Strange Bodies(4)
Author:Marcel Theroux


    For the sake of full disclosure, I should explain that I am currently incarcerated in the Dennis Hill Unit of the Maudsley Trust. The DHU is a secure facility, for people who have been sectioned for their own or others’ safety. The wags in here call it the Dangerous Humans Unit. It’s located in the Royal Bethlem Hospital, itself a lineal descendant of Bedlam, the notorious insane asylum which provided nugatory medical care for its inmates, but a rather higher standard of entertainment for the fashionable ladies and gentlemen who came to laugh at them. I appreciate that none of these details enhances the plausibility of what I am setting down.

    The awfulness of my position almost defies summary. I was detained two weeks ago after an incident that took place at the home of my wife and in the presence of my son Lucius. I am now being held for assessment under Section 2 of the 1983 Mental Health Act. Under the terms of the Section, Leonora is my nearest relative and has the right to request my discharge. However, as far as Leonora is concerned I have been dead for months. All she knows is that a total stranger burst into her house, berated her and tearfully claimed to have usurped her dead husband’s identity. There’s little doubt that I would, in her position, have called the police as well.

    And yet, here is a paradox. While no longer myself, I have never felt so clearly myself. As grandiose as it sounds, I feel closer than at any time in my life to perceiving the truth of the universe – the penumbra of sacred feeling which rings the real. Which constitutes the real. Without which we are so much meat and bone whizzing through space. Mono no aware, the Japanese call it. That feeling over things which suffuses their art with stoic melancholy, the only true response to the transience and beauty of our existence. Oh my poor children. Did anyone care how I knew their names? How many times have these hands bathed their pretty heads? But force of habit misleads me. Not these hands, of course. Not once.

    *



    Having been assured that Hunter was yet to arrive, I took my seat and ordered a bottle of sparkling water. I was uncertain of the etiquette of business lunches and slightly nervous at the prospect of sitting through an entire meal with a perfect stranger. To take my mind off what was to come, I rummaged through my briefcase for a distraction and, since I had read most of its contents ad nauseam, pulled out the sachet of face cream.

    The cream had arrived by post that morning in a parcel addressed to the previous occupant of our house in south-west London. It came with a letter from a Frenchman called Dr Ricaud who had an address on the Champs-Elysées. Dr Ricaud had also included a glossy catalogue of his beauty products, all manufactured at his laboratoires on the Channel Islands. ‘Your BEAUTY never stops,’ his letter said. ‘Your skin defies time.’ The doctor’s bold claims were essentially unverifiable as the lady they were addressed to had been dead for fourteen years. Her legacy on earth was a marble urn near Streatham crematorium, a persistent smell of damp food in the room that had once been her scullery, and letters like this one which continued to offer her deals on cosmetics or inform her of her victory in prize draws.

    At five minutes past one, Hunter Gould arrived in the restaurant and, being shown to the table, greeted me by my first name.

    Although I knew Hunter from his colourful reputation as a bigshot in the music business, I had neither met him nor spoken to him before that moment. Preethika had extended the initial lunch invitation without explaining what it was for. Until Hunter’s motive for inviting me was belatedly made clear, the emails provoked a lot of speculation among my family. In fact, Sarah and Lucius, my children, amused themselves with the notion that Hunter was going to offer me a recording deal, and had proposed a number of titles for my first album, of which Bring Me the Headphones of John the Baptist seemed not only plausible, but possibly touched with authentic genius.

    It was my wife Leonora who reminded me of our single previous encounter with Hunter Gould. About two years earlier, the two of us had been on a rare date at a cinema in Bayswater where, just as the previews ended, a stocky American stood up and lectured the entire audience about the need to switch off their mobile phones. I instinctively fumbled in my pocket as Leonora whispered: ‘Isn’t that Hunter Gould?’ and the stranger on my left nodded at her with an expression of sheer delight. I can’t recall the name of the film, but the audience behaved impeccably throughout it.

    I told this story to Hunter by way of small-talk when we were seated at the table.

    Up close, Hunter was big and toadlike, his face chubby and pugnacious and somehow a bit short of features, like an underdressed Mr Potato Head. I guessed, wrongly as it turned out, that he was in his early fifties. He had the build of a nightclub doorman and it occurred to me then that this was part of his success in business: his portly but muscular physique posed the oblique threat that, if it came down to it, he could send the lawyers out of the room and simply duff you up.

    ‘I remember that,’ Hunter said, refilling my glass and adding parenthetically, ‘You sure you don’t want wine?’ With a fastidiousness that struck me as mildly eccentric, he had brought a special supply of alkaline mineral water with him in a copper flask. The waiter placed a fresh glass on the table for it.

    Hunter went on: ‘I mean, I don’t remember that actual instance but it was a phase I went through. Eventually I saw a shrink who told me I was disinhibited and medicated me for it. I had a series of manic episodes, but they weren’t so easy to spot because I’m naturally an exuberant personality.’

    ‘I’ve always been slightly envious of people with mania,’ I said. ‘All that energy.’

    ‘Yes,’ said Hunter. ‘I believe I’ve tried almost every legal and non-legal drug on the planet and manic episodes with disinhibition are right up there with the best.’

    I added that it didn’t seem all that crazy to ask an auditorium full of strangers to turn their mobile phones off, just a little unusual.

    ‘That was the more benign side of my madness. In fact …’ Hunter leaned forward. ‘In fact, what’s crazier, sitting in the movie theatre listening to some asshole talk on his cellphone or to make it clear from the get-go that these are the rules, we watch the movie in respectful silence, and insist that everybody abide by them?’

    ‘That’s right,’ I agreed, wondering if he was still on some kind of medication.

    ‘Unfortunately that wasn’t the whole extent of it,’ Hunter went on. ‘There was some challenging racial stuff, which it turns out is very common as an element of delusional behaviour – and, you know, it was by no means racist, but it was open to misinterpretation. And working in the music business, there are lots of big and fragile egos. Humankind cannot bear very much reality. As the man said.’

    Over the lunch (two courses, Caesar salad and fish-cakes for me, salad and wild salmon for Hunter; neither of us drank wine) we chatted amiably. I listened politely as Hunter extolled the benefits of his alkaline water and the low-glycaemic diet he was on. ‘I can’t remember the last time I had sugar,’ he said, as the waiter handed me the dessert menu. While I ate sticky toffee pudding, Hunter drank green tea and explained in more detail the task he had in mind for me.

    For some years, Hunter said, he had indulged a private passion for collecting memorabilia associated with famous English literary figures, particularly those of the Augustan and Romantic periods. He had established a collection of objects and letters that had once belonged to Alexander Pope, Jane Austen, Byron, Shelley and John Clare, but so far had nothing connected to his favourite author, Dr Johnson. Now some letters had been offered to him, and he wanted to confirm they were real.

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