wrists, he noticed a tiny frown.
I think you are going to like Moshe. His girlfriend's name was Nana. I think you will like her too.
'Pussy!' he said. 'What's wrong?'
He was crouching by her neck. She was lying on her stomach. Her arms were stretched, like a diver, above her head.
This is what was wrong. Nana's hands were too slender for the handcuffs. That was why she was frowning. There was a logistical problem. And Nana was a girl who cared about logistics. She took her sex seriously. But it was difficult to take sex seriously when, if she wriggled, her hands nearly slipped out. It was not, she explained, ideal. Wriggling was the charm of it.
As Nana glanced up, she saw Moshe's dejected face. 'Kitten!' she said. 'What's wrong?'
Unfussed, Nana explained that she would just have to act it out. She would have to stay still and mockstruggle. She was sweet to him. It was true, she said wistfully, talking into the duvet, that there had been another plan. She knew she was meant to be trapped, defenceless, while Moshe the tyrant gleefully mimed the loss of both sets of keys to the handcuffs, the real ones and the spares. But the fun was improvisation.
I like this couple. They are a do-it-yourself couple, and I like that.
Nana had imagined it. She had sketched out a synopsis. Nana would be tied up and then sodomised, ruthlessly. She wanted her powerful man to prove his potency. And -because they were a couple who tried to be mutual - Moshe had responded by suggesting a little trip to Sh!, Hoxton's sex boutique with a door policy.
A door policy? Yes yes. Men without women were banned.
Nervously, in Sh!, Moshe and Nana browsed for four minutes. Sh! smelled of incense. Moshe decided they should leave. Then he reconsidered. If they left, thought Moshe, then it might look like they were not comfortable with sex toys. It would look like they were afraid of sex.
I am not sure why Moshe was so worried by this. It was true. Moshe was afraid. He was afraid of sex toys. He was particularly afraid of a twelve-inch dildo, with an extra veined prong for the anus. But he did not want to look scared. He wanted to look indifferent.
They bought a petite and smooth leopardskin-print dildo, for him or her, that was now peeping from beneath the bed in its cardboard packet. They bought some rope. Gesturing towards bondage, they bought a black leather bra for Nana. It was three sizes too small. It was like a leather training bra. It flattened her breasts. Doing her best at the role of the submissive, Nana had the breasts of a thirteen-year-old. As for Moshe, his domain was control. So Moshe was the purchaser and practitioner of pink fluffy handcuffs - or at least he would have been if the catches, the teeth, the locks, whatever, were not too loose for Nana's delicate frame.
They were too loose. She had to act it out.
Abandoning the handcuffs, Moshe scooped up the length of thin pink bondage rope. He wrapped it in a figure of eight round her quasi-handcuffed hands, then knotted the rope on to the bed frame. He arranged her wrists in a floppy fluorescent cross.
In a painful way Nana was comfortable. Which was perfect, she thought. It was just the right feeling. She wanted to make pain a pleasure.
Then Moshe spread her buttocks apart.
Nana's first reaction was embarrassment. This was quickly followed, however, by glee. Moshe was snuffling in her crack. It had an allure. Doggedly Moshe licked, he lapped at Nana's arsehole. He dabbed his tongue into the darker puckered pock.
Maybe I should be more specific here. Nana was a blonde. She was an all-over blonde. I do not want 'darker' to imply dark. No, Nana had a very pale arsehole. It was an albino arsehole.
Moshe began to enjoy himself, elongating her pink arsehole as he stretched her buttocks with his hands. It was - Nana thought, self-conscious, being used - a new sensation. This, she thought, was Rimming. It was not quite a turn-on but rimming was interesting. It gave her a new shiver.
And Nana said, Talk to me.' More precisely, in homage to pornography, she drawled, 'Tor tme.'
There are many attitudes to talk during sex. There are many varieties of talk during sex. Some individuals like to shout out commands. They will say, 'Suck my cock.' Commands can get quite paradoxical. For instance, sometimes a boy will say, 'Ask if you can suck me' - which is a command for a request. Or a girl or a boy will say, 'Tell me to suck your cock' - which is a command for a command. This almost turns the command into a request. Other people want their partner to do the talking. They want to hear guttural and lavish obscenities. This is especially exciting when a person suspects that his or her partner is repressed. On the other hand, there are people for whom talk is just reassuring. In fact, sometimes they do not even need talk to get the reassurance they want. Noise is quite enough. For these people, noise during sex is a version of talk. The other extreme, I suppose, involves some degree of reality shift or role play. A lot of people like to be someone else during sex. A lot of people like to imagine that someone else is someone else during sex.
And Nana, today, was a fantasist. She wanted a narrative. She wanted a role play.
Normally, however, Nana disdained all talk during sex. Even a whisper annoyed her. But just now, in a flat in the scuzzier part of Finsbury, slightly distracted by the leather gear of the woman on the dildo packet, and the black wire from the Habitat bedside lamp, Nana was pro talking. A fantasy, she thought, would be a treat for Moshe. It would make the evening flow.
She was being solicitous. She was thinking about being calm. But Nana's request did not make Moshe calmer. If anything, it made him more nervous. Moshe was a bundle of nerves.
Why is it never enough simply being dirty? That was what Moshe was thinking. But he did not get downcast, not yet. He mused. He planned a plot. He thought to himself, and he was right, that Nana wanted a performance. She wanted a detailed fantasy. She wanted imagination.
Moshe imagined an anti-Semitic fantasy. I know that this might come as a surprise, but that was the fantasy Moshe came up with.
In between his laps and licks Moshe taunted his suburban girl, the only daughter of a rich goy man, with tales concerning the riches of Moshe's Jewish ancestry. This was the triumph of the underdog. Or rather, Nana might have thought he was the underdog but Moshe had power and breeding. Moshe's father was on board the SS Shalom on its maiden voyage in 1964. The Shalom was the pride of Israel - a model of razzmatazz, down to the padded modernism of each cabin's Eames leather chair. It even had its own private synagogue.
Her lover had powerful provenance. Moshe's greatgrandfather, for instance, was an East End hero. He was a prizefighter. He had taken the name of Yussel the Muscle. While Nana was just Papa's princess. Unlike Moshe, she was cosseted, unmetropolitan. She lived in the suburbs. She lived, said Moshe with disgust, in Edgware.
And it was true. This was not a fantasy. She was suburban. Nana had grown up in Edgware with her father. Edgware is in the suburbs of North London.
At this point in his narrative, Moshe decided that a disciplinary gesture was appropriate. He had run out of material. So he spanked her, lightly. Nana moaned and twisted her neck up, then settled it down. He spanked her again, harder, except because Moshe was excitable his hand sort of slipped and fell and he spanked her dappily, on the fleshy meeting place of buttock and upper thigh.
His clumsiness annoyed him. He suddenly felt vulnerable, kneeling there between Nana's legs, his right arm aloft. He did not feel tyrannic. He did not feel Sultanic. He only felt like Moshe.
In the flat upstairs, a toddler fell over. It crashed and cried.
This made Moshe even more self-conscious.
Poor Moshe. He was a nervous sadist, a shy sodomite. He had not had the practice. That was his worry. Another worry was how much practice Nana had ever had. The two worries were inextricable.
Out of character, Moshe hit Nana. He hit her very hard. Nana made an uninterpretable noise.
Then, on his knees, Moshe readied himself. He dabbed two fingers into her cunt while his thumb pushed at her arse-hole. His fingers formed the configuration more commonly used to grip a bowling ball. Then he wetted his penis and pushed it where he hoped her arsehole was, angling his penis down with his right hand.
Nana asked him to stop. She said it hurt too much.
That was Moshe's cue to persevere.
Every shiksa likes being fucked by a Jewboy, replied Moshe, hamming it up.
What noble perseverance! A little unsure, Moshe was still continuing with his fantasy. And I think this perseverance is admirable, I really do. Some people might be sneering. Some people might be commenting that, when it comes to sex, only skill is important - but I think that's wrong. Persevering is also noble. Moshe was being noble.
Balancing on his left hand, the other girlishly guiding the head of his penis while a thin first finger located her arse-hole, he tried to push it in. But this arrangement presented a conundrum. His left arm, unable, wobbling, wasn't strong enough. And it was, after all, thought Moshe, quite difficult - fucking the arse of a motionless girl. He toyed with saying, 'Sex doll! Can you lift yourself up a little?' But Nana could not help. He knew that. He knew she could not raise her docile expectant arsehole. The thrill was not to be seen to be thrilled.
It made him pause. Nana, her face squashed, noted the pause. If she squinted she could read the Dunlopillo lettering on the mattress's label, faint beneath the sheet.
But there are moments of inspiration and this was one of them.
Moshe reached and stretched and grabbed at some hand cream - Ren Tahitian Vanilla Hand and Body Milk - by the bed. He flicked it open with his thumb and first finger and then, exhausted, just wiped it straight on to the head of his cock, the glans, the fraenum, his complete erection. Then he left the tube above Nana's blonde and feathered hair. It stayed there throughout.
The cream made his cock glowy stingy. He pushed at her again and felt an odd warm tightness so he stopped there. Waves of relief washed over Moshe. He allowed himself a smug moment. And who would not? Let us not get hypocritical here. He was fucking his little girl's arse. He waited inside her, feeling himself drift slippy, slowly, further in.
This was the highpoint of Moshe's evening.
He moved his penis back a bit, back a bit, before embarking further, and it slipped out and down and past. And panicking, dismayed, ashamed, he tried to shove it quickly, back to its unnatural home, but only finished up in Nana's surprised vagina.
Optimistically, for a moment he fucked Nana anyway. He persuaded himself that sex from behind was almost the same as sodomy. He twisted. He dipped. He angled.
This was not anal sex. Moshe knew that. This was the opposite of anal sex. It was straight heterosexual vaginal intercourse.
He relaxed on top of Nana and mused on Israel.
Now, this should have been the lowpoint of Moshe's evening. But it was not. It got worse. He lay there, quiet, and started to think. As he thought, he became mildly hysterical. Yes, free to do anything he liked, Moshe became hysterical.
This, thought Moshe, must be the most nervous sex scene. It must be the most nervous scene in the history of sex. He wondered in a general way about the other couples, the worldwide satiated couples. In every other bedroom, girls and boys, in twos and threes and - who knows? - fours, were crying out in ecstasy. They were prancing, thought solid and motionless Moshe. They were ecstatic. He was sure of it.
I am going to expand a little on Moshe's problem. It is a universal problem. It is the universal insecurity that one is not universal.
In his book called Love, the famous French novelist Stendhal explains his theory of why we like reading. It is this. 'Just as a man has almost no physiological self-knowledge except by studying comparative anatomy, so vanity and various other causes of illusion prevent us from having a clear picture of our own passions except by studying the weaknesses of others. If this essay of mine happens to serve any useful purpose, it will be in training the mind to make this sort of comparison.'
Let me explain. Just as you don't know what your own stomach looks like, you don't know what your own feelings look like either. You don't know what your stomach looks like because of your skin. You don't know what your feelings look like because of vanity and other causes of illusion. To get over the problem of skin, we have anatomy textbooks. To get over the problem of vanity and other causes of illusion, we have novels.
Compare this to Moshe's magnified worry as he lay on Nana's back. He was worried that everyone else had better sex than he did. He was suffering from pique. Now, the cure for pique is to compare yourself honestly and calmly to other people. When you do this, then you realise that everyone, at some point, is equally clumsy. Only a select few succeed at anal sex, every time. You recover a sense of proportion.
Moshe needed a novel. (He needed this novel.) Moshe was suffering from the absence of the novel. This novel, for example, is one huge act of miniaturisation. Everything is the right size. If Moshe had read this novel, then I think he would have been happy.
It is a universal problem. Compare this to you. Perhaps, for instance, your first reaction to Moshe's little worry just now was to dismiss it. You thought that he seemed unrealistically weak. You simply could not imagine a boy who was neurotic about sex like Moshe. Maybe you even thought that the writing was also obscene. Well, that's what you might have thought at first. Your vanity and other causes of illusion might have made you think that. But actually, I do not think you are really upset. My idea is that you are like this too. Maybe, just maybe, you are not. But I reckon that, at some point in your life, something almost identical to this has happened to you.
Of course it has! This book is meant to be reassuring. This book is universal. It is a comparative study. The last thing I want is for this to be just me.
Because it is universal, there should be no local difficulties in this book. For instance, perhaps Moshe's name is difficult. It is a very Jewish name. That is because it was the one concession Moshe's father made to his Jewish family, after marrying a non-Jewish woman. Perhaps you do not know how this name should be pronounced. Possibly, you have not had a Jewish upbringing. Well, I will tell you. Moshe is pronounced 'Moisha'. That is how you pronounce it. You see? I don't want this to be private at all.
As for Nana, she was feeling a little uncomfortable. Her wrists had chafed on the metal handcuffs while she pretended to be trapped. Also, one of Moshe's ragged fingernails had scratched her.
She said to him, 'Le mgo.'
Moshe leaned forward, untwisted the loose pink rope, then rolled over on to his back and watched his penis sadden, shorten, stop. Nana stroked her wrists. As she stroked, she noticed a meek silence. So she twisted on to her back to check on Moshe. She was worried he was sad. She was worried he might be mournful. But the way not to be mournful is to talk, she reasoned, reasonably.
Oh Nana, if only things were so simple. If only, just for now, Moshe possessed the necessary calm. But he did not. Instead, Moshe was theatrical. He was theatrical at heart.
Nana's boyfriend was two emotions. Neither was useful. As outlined above, their common element was hysteria. Moshe was scared and ashamed. He felt ashamed because he had failed her. He had not been a believable fantasy. He was not realistic. And because he thought he had failed her, he also believed she was angry. She must be. And this scared him, because he thought that, due to her anger, she might be sarcastic, or frustrated. This made him particularly scared because if Nana was truly frustrated then he would feel even more ashamed.
On balance, then, he was more ashamed than scared.
But Nana, not sarcastic, not frustrated, was all solicitude. She was friendly and undismayed. 'Are you okay?' said Nana.
She is all solicitude! The girl is worried! worried Moshe.
His reaction, however, was simple. He improvised a persona of calm success. Everything, he decided, had gone well. Moshe was an assured seducer. First an astonishing sexual procedure had taken place and now, as they lay there, fulfilled, he decided to woo her all over again, telling her the secrets of his damaged unconscious. It was what people had sex for - the afterwards, the quiet intimacy, the talk.
This was a night to remember. Christ, yes.
Moshe did not answer Nana's question. He did not describe his mental and physical state. Well, not directly. He gave her a small lecture.
With his eyes averted, because that was a gesture of -no, not embarrassment - sincerity, Moshe said: 'Once I was with my parents in a small restron somewhere in Normandy. And from the window I saw this kind of mock-up of the Liberation, with a repro army marching through the streets.' But, and this was the thing, it could also have been the occupation. Maybe they were miming the occupation, said Moshe. Because somehow he could also see a chateau at the top of the village and blond men in dry-cleaned uniforms moving slowly, and a minuscule Moshe somehow or other mixed up in the whole affair.
And that was it. That was his contribution to the catastrophe - an anecdote of miniature Moshe, a secret fear, a novelty.
What was Moshe trying to say? I will tell you. He was trying to say he was sorry. He was asking Nana not to be angry. He was trying to make her pity him. He was saying that Moshe was scared of the Nazis.
But Nana was not angry. She was not a Nazi. She was just confused. She wondered if Moshe was embarrassed. She wondered what other explanations there could be for this set-up - Moshe the conversationalist in bed, telling her about his childhood fears, surrounded by sex aids.
Nana's arsehole was aching where Moshe's fingernail had scratched her. This made her wriggle. She tried to get comfortable. She wondered how far Moshe had got inside her arsehole before he. She wondered did this mean she was now infected.
He could see her looking at him - naked, on his back. He was exposed. Moshe worried that Nana was looking at his belly, and looked down and there was his penis. His penis looked silly and slick. It looked depressed. So he got up to find some clothes. It was only nine in the evening, but all he wanted was his pyjamas.
Moshe returned to his travesty of Jewishness. He said, 'Did you not like the Joosh thing? It was the best I could think of.'
Depressed, Moshe grinned.
She was looking at him, quiet. He was a comic visual diversion. 'What?' he said. And she grinned. She said, 'Cherub, you're only half Jewish.'
Moshe was standing in front of her with his body swaying slightly forward. He was resting his weight on his right leg, which was by now tartanly pyjama'd. The foot of his left leg was advanced a little. And his knee was gently bent. He was getting into his pyjamas.
Nana was wondering why she was happy, lying there as the street lights switched on, unequally.
'And you're not even circumcised,' she said.
'Let's not squabble,' he admonished her, as he hopped across the room in search of the left pyjama leg.
This has gone far too far. I can see that.
Before this experiment with anal sex and bondage, Moshe and Nana met and fell in love. After that happened, but before the anal sex, they also tried the missionary position, ejaculation on Nana's face, oral sex, use of alternative personae, lesbianism, undinism, the threesome, and fisting. Not all of these were successful. In fact, few of these were successful.
In case this list worries you, perhaps I should explain. This book is not about sex. No. It is about goodness. This story is about being kind. In this book, my characters have sex, my characters do everything, for moral reasons.
After they fell in love but before they experimented with lesbianism and the threesome one of them fell for another girl.
By the end of this story one character will be dying from a brain tumour.
If only things were as simple as they looked. If only events occurred without a backstory.
So this was the beginning and the rest of it.
It was a play.
Her Papa had taken Nana to a one-off revival at the Donmar Warehouse. The play was Oscar Wilde's Vera, or the Nihilists. It was the opening production, explained Papa, in a tribute week of Oscar Wilde's complete works. This week had been crafted by the famous political playwright David Hare. It was designed to show that Oscar Wilde was our contemporary. He was twenty-first century. A homosexual man, Oscar understood that politics was everywhere.
Papa was on the board of the Donmar Warehouse, and so he had to see it. It was his job, he said. He had no choice. And he did not want to see it on his own. He wanted to see it with Nana. He said it was a treat. This was, he pleaded, a contemporary revival. David Hare had called the play a classic.
But it was not David Hare who persuaded Nana. No. It was Papa. She went because she loved him.
I should explain something here. Papa was a widower. Nana's mother had died when Nana was four. And Nana's mother is absent from this story. This is because she was also absent from the relationship of Nana and Papa. She was calmly absent. Nana simply saw her as Papa's best friend. Whenever Nana imagined her mother, she imagined her chatting to Papa. And Nana did not want to interrupt these conversations between her mother and Papa. She preferred the conversations to carry on without her.
That was why Nana and Papa were such a duo. It is why they went, as a couple, to Vera, or the Nihilists.
And that was the beginning, Nana used to think, later. That play was the beginning.
As the lights undimmed, privileged Papa took Nana behind the scenes. And there Moshe was, straddling a plastic chair, admitting that he was the, yes, the star of the show. But he was tired of it all. He was tired of all the schmoozing.
Moshe was an actor.
The first time Nana saw him was on stage - backlit, melodramatic. Except - she teased him later, when they were in love - she hadn't really seen him. Nana had almost dozed. She was bored by Oscar Wilde. Instead, she had looked round - at the lighting rig, the showy couple fingering each other on her left. She was annoyed by her bench-seat's straight back, the stifled coughs behind her.
So that was why when Moshe - the actor who had played Prince Paul Maraloffski - stood up afterwards, backstage, and grinned his Princely grin, she did not notice the allusion. All she saw was a patch of tartar on Moshe's front two upper teeth. One eye was oddly smaller than the other.
This might seem mean of her but it wasn't. Some people are beauties all the time and all people can be beauties sometimes but Moshe was something special. He was a cameo actor. This was partly because of his smallish five-foot-seven frame, and the gentle dip of his belly. It was mainly because of his comically mobile fleshy face and big brown unequal eyes. He was the sketchy one, the sardonic one, the oddball cool. Self-conscious of his uncared-for teeth, Moshe would faintly chew on the right-hand side of his lower lip. This made him somehow charming. It gave him a shy allure.
Moshe was not pretty, but he was charming. He had a playful grace.
It is often ordinary, even banal, when people meet their lover for the first time. Some people find this difficult. It is often too banal. This is especially difficult for people who believe in grandiose things like predestination and fate and twin souls.
It was, for instance, difficult for Nadezhda Mandelstam. Nadezhda was the wife of the Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam, who died in the Gulag. Nadezhda believed in grandiose things. She believed in predestination. This is how she described Osip. 'He never had any doubt of his predestination and accepted it just as simply as he did his subsequent fate.'
I am going to digress from this digression just for a moment.
What a lie! 'He never had any doubt of his predestination and accepted it just as simply as he did his subsequent fate.' I think this is immoral. Nadezhda is implying that Osip accepted that death in the Gulag was his fate. He was, she is saying, poetically happy to die in the Gulag. No, I do not understand this kind of posturing. It would be difficult, I think, being Nadezhda's husband. It would be difficult to eat some pasta in peace. It would always be predestined pasta.
Anyway. In the first volume of her autobiography and memoir of her husband, Hope Abandoned, Nadezhda described how she met the great romantic poet Osip Mandelstam.
In the evenings, we gathered in the Junk Shop, a nightclub for artists, writers, actors and musicians. It was in a cellar of the city's main hotel, which was being used to accommodate some officials of the second or third rank from Kharkov. M. had managed to get a place on the train that brought them, and so he was also put up, by mistake, in a very nice room in the same hotel. On the first evening he came down to the Junk Shop, and we at once took up with each other as though it were the most natural thing in the world. We always dated our life together from 1 May 1919, though we were forced to live apart for a year and a half after this.
If you redescribe this passage, you can get at the real story. It goes something like this. Osip turned up by accident. He wandered into his hotel bar and chatted to a few girls. He quite liked one of them. He didn't see this girl for a year or two and forgot all about her. When he bumped into her again, she didn't remember him. He had to remind her. They both indulged themselves and told each other it must have been fate that they had found each other again.
Now, none of my characters was this romantic. But they were, like everyone, a little romantic. So it seemed sad, they thought, that the first meeting was so ordinary. It seemed sad that they did not fall in love.
Papa smiled a winning smile. He questioned Moshe on the history of Prince Kropotkin. This might seem very learned. It might seem that Papa knew the historical background to Oscar Wilde's Vera, or the Nihilists, a play about Russian anarchism. But it was not learned. It only showed that Papa had read the programme notes.
Papa marvelled at the wonders he had discovered in Moshe's interpretation of the role of Prince Paul Maraloffski.
Moshe looked down, being modest, at Papa's twotone shoes, their textured curves of cloth and leather.
'Oh yeah,' said Moshe. 'It took ages for that scene to find.'
But was Moshe, truly, being modest? No, he was not. There was reddish eczema on the tips and backs of Moshe's fingers, which he concealed by clumping and arranging them. He made his hands invisible behind his back. And this limited his possible, prideful gestures. That was why Moshe was standing there, his head bowed forward a little, the hands tight behind his back - acknowledging his fundraiser's finesse.
Papa admired the gravitas, he admired the obvious savoir-faire in such a noble pose.
Moshe was a tired professional. He was tired of being backstage. The dowdiness depressed him. And I can understand that. Fake finery is depressing. But there was another reason why Moshe felt mildly depressed. No member of the royal family was present.
The royal family?
Recently, one Saturday morning, Moshe had narrated Benjamin Britten's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, at the Barbican Hall. This performance had been attended by the Queen Mother. And Moshe liked meeting Her Majesty. He liked meeting her a lot.
First, backstage, the performers lined themselves up in a horseshoe. Moshe, the novice, drifted to one tip of it. From the corridor, he could hear the Queen Mother's voice, chatting away. Well, he assumed it was the Queen Mother's voice. It was nasal. It was aristocratic. Then finally she arrived.
Moshe was nearest to the door. This was a catastrophe. It meant that Moshe was the first to be introduced to the Queen Mother. Untrained in regal etiquette, Moshe had planned on copying someone else. He had especially planned on looking out for the first violin. The first violin was wearing a dress shirt with a quilted pleated and ruffled front. Everyone else was wearing an ordinary M&S white shirt. The first violin, thought Moshe, would know how to address the Queen Mother.
But the first violin could not help Moshe now. Elizabeth, unstoppably, was tottering in, on a line below Moshe's nipples. She was about four foot two, he reckoned. This unnerved him even more. And Moshe just stood rigid. He did not bow.
Moshe shook her hand and said, 'Hi.'
The Queen Mother constructed a smile. Her lady-in-waiting, Lady Anne Screeche, stiffened.
As catastrophes go, it was a small one.
The thing about royalty, thought Moshe, amazed, is that they are royal. And he was right. The Queen Mother was the Queen Mother. She was the Queen Mother exactly.
Then the conversation began. At one end of the room the Queen Mother sat in a grand armchair, placed beside two lesser chairs. The Director of the Barbican chose two people for the two lesser chairs. Everyone else watched. They pretended not to watch, while eating caviar canapes, but they watched. At carefully selected intervals, orchestrated by the Director, one of the chairs would be vacated and refilled.
Moshe's conversational partner was the third clarinet. His name was Sanjiv and he lived in Harrow Weald. Moshe felt bored. Sanjiv asked if much had changed in the Queen Mother's hundred years of life. And she replied that ooh yes of course. She had thought she would never get used even to trams. Then she turned to Moshe and looked up into his big brown eyes with her small grey eyes and said, 'But one can get used to anything. Can't one?'
Is this flirting? Moshe thought, suddenly smitten, entranced by this melancholy woman of the world. He looked at her and wondered if he could find her attractive.
And what a girlfriend, thought Moshe. As the Queen Mother described her recent education in email, Moshe drifted off. He had a reverie.
He would be her toyboy. He would be the solace of her final years. He imagined the Hello! spread - a photographic record of the Queen Mother and her companion. There would be spreads not only in Hello! but also in ¡Hola! Perhaps there would even be pieces in Paris-Match. Elizabeth and Moshe would travel the world together, in a unique love nest of a yacht. It would not be, he conceded, exactly sexual. Well, it could be. He would not mind. But he imagined that, realistically, it would simply be a mutual infatuation. And when it was revealed that her will had been altered in his favour, and unkind words had been said in the gutter press, those close to her would understand. Her lady-in-waiting, Lady Anne Screeche, would understand.
Moshe looked at Elizabeth Windsor, fondly. Indulgently, he observed the ragged points of her scuffed and skyblue shoes. Time was running out, he thought. He guessed at the enticements beneath her artfully draped chiffon. Her legs, he admitted, were odd. Her shins were thick with ulcers. They looked like plastic. She had the legs of an unusual Barbie doll. And her arms were cracked and bruised.
Moshe suddenly imagined the Queen Mother cooking heroin on a heavy silver spoon, while she tugged with her teeth on a silk tourniquet wrapped round her arm. Or perhaps Lady Anne Screeche did the tourniquet - perhaps Lady Anne did everything for her.
None of this seemed very likely.
And I think he was right. I do not think it is believable that the Queen Mother was a nymphomaniac drug addict. But Moshe was right to consider it. It is always important to reimagine the lives of the rich and famous. It is very good practice for kindness. It makes you more empathetic.
Oh, thought Moshe. Oh you sweetie.
And then, as if he wasn't delighted enough, the handwritten thank-you letter. Addressed to the Director of the Barbican, on six octavo sheets of Clarence House notepaper, embossed with a curly entwined ER topped with a crown, she wrote:
It always causes such delight and trepidation when I receive my invitation to the Barbican. Every concert is so perfect. But there is also trepidation and this is because it is always so perfect! Every year, I am so worried for the new performers. I am worried that it will be impossible to enjoy it as much as the year before.
But I did!
Perhaps you do not read Sir Max Beerbohm but he is one of my very favourite writers, and in his book Zuleika Dobson he describes how everyone falls in love with a young girl called Zuleika because she is so beautiful. Now of course it is not quite right to call you all Zuleika, when there are so many of you, and all so talented. But I have to say that every time I hear you play I feel awestruck like one of Zuleika's admirers.
Perhaps you find this letter too light-hearted for such an occasion but when I left you on Saturday I was feeling utterly exhilarated and I am afraid that I still feel exhilarated.
With my warm thanks I am, ever yours sincerely, Elizabeth R.
What a charmer, Moshe had thought, perusing his personal photocopy. What a doll. And after all, thought Moshe, what's wrong with politeness? And I agree with him. There is nothing wrong, after all, with virtue.
So that is why poor exhausted impatient Moshe, talking to Papa, yearned for regal politesse.
He knew all about these backstage meetings. He was bored by them. Unless there was a sexy widow, these parties made Moshe feel slightly aggrieved. Not the champagne and caviar canapes, but the people made him aggrieved. The board of directors annoyed him. There you were, grumbled Moshe to himself, and they wanted you to thank them. They wanted you to be intrigued by their insights into acting.
Moshe has his problems, as we all do. So he can be quite crude. Especially when he is tired or scared. Let us leave him be. Let us ignore this grumbling. Let us forgive the fact that he did not see Papa's personal politesse.
He may not have been regal, but Papa had an etiquette all of his own. There was something soulful about him. And although 'soulful' is not a word I like, it is a word that Papa liked. So I will call him soulful. In fact, I will go further. In homage to Papa and his otherworldly instincts, I will give him an image. Papa is the benevolent angel of this story.
There were two reasons for Papa's chattiness about Prince Kropotkin. This was Papa's first performance as a board member. So he was looking keen. He was impressing the board with his commitment. And also, he was being kind. Chatting to Moshe about Prince Kropotkin was intended to flatter Moshe. It was not a lecture. It was designed to show that Papa had been entranced by Moshe's performance. It was a compliment.
While Moshe was being depressed at Papa, Nana had sidled off. Difficult Moshe had made her shy. She felt shy with this man impressing her Papa. Whereas here was a pretty and talkative girl called Anjali who loved the shiny green bead mesh of Nana's bracelet. Anjali had a plastic diamond in her right ear. Nana said that oh the bracelet was quite uncomfortable. It looked okay but it crushed her wrist. She looked at Anjali, and Anjali smiled at her. Nana took off her small black glasses - rotating them from the right-hand earpiece with two fingers.
Anjali is the other heroine of this story.
Nana specially admired Anjali's make-up. So I will describe it. High up on her cheekbones, Anjali had pink blusher. She had smoothed it right up to the bottom of her eyes. Round the eye itself, she had smoky black eyeliner. On the eye-socket bone she had stroked on some soft brown eyeshadow, fading to her skin tone.
Nana liked this. Anjali had style.
Nana took a champagne. Then she took one mini blini with red caviar and sour cream. Then another mini blini topped with the mini croissant of a minute prawn. She clamped the precarious champagne between her third and fourth fingers.
She said, 'Thass a cool name, Anjli's cool.' She said, 'My name's Nana.'
Maybe I should explain about Nana's name. I can see that it sounds a bit odd. Her original name was Nina. But when Nina was a baby, Nina could only say Nana. So Nana's name was Nana.
They went quiet. Anjali pushed at her pockets, trying for some cigarettes. She found one and angled it into her mouth. Nana said, 'Swhat other plays have you been in?'
It was just conversation. But conversations are not always equal. You really don't know what you might be getting. Sometimes you ask a gargantuan question and someone just agrees with you. Or you ask a small conversational question and you get a gargantuan reply.
In reply to Nana's question 'Swhat other plays have you been in?', Anjali offered Nana the story of Anjali's career.
So Anjali had been an actress. But what are beginnings anyway? Who's to say where something starts? No Anjali had started as an actress. Then she met, recently she had met a voice coach, a Polish girl. Well she was not a girl, she was a woman. She was the clichéd older woman. And this woman was passionate, she loved opera, she loved nineteenth-century bel canto. She loved singers more than actors. And Anjali hadn't wanted to be a singer. At school they had said she should try singing. But she hadn't tried until she fell in love. Now, this is the sad part - yes, Anjali had a sad sad story, laughed Anjali - because Anjali was a remarkable singer, truly magical. No truly. She was the perfect mezzo. Her timbre was the ring around the moon. Who'd have thought it? She had a ring-around-the-moon voice. But Zosia - this Polish girl was Zosia -only loved Bellini, the Italian composer Bellini. And Bellini isn't interested in mezzos. No, Bellini goes for sopranos. The lead is always a soprano. And Zosia wanted a romantic lead. She wanted a soprano Anjali - musky, bosomed. And well Anjali was, Anjali was in love with Zosia. So she practised. But all she got was somewhere in between - an intermezzo, laughed lonely Anjali. And the Polish girl left her for another girl. So anyway, she said. At least she had her speaking voice. And that was what she was, really - an actress. So everything was fine. So what she was trying to say, laughed Anjali, was that she hadn't been in plays, not recently. She was mainly doing film work now. Film work. Well actually mainly adverts. Adverts, she said, paid a bit better. She was just doing this play with Moshe as a. Have you met him? He was a good friend of hers. They'd been friends for oh ages. She was just doing this as a favour.
It is really very exhausting, being a non-talker.
And Nana was a non-talker.
Perhaps it surprised you that Nana did not interrupt Anjali. She did not ask her any probing questions. If a pretty girl called Anjali began telling you about her lesbian love life, you reckon that you would say something. I can even imagine people thinking that Anjali's little speech was an invitation to question her.
But Nana was not a questioner. She was private. She was beautiful and shy.
Nana was a non-talker.
Most people who are not pretty, and most people are not pretty, think that pretty girls are powerful and haughty. But I think that this is wrong. More often, pretty girls are shy girls. They can be gawky, nervous, badly dressed. Often, they are surprised that they are called pretty at all.
Pretty girls are assumed to be haughty, I think, because people believe that pretty girls are constantly pretty. This makes them the opposite of unpretty people - who are only occasionally pretty. But prettiness is variable too. No pretty girl is constantly pretty. Prettiness is even variable in age. Some people are pretty fourteen-year-olds and some people are scrumptious sixty-seven-year-olds. Some people are only pretty when they are four and that is a tragedy.
And Nana was pretty. Nana was beautiful.
But how beautiful was Nana really?
Nana couldn't not be beautiful. She tried not to be beautiful and she was still beautiful. That was how beautiful she was. Nana had attempted the long hair, the short hair, the wispy fringe, the bob, the feathered bob, the crew-cut, the scraped back ponytail, the highlights, and now the short asymmetrical fringe. Even, in a moment of retro glee, a month-long phase of a Marcel wave.
She couldn't not be beautiful.
In Director's Cut, on Edgware High Street, hairdressers wandered away from their wet unhappy clients so they could offer advice to Nana. Let us call these hairdressers Angelo and Paulo. Nana entranced them both. Angelo had a pencil moustache and black curls. It was her pallor, he said. Paulo thought that it was her pallor and the colour of her hair. They asked her if she had ever dyed her hair. Nana said no. They told her to never dye it. It was the most extraordinary colour. It was the strangest mixture of blonde and white.
Her hair was beautiful. Nana was tall, thin, pale, blonde, breasty. Her glasses were little black rectangles and she was still pretty.
But - and this was the thing - when she was young she was ugly. When she was at school, Nana was the tallest one, the gangliest bespectacled one. She was mannish and severe. And this had repercussions. All through her childhood, Nana believed she was ugly. Everyone said she was ugly. So that, as a result, she did not like pretty people. Or rather, she did not think prettiness was valuable. Instead she became the clever one, the careful one, the quiet one.
When you're fourteen you're gangly and mannish. When you're twenty-five you're leggy and elegant. This is ironic. This is a psychological problem.
Now that she was beautiful, she was praised for being beautiful. And Nana was confused by all this praise. Angelo and Paulo upset her. It made her feel pointlessly favoured. She was a girl who hated her beauty. She distrusted it. Pretty made her powerful and that unsettled her. But what could she do? You cannot stop people when they tell you how pretty you are. You cannot tell people that you think looks are unimportant. If you do that, you sound pretentious. You sound hypocritical.
This was why Nana became a non-talker. It might have looked like haughtiness, or oddness, now that she was pretty. But it was not.
An uneasy prettiness - that is how I would describe Nana.
Meanwhile, Moshe and Papa were chatting. Moshe said, 'So you're in banking. Is that, I mean do you? Is that?' 'Well it depends what you mean by banking,' said Papa. 'Well, I don know,' said Moshe. 'It's not so much banking as risk,' said Papa. 'Right,' said Moshe. Papa said, 'There are the elements of risk management in a global context. Then the cleanliness of risk data. Credit-risk modelling. The innovations of GARP.' Moshe gawped. 'Garp?' he said. 'Generally Accepted Risk Principles,' said Papa. 'Not to be confused with GAAP. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. People often confuse them.'
'I know,' said Moshe. 'GARP GAAP. Always annoys me.'
It did not get a laugh.
He tried again.
Moshe said, 'I know a banking joke.' Papa took another glass of champagne. Moshe said, 'What's the difference between an English and a Sicilian accountant?' He waited. 'No? Shall I tell you?' he said. 'Shall I tell you?' Tell me,' said Papa. 'The English one', said Moshe, 'can tell you how many people are going to die each year. The Sicilian can give you their names and addresses.'
It got a laugh. It got a polite laugh.
Papa said it was no joking matter though. Sadly he told Moshe that banking was a recipe for crash and burn. 'Do you know New York?' said Papa. 'New York's just insane. I used to think I'd have to bring my pillow into work and die right there in the conference room. When I worked at Banker's Trust a friend of mine, Charlie Borokowski, the sweetest guy, odd ties with Egyptian designs. With Egyptian designs. Where was I? Insane. New York's insane. Oh yes Charlie Borokowski. Charlie worked two days and nights preparing figures for audits, some business with capturing funds. He went to work on Monday morning and I literally carried him out on the Wednesday. He didn't even remember being there at that meeting. He had very white teeth,' said Papa. 'He said apples were why.'
Papa said, 'You know they want to make a deal when they say, they get on the phone and they say, "Hey hey friend." That's how you know they want to make a deal. They say, "Hey hey friend."'
'I like that,' said Moshe. 'Yes so do I,' said Papa.
Papa liked this actor. He liked Moshe very much.
Nana said, 'Have you met my father? I want you to meet my father.' Anjali said, 'Um um yes I.' 'Oh you must meet him,' said Nana. She walked Anjali over to Papa. She introduced Papa to Anjali. Papa introduced Nana to Moshe.
Papa and Anjali began to talk about Papa's gorgeous tie.
Nana said, 'Iss doing really well you must be pleased,' to which Moshe said, 'Oh it's just a paper house.'
This comment was meant to be charming, self-deprecating. It was meant to be a joke. Unfortunately, Moshe was incomprehensible. Nana had no idea what a paper house was. She eyed him, shyly. She said, 'What's a paper house?' She drank from her champagne glass and then realised it was empty. And Moshe pretended not to notice. Instead he explained about the machinations of theatres, their two-for-one offers, their bribes. She said, 'Oh.' Then she had a practical worry. She said, 'It must be ekzausting, learning all those lines. I hate having to learn things by heart.' She put on her glasses again.
Two things were charming Moshe. The main charm was this. She was one of the most beautiful girls he had ever seen. The secondary charm was this. She was lovable as well. She was worried about Moshe's health.
She must have a boyfriend, thought Moshe.
So Moshe tried to impress her. Ever the intellectual, he said, 'But it's such an, it's so intresting to act in it.' She nodded. Moshe said, 'It's really, just. So. Sa wonderful role. The lines aren't a problem.' Nana was musing. She said, 'But all those repetitive jokes. Some of the lines are terrible. "Methinks the spirit of Charlotte Corday has entered my soul now." That's horrible. It's so romantic.'
Moshe was wishing he had not said it was a great role. He was wishing he had just agreed with her.
'It's true,' said Moshe. 'I mean, the play does turn class into fashion. It romanticises class.' The duo paused. The conversation paused. Neither of them understood. Moshe certainly did not understand. He swayed. He steadied himself. Nana looked at her empty champagne glass.
Pauses are very difficult. They require agility. Unfortunately, neither Moshe nor Nana was being agile.
Moshe nervously added, 'I mean isnit just propaganda by deed?' as Nana responded, in slow motion, repeating, 'Romanticises class.' Moshe lowered his eyebrows and pushed his lips forward to show her that he was troubled, intellectually. Then Moshe looked sideways at Papa.
Papa was chatting to Anjali about the racial politics of acting. He was promising reforms.
And that was the beginning. That conversation was the beginning of the romance of Nana and Moshe. But Nana hadn't noticed.
It is a pity, Nadezhda Mandelstam would have thought it was a pity, but as Nana returned to Edgware with Papa, she was not thinking about Moshe. She had almost forgotten him already. She was thinking about theatres.
Theatres nonplussed her.
There was the foyer. Relaxed in the foyer, Papa had chatted, his neck angled up to the taller fat men. And Nana listened to him, while she looked with compassion at the boy with a plastic box of programmes and Loseley Dairy ice cream harnessed to his neck. With compassion, Nana noticed how his gelled precise fringe draped over some acne.
And then the auditorium, the pretentious auditorium. She watched the small lights in the rig dim down. In husky whispers, people almost finished their conversations. While Nana counted the white fire-exit arrows, and then the white running men on green backlit backgrounds.
Papa taptouched Nana's right hand. He told her to put on her glasses, tucked up on her lap. He grinned at her.
And then the star arrived on stage, disguised as Prince Paul Maraloffski. His name was something, Moshe something, Papa muttered to himself, chinking the open programme towards the safety lights. Moshe, the socialist socialite, drawled his readymade jokes. 'In a good democracy, every man should be an aristocrat.' No one laughed. Prince Paul Maraloffski intoned his epigrams. 'Culture depends on cookery. For myself, the only immortality I desire is to invent a new sauce.'
Nana considered the ending of Vera, or the Nihilists. She was amazed by its sentimentality. Vera, tortured by love, saves Russia but kills herself. And Nana had turned to her dearest Papa. She hoped that he was smiling too.
Papa was not smiling. Papa was an angel. He was moved by the ending. He was, thought Nana, almost crying. But because she was a girl who cared about her Papa, she cared for him more than anything, Nana was not embarrassed by this. No, she just tried to look after him. 'It's okay, Papa. Sokay,' whispered Nana. 'Don worry. She's still breathing.'
Nana just didn't get theatres.
When Anjali went home, it was around midnight. She lived in a flat in Kentish Town with her brother. Her brother was called Vikram. You are never going to see Vikram in this story. But I am mentioning him just now in case you are worried. He is there to reassure you that Anjali was not a loner.
Anjali went into the kitchen and looked in the fridge. Then she closed the fridge. She took off her denim jacket and sat on the sofa in the living room. She got up for a piss. She came back to the kitchen and opened the freezer. She took out a small cardboard pot of Ben & Jerry's Phish Food ice cream. She opened it and left it on top of the freezer. Then she sat on the sofa and picked up a bulldog-clipped pile of papers, which were Anjali's copy of a new script by Gurinder Chadha. She almost read through her fourteen lines. A telltale sign that she did not do this was that she did not open the bulldog clip. She looked at the letter requesting Ms Sinha to accept this working copy. She sat. She stared at the blank TV.
She remembered the ice cream.
She got up and took a spoon out of a drawer. The ice cream was still solid. She returned to the sofa anyway with the ice cream and the spoon. Anjali prodded at the ice cream, bored. She licked the spoon. She tumbled to her hands and knees and got out a video, sent to her by her mother, of Sholay. She considered watching a four-hour film. She mused on how much she disliked serious Bollywood films. She only liked the frivolous ones. She laughed at her mother's taste, out loud. Laughing out loud made her feel weird. She pushed the video into the machine and pressed play. She turned on the TV and found channel 0.
She missed her ex. She missed Zosia.
She remembered going to the Belle Vue cinema in Edgware to the late-night Hindi films. The Belle Vue cinema was located close to Nana and Papa but Anjali did not know that yet. Anjali's family lived in Canons Park and they went to the flicks together. She wondered why they had always called them flicks. She remembered how she fancied Madhuri Dixit more than she fancied Amitabh Bachchan. She remembered them all eating samosas in the Belle Vue cinema, and her mother stuffing a ticklish paper napkin down Anjali's T-shirt. Anjali remembered her fondness for little comic Johnny Walker. She remembered Johnny in Guru Dutt's Mr & Mrs '55, especially the hit song 'Dil Par Hua Aisa Jadu', in which Johnny listens to Guru Dutt in love, from a bar to a bus stop to a bus to the road. Or there was Madhuri Dixit in Devdas, a diamond-shaped gold ingot pressed between her eyes. Anjali considered whether Bollywood masala films were a little untechnical. Their appeal was not exactly formal.
Anjali was a mildly successful actress with a mildly unsuccessful love life.
This is not a very strange set-up, I think.
After all, sex isn't everything.