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Authors: William Boyd,Prefers to remain anonymous

1985 - Stars and bars

BOOK: 1985 - Stars and bars
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TO BE PROOFREAD

Title:

Stars and bars

Author:

William Boyd

Year:

1985

Synopsis:

All Henderson Dores dreams of is fitting in. But America, land of the loony millionaire and the subway poet, down-home Bible-basher and sharp-suited hood, of paralyzing personal frankness and surreally fantasized facilities, is hard for an Englishman to fit into.

PART ONE

Twenty-four hours in New York

Chapter One

L
ook at Henderson Dores walking up Park Avenue in New York City. ‘I’m late,’ he is thinking; and he is, late for work. He is carrying his sabres in a thin bag over his right shoulder and trying to appear calm and at ease, but that permanently worried expression on his square open face gives him away rather. The crowds of Americans—neat, well-dressed—stride past him purposefully, unheeding, confident.

Henderson walks on. He is nearly forty years old—birthday coming up fast—and just under six feet tall. His frame is sturdy and his face is kind and agreeably attractive. To his constant surprise, people are inclined to like him on first acquaintance. He is polite, quite smartly dressed and, apart from that slight frown buckling his forehead he seems as composed and as unconcerned as, well, as you or me. But Henderson has a complaint, a grudge, a grumble of a deep and insidious kind. He doesn’t like himself anymore; isn’t happy with the personality he’s been provided with, thank you very much. Something about him isn’t up to scratch, won’t do. He’ll keep the flesh, but he’d like to do a deal on the spirit, if nobody minds. He wants to change—he wants to be different from what he is. And that, really, is why he is here.

He runs a hand through his thick hair, short, but cut long, as it were, in the English way. To the practised observer, indeed, everything about him proclaims his; Englishness. His haircut—already noted—his pale lashed eyes, the bloom on his unshaven cheekbones, his old blue suit with its double vents in the jacket, the dull worn gold signet ring on the little finger of his left hand, his navy blue ankle-length socks (only butlers and chauffeurs wear black), and his shiny, well-creased, toe-capped black Oxford shoes.

This knowledge—that he is so distinguishable—would distress him because, in fact, his grand and only dream is to fit in; to merge and blend with the. identity of these earnest, enviable people on their way to work. Just another Manhattanite, he tells himself, as he transfers his sabres to his left shoulder, just like everybody else here. He frowns again slightly and slows down. This is his problem: he loves America, but will America love him back? Up ahead the lunatic is waiting.

‘The furrier at midnight thinks his hands are full of clouds.’

‘Go away, please.’

‘The furrier at midnight thinks his hands are full of clouds.’

Usually, Henderson Dores didn’t speak to the madmen. He found that by pretending the person simply didn’t exist—actually wasn’t
there
—it was possible to ignore the most venomous rant. It was a trick he’d first seen perfected by timid dons at Oxford whenever they were accosted by importunate drunks in narrow lanes. The fixed smile, eyes straight ahead, and—abracadabra—there was no drunk. So, with a small effort of will he cancelled the madman, set his features in the requisite mild false smile, took two paces to the left and moved off again.

The lunatic loped along at his side.

Don’t stop, that was the rule. He shouldn’t have stopped, but what this one was saying made some sort of perverse sense.

He looked about him, trying to ignore the malign companion at his side. On this bright April morning New York seemed to expand and rejoice in the thin clean air. Above, the sky was an unobstructed blue. It was what he termed a ‘meringue’ day: crisp, sharp, frangible…

A series of tugs at his elbow. You do not exist, Henderson said to himself, therefore you cannot be tugging at my elbow. His arm was gripped, uncompromisingly. He stopped. Vague fear stimulated his pulse rate. The undeodorized lunatic wore a beige overcoat (collar up), scarf, battered trilby, sunglasses, and held an opened black umbrella above his head. Henderson saw sweat slide from beneath the hat brim.

‘Please. Leave me alone,’ Henderson said firmly.

The crowd swirled round this impediment.

‘Charming people have something to hide.’ The lunatic spoke in a sing-song woman’s voice. His face was too close; his breath smelt curiously of old lemons.

‘Leave me alone or I shall call the police.’

‘Ah fuck you, asshole.’

That was more like it. The lunatic stood back and levelled a finger at him, thumb cocked.


BAM!

Henderson flinched with genuine shock, turned and strode on. ‘Bam! Bam! Bam!’ faded behind him. He shuddered. Good Lord, he thought, what a disturbing encounter. He eased the weight of his sabres and checked that the shoulder strap wasn’t creasing his suit.
The furrier at midnight thinks his hands are full of clouds
. That wasn’t too bad actually, for a crazy, he thought, calming down somewhat. It was like a coded spy-greeting; or a line from a better symbolist poem.

He trudged on up Park Avenue’s gentle slope. Younger people overtook him. A pretty girl in an elegant, mushroom-coloured silk suit walked strongly by, incongruous in her training shoes. Her breasts leapt beneath the sheen of her blouse. Her streaked blonde hair was clamped with tiny headphones. She mimed to the song she alone was hearing. Henderson wondered whether he should wish her a ‘nice day’. You could do that sort of thing here: confer cheery blessings on any passing stranger. ‘
Hey, enjoy your music!
’ he could shout. Or, ‘
Have a great lunch!
’ or even, ‘
Be well!
’ He shook his head admiringly and said nothing.

He increased his speed. With the palp of a forefinger he squeezed moisture from his wiry blond eyebrows. He was getting a little concerned about his eyebrows. They had been unexceptionable, inconspicuous things until recently. Now they had thickened and coarsened; certain hairs had begun spontaneously to grow and curl: they were becoming a feature. Just like his nipples, he thought…He checked himself: save the worries for the way home.

Home was a small apartment in a block on East Sixty-second between Lexington and Second Avenues. Convenient enough for the office, if a somewhat uphill hike, but the evening downhill amble was a compensation for the early morning effort. He looked at his watch again. He
was
late. Astonishingly and gratifyingly he had fallen into a deep sleep sometime after five a.m. and had woken at eight, his head empty of dreams. He had felt a sob of relief in his throat: perhaps, finally, it was all going to change now; perhaps this was a sign: America really was going to work…

He was keen on signs, these days; he analysed them with the assiduity of an apprentice hierophant. And at first they all seemed to bode well.

He had arrived in America, at J.F.K. airport, some two months previously. It had been raining, heavy drops slanting yellow through the airport lights. He had half-planned to kiss the ground (given a discreet moment) pontiff-like, but stepped straight from the plane into a mean corridor. He passed through surly immigration and taciturn customs in a benign trance: those drawls, those impossible names, the real gun on the real cop’s hip.

Outside, the rain had worsened. A tall, very angry black man in a glossy oilskin controlled the queue for taxis with hoarse shouts and imperious gestures. The taxis and the queue formed an obedient line. The gleaming, battered yellow cabs…

Henderson stood beside the taxi-marshal for a while, happy to wait. The man was muttering to himself under his breath. Askance, Henderson looked at his moustache, his thick curved lips, the way he seemed to keep moving even while standing still. Water dripped steadily from his cap’s peak.

‘It could be worse,’ friendly Henderson said. ‘It’s snowing in England.’

The taxi-marshal looked round, the whites of his eyes were yellow like butter.

‘Fuck England,’ he said.

Henderson nodded. ‘Fuck England,’ he agreed, nodding. ‘You bet.’

It had been an epiphanic moment, he now thought, as he waited at a traffic light to cross to the west side of Park Avenue. An omen. The traffic stopped and he hurried to the island, paused, and crossed again. He had pondered on it a long time and he had come to confer on his departure from England an importance which the ostensible and unremarkable business reasons wouldn’t at first seem to warrant. He was going to a job in New York—granted—but he was also making an escape. An jescape frQm the past and from himself.

He strode on more speedily, the aluminium guards on his sabres clinking dully together as the bag banged against his thigh.

He had quit Britain, he had decided, in a conscious and deliberate flight from shyness, in a determined escape from timidity…A man on roller skates glided silently by him and leant sinuously through the crowd. Henderson’s admiration was immediate. ‘
Enjoy your skate!
’ he wanted to shout after him, but he didn’t. Why not? Because he was shy.

He was (he categorized himself with no trace of self-pity) a shy man. Not chronically shy—he didn’t stammer or spit or flinch or sweat in the manner of the worst afflicted—no, he was shy in the way most of his countrymen were shy. His flaw was a congenital one: latent, deep, ever present. It was like having a birthmark or a dormant illness; an ethnic trait, a racial configuration.

He stepped into shade cast by a tall building and gave a shiver from the sudden chill. Sunny start, rain later, the forecast had said. He had only his raincoat today, trusting the jovial forecaster. Perhaps that was a little foolhardy. He overtook two young men, strolling, talking loudly, one smoking a lime-green cigar. He screwed up his eyes as he walked through a slate-blue cloud of smoke, smelling the vomit-smell of cigars, souring the crispness of the morning.

Shy.

True, his education and his upbringing provided him with a reasonably efficient kit of tools and methods to overcome his disability. Observe him nattering at a cocktail party; see him engage his dull partner at a dinner table with conversation and one would never guess the nature of his disease. But it was there, and beneath this socio-cultural veneer he suffered from all the siblings of shyness too: the feeble air of confidence, the formulaic self-possession, a conditioned wariness of emotional display, a distrust of spontaneity, a dread fear of attracting attention, an almost irrepressible urge to conform…

He briskly turned the corner off Park, lurched and just skittered round three raw shiny steaming turds, freshly deposited in the rough environs of a sapling root. He overtook the fur-clad crone and her nasty pooch. He shot her a hostile, stern glance brimming with reproach. He longed to demand where her poop-scoop was or at least make some withering rejoinder. Only last week he’d heard of a man in the city who, confronted with the sight of a splay-legged great dane dumping its load in front of him, had removed a gun from his jacket and shot the beast there and then. A very, intrinsically
American
act that, he thought, as he made his way down the street towards his office. A disapproving look, a tut-tut tightening of the lips, that was the best he could manage. It was typical and it was what was wrong. And that was why he had to leave, why he had to come to America for the cure. Because, here, shyness was banned; shyness was outlawed, prohibited.

That of course was nonsense, he realized, as he steered round a postman pushing his trolley. There were plenty of shy people in America, but they were shy in a different way, it seemed, their insecurity had a different stamp to it. And if he had to be shy all his life, then he wanted to be shy like them.

He paused at the door of Mulholland, Melhuish, Fine Art Auctioneers. Brave talk, he said with heavy irony, fine words. The only problem was he kept relapsing. He had been making real progress: look at Melissa, look at Irene. But he kept falling back. Consider the run-in with the madman a few minutes ago; he had handled that appallingly.

He stepped into the entrance hall, black and white marble squares, oak panelling.

‘Good morning, Mr Dores. How are you today?’ the receptionist called from behind her desk.

Henderson, on his way past, smiled automatically then stopped. That was not the way.

‘I’m very well, thank you, Mary. Very well indeed. Thank you for asking.’

‘Oh…Oh. Good. You’re welcome.’

He entered the small lift. Elevator. He pressed ‘Door closed’. They slid to, trapping someone’s pale blue arm.


Yawksl
Agh!’

He punched ‘Door open’ and Pruitt Halfacre stepped in.

‘Didn’t you see me, Henderson? Jesus.’

‘Sorry, Pruitt. Miles away.’

‘Jesus, God. That’s
oil
.’ Halfacre examined his crushed sleeve. ‘I’m going to have to charge you, Henderson.’

Was he joking or was he being serious? Henderson could never tell with Americans. He smoothed his eyebrows. They ascended.

‘Wonderful news, don’t you think? At last, at last,’ Halfacre said.

‘What?’

‘You haven’t heard? We think we may have an Impressionist sale. A chance at one anyway.’

‘Good God!’

‘Yeah. Tom has the details.’

They stepped out of the lift onto the fourth floor. After the plush of the lobby here was scarred paintwork, bright lights, worn linoleum.

‘Morning, Ian,’ Halfacre said.

‘Snap,’ said Toothe. He and Halfacre were both wearing bow ties.

‘Great minds, Ian.’

‘Bit on the late side, Henderson?’ Toothe said. ‘Naughty. You look very hot and bothered.’ Toothe was English, an English version of Halfacre. Two
sensitifs of
the worst kind. Henderson forgave Halfacre because he was American, but, to be honest, he disliked Toothe intensely.

‘It’s that haul up from the flat. Apartment,’ he said apologetically.

‘Getting old.’

‘Death where is thy sting,’ Half acre said. Teethe laughed.

Henderson laughed too, waved gaily and left them in the corridor. He walked to his office, suddenly feeling angry. Getting old. Thirty-nine wasn’t old. Impudent little sod. And who was he to clock-watch? Bastard. Forty on the horizon. Prime of life…But, then again, there were these disturbing things happening to his body. His eyebrows, his nipples, his shins, his arse. Ass.

BOOK: 1985 - Stars and bars
3.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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