Authors: Will Kingdom
Copyright © 2012, Phil Rickman
TRUST NO-ONE, SEFFI’s TELLING HERSELF, AS SHE DOES SO OFTEN
lately. Trust none of them. This has been a mistake, this is very wrong … even by
Despite all the people, a party going on, she feels something hollow in the room. Sometimes, in her head, there’s the sensation of a bright white, penetrating light, turning to grey, turning to black.
And then, suddenly, Kieran’s here. A boy of eighteen or nineteen. Instantly she trusts Kieran, he’s so messed up and full of shame. He’s sending her a faintly fogged picture of himself: bare feet no more than three inches above the … hay?
No … rushes. Rush matting. On the floor of –
light through slats, no glass
greenery … bars of sunlight
– a kind of rough, rustic summerhouse. A gazebo.
Kieran’s hanging there. Seffi, sitting very still on her straight chair, in her claret-coloured velvet gown, hands enfolded on her lap, is aware of Kieran hanging.
How does she know his name? She just does. Reticence is rare unless you’re dealing with a personality for whom formality’s an obsession or a way of life – say a former army officer, or a butler.
‘OK, Kieran, hold on,’ Seffi murmurs, nodding. He’s pressing her, innocent as a big puppy. ‘Just … wait … We’ll get to it, yah?’
Sir Richard Barber’s buffed face is tilted to hers. Behind him all those half-pissed, crass, glassy smiles. When the drawing-room
lamps were first dimmed, it was like facing the rows of skulls in those catacombs under Rome or Paris or somewhere: nothing behind the smiles but dust – no grief, no sorrow, none of that hopeless yearning which one often perceives as a kind of sepia mist.
Also, no discernible respect. She’s … the entertainment. Half of them think I’m a phoney, she realizes, with a bright flaring of rage. And the other half want excitement, spectacle. They’re here to have fun.
One particular man seems to be laughing all the time now, in an irritating, rhythmic way, atonal and repetitive like a tape-loop. Seffi’s seething. She might as well be a hired pianist or a stand-up comic. That
‘Give me a minute,’ she tells Barber. ‘All right, Kieran, I do know you’re there. Who is this for? Who do you want to reach?’
A hush is spreading in the room now like steam. They didn’t know it had begun. Christ, she didn’t realize at first – usually, there’s a thickening of the atmosphere, a sense of the essences gathering around her like a cloud of summer midges. Kieran, in his fuddled desperation, that awful dismay at what he’s done, has fallen through. Like a small, thrashing fish through a net.
Glasses are accumulating now on side tables, cigarettes being crushed into ashtrays. Seffi finds herself under the gaze of one of the obvious unbelievers, a woman. She’s sitting in a wing chair about seven feet away; she has short hair dyed dark red, vulgar trophy earrings, a wide, carnivorous mouth.
And she’s saying sharply, ‘Did you say
Seffi doesn’t blink.
A big, broad-faced man in a white tuxedo turns at once from a conversation with a younger woman, hissing, ‘Don’t be stupid, it’s just a name.’
OK. So it’s the red-haired woman. She’s the one.
She isn’t going to like this.
‘If this means anything to you,’ Seffi says coolly, ‘Kieran tells me he killed himself.’
Dead silence in the room.
And then the poor bloody woman’s rising up as though electrically jolted, her big mouth falling open.
Seffi finds herself smiling slightly. Yes, obviously, it’s wrong to enjoy the shattering of disbelief in such circumstances, but she’s only human.
The man in the white tuxedo’s staring hard at her, several expressions chasing across his face. One of them:
He converts it quickly into anger, softening this to exasperation. Speaks through tightened lips.
‘Don’t make a fool of yourself, Coral.’
In Seffi’s head, Kieran’s pulsing hard.
OK, calm down, there’s a good boy. We’re getting there, yah?
Nobody’s talking now; she can hear the music playing softly out of hidden speakers: Debussy,
She brought the CD with her – more for them than for her; music’s no longer essential. All right, let him come.
Talk to Seffi, Kieran.
‘Ah.’ She nods, very slightly. Just a boy who’s done something impossibly stupid. He was twenty years old – it was the day after his birthday. His mother persuaded his father to buy him the sports car, the black … Mazda? Finding out about …
Kelly – is that the name?
on his birthday compounded the sense of injury and blinding humiliation.
Finding out what, Kieran? Come on, what did she do? What did Kelly do to you?
Kieran is hanging from a thin, plastic-covered washing line. It’s bright red; from a few feet away it looks like a wound around his neck, as though he’s slashed his throat.
In a garden summerhouse, a gazebo-thing. Kieran’s body half-revolving then swinging back. His tongue out.
This is what Kieran’s thinking now. The manner of his dying disgusts him.
So what exactly did you find out, Kieran? What did you find out to make you do this?
‘Please …’ The red-haired woman’s half out of her chair; she’ll be on her knees soon, poor bitch. ‘For Christ’s sake,
this sort of thing. I’m not a bloody nightclub act.’
Ten days ago. An outraged Seffi snarling at Nancy.
Who simply put on her glasses, reread the letter – on notepaper as
crisp and creamy as her own – and then nodded, all mild and motherly. Well, of course, Nancy knew exactly what Seffi was. Nancy, the agent-manager, wise and discreet, sculptor of one’s brilliant career.
‘And this guy, Barber … he’s not even an MP any more, is he?’
Nancy raised her eyes for a moment over the half-glasses. ‘On the other hand, he is
‘Well, big fucking deal,’ said Seffi Callard, whose father had been Sir Stephen for most of her life. She walked around the room a couple of times, biting her lower lip, getting ready to despise herself.
‘How … how much was it again?’
Nancy silently pushed the letter across the desk towards Seffi, flattening it out. The long figure now ovalled in green ink.
‘Rather vulgar, in one sense, but …’ Nancy shrugged ‘… he wants the best.’
‘I don’t even like to think what he wants for that much.’
‘Well, there’ll be a personal reason. There always is. Perhaps he’s lost someone. Perhaps he would be too embarrassed to approach you on an individual basis.’
‘You mean he’d hate anyone to know he was consulting someone like me, so he’s setting me up ostensibly to amuse his friends, like you’d hire a bloody soprano?’
‘Say a string quartet,’ Nancy said soothingly.
Seffi froze. Was Nancy in on this? Was it the start of a subtle reshaping of her career, taking in discreet cocktail parties and country-house weekends? Seffi knew too many who’d gone down that road – sincere enough at first and then, inevitably, it had become an act, a routine, and on those occasions when it failed to happen they’d fill the void with imaginary voices.
‘Up to you.’ Nancy picked up the letter between thumb and forefinger, swinging her arm, cranelike, to a position over the wastebin. ‘Do you want me to …?’
Seffi snatched the letter.
Barber, with his politician’s false deference, is gliding like a game-show host between Seffi and the red-haired woman addressed by the tuxedo’d man as Coral. But when Barber turns to Seffi, it’s with
uncertainty. No mistaking that fractional hesitation; he isn’t quite sure what’s supposed to happen. This makes absolutely no sense, not with the money he’s spending.
‘Miss Callard, are you …? Have you …?’
‘Started? No. This is a … wild card.’ Seffi smiles thinly. ‘Sometimes they just can’t wait.’
She has everyone’s attention now. Some of them standing, some sitting in chairs pushed together, all in a bunch. Cocktails clinking, teeth and jewellery twinkling in the half-light. She notices Barber’s sweating. Pretty bloody obvious he doesn’t want to be doing any of this. He’s actually paid over twenty grand for something he doesn’t want to be happening.
So who does? Some woman? Barber’s long divorced; is there a new woman, out there among the teeth, whom he’s trying to impress?
And yet he was making no pretence of friendship nor even of knowing Seffi before tonight. All this
Shaking hands in a distant sort of way when she arrived, the merest meeting of eyes. Curious, because she has actually met him before, during that tedious period of attending receptions on her father’s arm.
Something very wrong about this. But then she’s always known, hasn’t she, that there would be?
The woman whispers, ‘Is it Kieran Hole?’
the man rasping out, ‘get a grip.’ He looks powerful, this guy, big shoulders. Seffi feels Kieran’s hatred for him. She puts a steady hand on the red-haired woman’s bony wrist, stares candidly into her contact lenses.
‘Your son didn’t leave a note, did he?’
‘No.’ A whisper. Hand full of rings tightening around the stem of her glass.
‘He thought you’d know, you see.’
‘What a load of old shit!’ The man’s local accent rolling through. People frowning at him, wanting him out of the way because this is getting interesting.
‘Shut up! Leave us alone!’
The woman turning her stiffening back on him, spilling her drink. ‘Go on,’ she pleads to Seffi. ‘Go
And oh, there’s a belief now, all right. And hunger in the wetness and the slackness of the lips.
‘Hold on …’ Seffi lifts a finger. ‘He’s asking my advice, I think. At first he dearly wanted you to know, but now he’s not sure it would do any good. He’s angry and upset, and confused above all. We tend to imagine death confers wisdom, but that’s not how it goes.’
The man spinning away, fists clenched.
move on. That’s my feeling. He isn’t earthbound, just weighed down, like a hiker with an overstuffed rucksack, yah? He needs to shed some of it before he can go on. It’s a question of whether you’re prepared to take it on. Take the weight. It won’t be comfortable. Are you going to be OK with that? You have to be sure.’
The woman nodding, but looking bewildered, lowering her glass to the carpet.
‘All right,’ Seffi says. ‘Kelly. Was there a Kelly?’
‘I’m going.’ The man pushes through the faces and the drinks. ‘Get yourself a cab.’
Seffi shaking her head. ‘Sorry,
It was Kirsty, yah? I’m sorry.’
The man stops at the door, reeling sharply, as though he’s been hit by a sledgehammer in the small of the back.
‘His girlfriend!’ The woman gripping Seffi’s hand. ‘Kieran and Kirsty. They were getting engaged. She was his girlfriend …’
‘So she’s done her research.’ He’s got the door half-open. ‘She’s had some of us checked out, hasn’t she? That’s how the black bitch does it, you stupid woman, can’t you—?’
Bloody get out!’