There lived once in a big old house equidistant from Mottram St. Andrew, Alderley Edge and Wilmslow—at the very heart of what is still known to estate agents as the Golden Triangle—a dope-smoking media don who disapproved of dope and media, heir to a pharmaceutical fortune who favoured the redistribution of all wealth but his own, a utopist who mistrusted the principle of social amelioration, a lover of Gregorian chant who fantasised about being a rock legend, a whimsical conservationist who bought his sons fast cars with which they tore up the very country roads he wanted conserving. If he sounds like many people it’s because many people were wrapped up in him. But he was just one man, a single fretting bundle of idealistic envy. “Sometimes,” he told his students at the business school in Stockport of which he was the dean, “even the fortunate and gifted can feel their lives are mortgaged to a perplexing sadness.”
“You don’t say,” his students said behind his back.
For Peter Shalcross MBE, one day had become the same as every other. A live morning radio interview on any subject, an afternoon lecture to his students on Mercantilism and Alienation—on alternate weeks he changed the title to Money and Estrangement—and then the drive home in the early evening to the heart of the Golden Triangle where a neat Scotch and scarlet smoking jacket awaited him, and where he could fulminate in comfort against the faux manses and manor houses of which the Strulovitches and their kind had taken possession. Every evening at the same time he fulminated, saying the same things and feeling the same burning sensation in his chest. But habit took nothing from the fervour of his animus. Only someone who enjoyed the benefits of great wealth himself could have been made so angry by the great wealth of others—the difference being that he hadn’t had to earn his, the fact of which also made him obscurely angry.
“Can you smell anything?” he would ask visitors, throwing open the doors to his grounds, and when they had exhausted the possibilities—someone burning off leaves in the next county, horse manure, faulty plumbing, dust from the Sahara—he would rub the tips of his fingers together and say, “No none of those, what I smell is more like lucre . . . The filthy sort.”
Though he was concerned about the effect that the propinquity of lucre might have on the air quality, the hedgerows and his only daughter, Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing Of Beauty Is A Joy Forever Christine—Christine being the name of the flighty society model he had ill-advisedly married and whose influence on him extended all the way down to his candy-striped socks and fashionably pointed, high crepe-soled shoes—Shalcross was known to boast to his academic colleagues about the millionaire pop stars and footballers who were his neighbours. This was not to be confused with hypocrisy. A man can boast and still deplore.
“If you wanted a pop-idol life, Christine, you should have run off with a pop idol,” he told his wife the night the Cheshire constabulary raided the anything-goes party she’d thrown for Plurabelle’s sixteenth birthday. In fact he was the one who should have run off with a pop idol. Or better still, been a pop idol.
It wasn’t the amyl nitrite that brought the police out, it was the amplified music. And it was a rhythm guitarist, residing half a mile away, who’d alerted them. He couldn’t hear himself practise, he’d complained. Even the noisy were entitled to peace. It was their human right.
After thinking about it for a week, Christine Shalcross did precisely as her husband suggested, though running off in this instance meant no more than moving to the other side of the paddock, where pop idols proliferated like peonies. “For all that I’ll be able to keep a close eye on her from here,” she told her husband, “I’d still prefer you to bring Plurabelle up. A girl needs a father’s example and she loves you more than she loves me. You have that in common with her.”
Estranged from himself, humiliated by his wife, disap- pointed in his sons who had gone to work for banks which had the indecency to fail, depressed by the cynicism of his students, appalled by the social deterioration of the Golden Triangle and expecting to die early, anyway, as his parents and grandparents had, Shalcross left instructions with his solicitors for the care of Plurabelle. “Taking into account the size of her fortune and the sweetness of her nature, Plury will be at the mercy of every moneybags and bloodsucker that comes along,” he told his lawyers. “Find listed below a number of ordeals of character to which every aspirant to her bed must be submitted. Any who hope to approach her by some other route should know that my family’s reach is long and extends to low places as well as high.”
Having deposited these detailed stipulations, he went into the garden of the Old Belfry—his belfry, of course, was genuinely old—laid himself out beneath the second most ancient oak tree in Cheshire, stuffed tissues up his nostrils against the stench of filthy lucre, took an overdose of the pills for which his family had been overcharging grossly for half a century, and expired.
Richly left and richly independent, Plurabelle shed copi- ous tears—for she had inherited the sadness gene from her father—and allowed a decent interval of time to elapse be- fore summoning the courage to read her father’s test, pre- sented to her in a long Manila envelope, like a Last Will and Testament, by his solicitors. A gap year, she called this decent interval of time. A period in which to travel, meditate, meet interesting people, have a breast enlargement and work done on her face.
At the fulfilment of which, looking simultaneously younger and older than her years and ever so slightly Asiatic, she sliced into the envelope with a letter opener made of the horn of one of the rhinos she intermittently marched through the centre of Manchester to preserve. Unable to see how being able to identify the three biggest lies of the twentieth century, or to name the fifty richest “foreign” families in the United Kingdom, or to suggest a viable scheme for assassinating Tony Blair, would yield her the ideal partner, she put her father’s test in the bin and devised trials more likely to yield the sort of man she thought she wanted. On her twenty-first birthday she attended a swinger’s party in Alderley Edge, having taken the sensible precaution of ascertaining first that her mother would not be there. She went wearing a Formula One driver’s suit and goggles and jiggling the keys to each of her cars—a Volkswagen Beetle, a BMW Alpina, and a Porsche Carrera. These, once she had secured the attention of the majority of the guests, she threw into an ice bucket and went outside to wait in the Beetle. That fights broke out over the BMW and the Porsche but no one followed her to the Volkswagen didn’t entirely surprise her, given that this was Cheshire, but she felt she’d learned an invaluable lesson. Deceived by ornament and the glitter of appearance, men were incapable of seeing substance let alone valuing it. She became a lesbian for a year, received instruction in holy orders from a nun who had once done secretarial work for her father, tried her hand at modelling, journalism, photography and kinetic sculpture, had her breasts reduced, and settled finally for running a restaurant—though she had no cookery skills—in what had been the stables of the Old Belfry.
She called the restaurant Utopia and envisaged it as the centrepiece of that experiment in idealistic living her father had often talked to her about but never got round to putting into practice. Guests would be invited to stay the night, or even the weekend, go on treasure hunts, play croquet, fall in and out of love, treat one another beautifully, avail them- selves of therapies of various kinds from Ayurvedic massage to marriage guidance—Plurabelle herself excelled at medi- ating between stressed partners, having practised for many years on her parents—inveigh against wealth, though only the wealthy could afford to attend, and of course enjoy food that bespoke honest endeavour combined with profligacy. Cottage pie washed down with Krug Clos d’Ambonnay. Or white Alba truffle with tap water. Eventually, she told a reporter from Cheshire Life, she would put her own ornamental virginity on the menu but as yet had not devised a method for distinguishing the right buyer from the wrong.
Though highly photogenic in the gamin style, with a retroussé nose, a Daisy Duck mouth, golden tresses, a throaty voice that brought to mind a bee buzzing in a windowpane in late summer, and a Scandinavian weather girl’s figure, Plurabelle Shalcross had her father’s fascinated mistrust of the media. No, she wouldn’t make a television programme about her Utopia weekends, but then again, if it were to be a series, maybe she would. To the idea of bartering her virginity on screen she brought the same complex of scruple and consent, with both finally winning out. Better, surely, from the point of view of audience interest, to keep the question of her find- ing the right man forever in suspense. Week in, week out, she could set new challenges and, week in, week out, suitors would fail them. Thus she laughed, cried, frolicked, cooked badly and, as episode followed episode, adjudicated—not just between lovers prepared to joust to win her, but between the affairs of others among her guests. Soon, imperceptibly, her programmes came to be about judgement as much as food and love. A new series entitled The Kitchen Counsellor became an overnight success. Couples, friends, even lifelong enemies, would bring their disputes to Plurabelle’s table where, as she served them delectable dishes prepared behind the scenes by someone else, she would deliver verdicts held to be binding at least in the sense that all parties had agreed to abide by them in their release forms.
Not only was this a cheaper option than going to law or even arbitration, it gave combatants a taste of passing fame and, still more alluringly, Plurabelle’s incomparable sagacity.
Who cared, after that, whether they had won their argument or lost it!
For those for whom fame was less important than vindication, Plurabelle, flushed with success, initiated a live interactive Webchat facility called Bicker. Here, the contentious would submit their grievances to the arbitration of the British public. “I can’t be the one who decides everything,” Plurabelle told her friends. But the British public turned out to be too vitriolic an arbitrator even for its own taste, the site consumed itself in rage, and Plurabelle was once again the person who—in the humane spirit of it not mattering whether anything was decided or not—decided everything.
Life was a game and Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing Of Beauty Is A Joy Forever Wiser Than Solomon Christine its master of ceremonies.
Oh, but sadness is a curse.
Plurabelle’s mother told her it was natural in a girl who had recently lost a father. But Plurabelle sought a deeper cause. Or maybe a more superficial cause. A different cause, anyway.
Her mother couldn’t help her with that. “Philosophy exceeds my maternal brief,” she said. “Why don’t you go to sadness classes in Wilmslow?”
“Because I don’t need to be taught it. I need to get rid of it.”
“That’s what they do there,” her mother said. “I put it wrong. It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous only for sad rich people.”
“Will I have to stand up and say, ‘Hello, my name is Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing Of Beauty Is A Joy Forever Christine, I have a personal fortune in excess of twenty million pounds and I am a saddist’? Because if I do I’m not going.”
Her mother shrugged. In her view what her daughter needed was a lover. When you have a lover there’s no time to be sad.
Plurabelle went anyway, despite her initial reluctance. It’s possible that she too secretly hoped to find a lover there. Though God knows she didn’t need any more sadness around her. In order not to be recognised she wore a headscarf that made her look as though she had toothache. Most of the others were in disguise too. We are sad because we’re famous, Plurabelle thought. But the convenor told the gathering not to look for reasons right away, not to attribute it to ambition or stress or the spirit of competition and envy prevailing in the Golden Triangle. They were sad because they were sad. The only important thing was not to be in denial.
Over coffee, after the first session, she discussed this idea of not looking for a reason for their sadness with an older, elegant man whom she’d noticed at the meeting, sitting somewhat apart and staring ahead of him as though the sorrows of ordinary mortals were not to be compared to his. He introduced himself, in a manner that was part apologetic and part disdainful, as D’Anton, and close up seemed to her to be sad because he was homosexual (or at least not definitively heterosexual), for which, as she understood it, they were also not to look for reasons. They talked at length in a serious vein, after which she asked him to one of her Utopia house parties. It was up to him whether he wanted to be filmed or not. Bring someone, if you like, she told him. But he arrived alone, bearing an enormous glass paperweight in the centre of which was a teardrop. “That’s beautiful,” she said, “but you shouldn’t have.” He made light of the gift. Among the objets d’art he made a living from importing, he explained, were glass paperweights. This one came from a small village in Japan where they’d been blowing glass since the fourteenth century and no one knew how to do anything else. She wondered if the teardrop was human or animal. They say it’s the teardrop of whoever beholds it, he told her. Whereupon they both cried a little and held on to each other as though they meant never to let go.
Soon D’Anton became a regular visitor, sometimes staying after the rest of the weekend guests had gone home. They found comfort in each other’s melancholy. “You must think it’s ridiculous me living in all this splendour and still being sad,” she said.
“Not at all,” he answered, shaking his head. “I import beautiful objects from Japan, Grenada, Malibu, Mauritius and Bali, and have a home in each, and yet I am sad in all of them.”
“Bali is one place I haven’t yet been to,” Plurabelle said. “What’s it like?”
Plurabelle shook her head in sympathy. “I can imagine,” she said. Then, after a moment’s contemplation, she asked him, “Do you think it’s because we have too much?”
“Us. You and I. People of our sort. The advantaged.”
“But are we the advantaged?” D’Anton asked. “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”
“That’s so beautiful,” Plurabelle said. “And so true. It makes me want to cry. Paulo Coelho often makes me want to cry.”
“A greater man than Paulo Coelho said that,” D’Anton surprised her by saying. She didn’t know there was a greater man than Paulo Coelho.
“So would we be less pierced with sorrows if we gave all we have to the poor?”
He didn’t know but said he sometimes asked himself whether the sadness problem, for him anyway, wasn’t money but modernity. “Do you never feel,” he asked her, “that you are too modern?”
Plurabelle liked that idea. “Too modern—yes, you’re right,” she said. “Too modern. I have often felt that, yes I have, though until now I didn’t know I’d felt it. Too modern—yes, of course.” Then she had a thought. “But that doesn’t explain,” she said, “why Aborigines and American Indians always look sad on the Discovery Channel. They can hardly be called modern.”
“No, but that’s a different kind of sadness, isn’t it. The cause of their sadness is that they have been made abject. It’s been done to them. They are sad because they’re victims.”
Plurabelle remembered seeing photographs of South American tribesmen in colour supplements. They looked thousands of years old. Maoris too. And Pygmies. And Pashtun tribesmen. Why were they all sad, she wondered.
“Again, they have been exploited and made abject.”
“And Jews? They’re old.”
He was less comfortable about Jews. But offered to put his mind, or at least St. Paul’s mind (for he was a confirmed Paulinist), to their sadness. “I’d say they are made abject by their own will,” he declared at last. “They are neither modern nor victims. They have chosen to look the way they do.”
“Why have they done that?”
“Whether it’s a flaw or a stratagem I cannot say, but they have always put themselves at the centre of every drama, human or theological. I think of it as a political sadness. The glue of self-pity is very strong. As is emotional blackmail.”
Plurabelle furrowed her lovely brow. She wanted this conversation never to stop, testing as it was. “So they don’t count, is what you’re saying?”
“In my view they don’t, no.”
Plurabelle’s expression was suddenly relieved of its customary dejection. “Oh yes they do,” she laughed. “That’s all they do. They just sit and count … and count … and count . . .”
She was so pleased by this that she skipped like a little girl.
“I hope you don’t think I mean anything unpleasant,” she remembered to say.
D’Anton assured her that he didn’t.
She clapped her small hands in relief.
He thought how pretty she was when she was skittish. Inflamed around the mouth, as though she had a perpetual cold sore, and disconcertingly wide-eyed, which made it difficult for her to look straight ahead, but that could be said of all the women in the Golden Triangle. And she had a girlish expectancy which they didn’t. A desire for happiness shot through with an expectancy that she would never find it. He almost wished he could feel romantically about her.
She thought the same about him. Such a pity.
But the absence of romantic feeling made it possible for them to talk freely to each other, or at least for her to talk freely to him. She told him, with clever illustrative imitations of their mannerisms, about the would-be lovers who came and went in her real life, as opposed to those who were found for her by the production company to appear with her on television. Oh God, they wearied her, each thinking that the way to reach her was to spoil her or to flatter her, this one bringing her a Hermès Birkin bag the colour of the lipstick he’d been told she always wore, that one bearing a Guerlain lipstick case made of Swarovski crystals and a solitary diamond, the lipstick itself the colour of what researchers had told him was her favourite handbag. Did they think she was an object to be won by empty words and cash? She even showed him the handbag and the lipstick. What did he think?
He said he thought she should wear them together.
She told him that she’d come to that same conclusion herself.
They both laughed.
“But this isn’t who I am,” she said.
They both laughed again.
He became installed in her house, like a steward or confessor. When he wasn’t popping over to Japan to look at paperweights he didn’t seem to have much to do. “I pay people,” he explained. There was a prematurely retired air about him. On occasions, she would have friends around to listen to him talk about the exquisite things he imported and about beauty in general. In no time at all he was indispensable to her—handsome, sad, chivalric, unavailable, and somehow uncontaminated. It was as though he made clean every space he walked through, just by walking through it.
From SHYLOCK IS MY NAME. Used with permission of Hogarth. Copyright © 2015 by Howard Jacobson.