Authors: Will Self
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
THE QUANTITY THEORY OF INSANITY
COCK & BULL
MY IDEA OF FUN
TOUGH, TOUGH TOYS
FOR TOUGH, TOUGH BOYS
THE SWEET SMELL OF PSYCHOSIS
HOW THE DEAD LIVE
AND OTHER STORIES
THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY PRESS
Copyright © 1993, 1994 by Will Self
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Any members of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or publishers who would like to obtain permission to include the work in an anthology, should send their inquiries to Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003.
First published in Great Britain in 1994 by Bloomsbury Publishing, Ltd.
Published simultaneously in Canada
Printed in the United States of America
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Grey area and other stories / Will Self.
1. Manners and customs—Fiction. I. Title.
Atlantic Monthly Press
New York, NY 10003
01 02 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3
It is a rare thing nowadays to be commissioned to write any short fiction at all, so my thanks go to Tony Peake who asked me to write ‘Incubus’, for the Serpent’s Tail anthology
and who arranged the commissioning of ‘The Indian Mutiny’ for the Constable anthology
Maria Lexton commissioned ‘A Short History of the English Novel’ for the
Time Out Book of London Short Stories,
and subsequently also published it in
Bill Buford ran a much abridged version of ‘Scale’ in
although the piece was originally commissioned by Martin Jaques for a limited pictorial edition. All the other stories were written with this collection in mind.
Thanks are due to Sarah Milwidski who assisted with the preparation of the manuscript at a crucial juncture, to Liz Calder, Mary Tomlinson and all at Bloomsbury; and of course to Ed Victor and Morgan Entrekin for keeping the faith.
W.W.S., Suffolk 1994
FOR MY BROTHERS, NICK AND JONATHAN
‘He had no interests but interest.’
– Dr Zack Busner’s epitaph
Between the Conceits
There are only eight people in London and fortunately I am one of them.
Of course, when I make that statement I don’t mean to be taken literally – heaven forbid! And what would be worse still, I shouldn’t want you to think that I’m a snob of any kind. To discriminate between people on the basis of birth is inimical to me, always has been. I simply couldn’t engage in that sort of conceit.
I can declare with some authority that there simply isn’t a snobbish bone in my entire body. If there was I would feel quite confident that the good egalitarian tissue encasing it would tense up, like the lining of a chomping mouth, and spit the slimy thing out without more ado. There you have it in a nutshell: I should sooner be filleted than have it thought by you that I wish to elevate myself in some spurious, unmerited fashion.
But all of this being noted, the fact does remain that there are only eight people in London. Eight people who count, that is. Eight people who matter. I still find it strange to say this. It is so very strange to imagine, for example, that someone like Dooley – funny that his name should occur quite so readily – counts for anything at all. Even to some-long, lost great-niece, or old army mate, what could the likes of Dooley possibly represent, save for an embarrassment? Even his family – I know that he had one, at one time – must have felt that being closely related to Dooley was like being trapped next to someone on a long plane flight, and having them force a glancing acquaintance into intimacy.
Furthermore Dooley smells. Of that much I am certain. Not that I know exactly where he lives, but I have narrowed it down to a particular grid of Victorian artisans’ cottages in Lower Clapton, I can picture him in one of these ticky-tacky rabbit warrens readily enough. But I don’t so much see him as scent him, reclining on a broken-down day bed, with layer after layer of urine-damp underwear compressed between his jaundiced arse and the worn nap of an old army blanket. I can guess as well that, all around him, resting on tables and chairs, the tops of heaters, the mantelpiece and the floor, there will be pots of prescription drugs: sedatives, hypnotics, tranquillisers. For Dooley is a neurotic of the old school. He wouldn’t be able to survive without such gross nostrums.
Of course, the reason why I don’t know exactly where Dooley lives is because I don’t want to. I don’t want to know the precise location of any of them. Some might say that this is because I want to hold fast to my cherished illusion. But what does this illusion amount to really? That at such-and-such a time I might choose to see myself as a little more than an equal? A third amongst eight, rather than simply as one of eight? Well, why not? I’ve never ever attempted to elevate myself above Lady Bob or the Recorder, but, by the same token, I’ll never concede an iota of distinction to Lechmere, Colin Purves or the Bollam sisters. They could all rot in hell before I would give any one of them the satisfaction of believing that I think them quality.
And, of course, it’s the same for them. I know – it’s crazy. Crazy that the Bollam sisters – these virtually psychotic twins from St Nevis who sit all day, every day, in a Streatham bedsit knitting dolls of ‘the Redeemer’, and who share a bizarre kind of joint mind (speaking in unison, prescience and so forth) – should despite everything feel capable of being slighted socially! As if anyone would ever invite those two to any social function whatsoever. A turkey-pluckers’ whist drive is as elevated and rarefied, in respect of the Bollam sisters, as one of Lady Bob’s soirées would be for Dooley.
Yet, that being noted, it is an index of just how repugnant everything Dooley does is that even these two weirdo, humanoid knitting machines are still concerned to distance themselves from him.
So it goes on. We all tiptoe around one another, dancing our little dance, the two-step of arrogance and conceit. One of us will orchestrate a calculated snub, and then the rest of us will respond. There will be a rapprochement, an olive branch offered by one or perhaps two of us. A new clique will be constructed on the basis of mutually assured destruction.
We believe in it at the time. Believe that this collusion of interests is for ever, as thick as family blood that has coagulated over centuries. Yet invariably it will all be picked away at within days, weeks at the outside, creating a ragged, exposed patch, a new area of potential healing.
Just occasionally these manoeuvres will get something like serious. There’s a particular L-shaped axis of cliquishness that is dangerous. It begins with the Bollam sisters, snags in Lechmere – the insipid, compliant dunderhead – and then . . . and then (and you really would have thought that this would immediately act as a limpet mine planted on the very hull of their social ambition) . . . the three of them start extending their feelers towards Dooley. Dooley! What a joke, what a sick bloody joke!
To think of it, the Bollam sisters’ people, many thousands of them – at least 150,000 individuals would be required – approaching Dooley’s people at cocktail parties, union meetings, in bars and restaurants. Then, figuratively speaking, offering up to Dooley’s lot the baboon’s arse of acknowledged inferiority, in some crude way that even Dooley’s people can understand. 147,000 invitations here, 270,000 confidences there, a myriad fatuous compliments in the middle. It doesn’t matter. Perhaps twenty or thirty thousand of Lechmere’s people will be deployed as well, to write grovel letters or open doors.
It should be funny, because they haven’t a hope in hell of achieving anything. The minute they start deploying their people like this they drag them down to Dooley’s level, rather than yanking his sots, moochers and social-security claimants up to theirs. But what I don’t find funny at all is the way that this appears to place Colin Purves and me in some sort of clubbable relation to one another. Not that I dislike Colin Purves: in his own way he has a certain – albeit narrow – sympathy. It’s just that his more
character-traits make him utterly and incontrovertibly unsuitable company for someone of Lady Bob’s breeding.
What little progress I have made with Lady Bob over the years would be shot to pieces if she were to suspect that Colin Purves and I were anything more than acquaintances. Not that she would do anything crass – like have her people actively cut my people. It’s just that I can imagine – visualise even – the tiny individual crystals of hoar frost that would begin to coalesce around her sense of
towards me. She is that subtle and refined a person.
But if I feel genuine venom to any particular individual over the way this scenario plays itself out, it’s towards Lechmere. Lechmere, who should know better. Lechmere, who should be capable of being more steadfast. Lechmere, who has pretensions towards a higher kind of refinement. What with his collection of old silverware and his hunting prints. Lechmere, leaning against his invitation-encrusted mantelpiece, hands plunged deep into his grey-flannel bags, so he can jingle with his small change of maiden aunts and titled second cousins. Lechmere, who has the faint – but for all that distinct – whiff of new money about him.
This was dumped on him by a stepfather, of all people. A stepfather who made his money in construction, of all things. Con-struc-tion! Well, my dear, the word itself has a put-together feel about it. So you see, I cannot cede anything to Lechmere in the way of handicapping, even though on the face of it he’s closer to Lady Bob and the Recorder (I believe many, many of their respective people are on Christian-name terms) than I am. For the truth of the matter is that he has secrets of his own to protect.
If only Lechmere’s stepdaddy could have seen the uses his money has been put to. Lechmere gave up his job at the Treasury
tout de suite.
Now he fritters his time away between the bookanistes on the Farringdon Road and those chi-chi little antique joints in Camden Passage.
Can you squeeze in a little closer towards me? That’s it, lean forward, because this really is intended for your ears alone. I would only dream of vouchsafing this to someone like yourself, someone with whom I have struck up an immediate rapport, someone who’s a good listener. Further, you can take it as read that for me to divulge an intimate suspicion of this order is tantamount to my assuming that a corresponding intimacy exists between the two of us . . .
Anyway, the nub of it is this: I suspect Lechmere of being a practising homosexual. You don’t seem shocked. Well, of course I suppose you know nothing of all this. But let me tell you that among the eight of us it’s common knowledge that more of Lechmere’s people are homosexual than anyone else’s. 15,394, to be precise.
What’s more, I know that he has a fair few voyeurs on his books. No, dammit. That’s the core of my suspicion – Lechmere’s voyeurs. When I mull it over I don’t think Lechmere’s homosexuals are either here or there. After all, we all have our homosexuals (I have over half a million practising and getting on for a quarter of a million latent), and bloody useful they are at times. I wouldn’t want to be without mine. They give more parties than the straights, and they’re excellent for close, subtle work: the spreading of malicious gossip, the Chinese whispering of slurs, and the making of just the right kind of insinuations. Spend a great deal more of their time on office politics to boot.
So you see, I’ve nothing against a toad in the hole – even if he’s one of Lechmere’s. No, no, the thing is the voyeurs. Why has Lechmere acquired so many voyeurs, so many people who like to watch? The only answer I can come up with is that at some deep and magical level of thought he feels that if he can watch us more than we watch him we won’t be able to find out what he’s doing with his pork sword.
Personally, I’m rather stunned that he still has the energy for it. What’s more, I’m sure that it corrupts his vision as far as dictating the more subtle movements of his people are concerned. If he’s bumping and boring around like that, leaning over some bloody rent boy, how can he conceivably be alive to the nuances of 2,947 unreturned phone calls? Or 45,709 bad birthday presents? Let alone 17,578,582 gestures of dismissal.
The work demands attention. Being one of the only eight people in London is like some massive game of go. No, go isn’t the right analogy at all, because people – whether controlled or not – are no mere counters. Each one, after all, has his or her own potentiality. It would be worse than pointless to deploy 4, 732 throat-cutting gestures, where what was required were a mere 219 diplomatic overtures by the Right People.
No, perhaps a better way of understanding it is chess. But then, chess isn’t played by eight players using thirteen million pieces between them. Who could possibly quantify the permutations that such a game represents; the googolplex available moves. I’ve heard it said that the brains of grand masters are uncoupled from time as ordinary people understand it. That the many many thousands of calculations they make, gambits they follow through, could only take place in parallel to one another, like many little rivulets of thought running down some hillside of cogitation.
Pah! I make more such calculations in an hour than Kasparov does in a year. I stretch, then relax – and 35,665 white-collar workers leave their houses a teensy bit early for work. This means that 6,014 of them will feel dyspeptic during the journey because they’ve missed their second piece of toast, or bowl of Fruit ‘n’ Fibre. From which it follows that 2,982 of them will be testy throughout the morning; and therefore 312 of them will say the wrong thing, leading to dismissal; hence one of these 312 will lose the balance of his reason and commit an apparently random and motiveless murder on the way home.
Now, to compute this, together with all the side issues, is unbelievably difficult. For this is not merely aimed at producing the effect of one homicide, oh no. There are many different outcomes that follow on from such a scenario. It isn’t so much a decision tree as a decision forest, with branches parting, and parting and parting into twigs that divide and divide and divide again, some of them only then coming to fruition.
It takes more than mere brainpower, though, to undertake such infinitely subtle and ramified calculations. It takes a kind of flair. An ability to think laterally – and then zoom around a corner; an innate tendency to perceive the tactical move that one of the other seven hasn’t grasped.
A good example of this is the massive double, triple, quadruple – all the way up to nonuple – bluffs that we all engage in, particularly on bank holidays. Naturally one would always like at least some of one’s people to be able to get out of town on a bank holiday, see a little green grass, frolic with a few sheep, even splash off the shingle at Brighton or Shoreham. But at the same time one knows that a bank holiday with more than an hour spent in heavy traffic is worse than no bank holiday at all, especially if we’re talking of people who have children. If this is to be the case it’s far better that one direct the greater part of one’s people to stay at home, if only so that a minority can gain greater utility.
You can see how it all shapes up. Like poker players the eight of us assess how many the others are likely to direct out of town, and how many by car, how many by bus or train. Sometimes one of the eight of us will go so far as to keep all of his or her people at home. The entire bunch! It can have only happened once or twice. I did it about five years ago, and the glee, let me tell you, the intense thrill of
when I saw everyone else’s: the Bollam sisters, Dooley, Colin Purves, Lechmere . . . damn it all, even a hell of a lot of Lady Bob and the Recorder’s people . . . the whole lemming-load of them trapped sweating and bored in mile after mile of tailback after tailback.
But of course mostly it isn’t so straightforward. I sit there, caressing my volumes and papers and discs, trying to sense the messages in the ether, the subtle modulations of intent that might indicate how many are on the move – and where to. I think about Lady Bob. Will she send her people out of town – and if so, how many? Or will she, like the Bollam sisters who are incorrigibly nervous and stay-at-home, respond to the numerous notices of roadworks on major routes that have been coming in all week, and leave the tarmac shimmering and empty, so most of my lot can make a dash.