Op. 10

 

AN INTERVIEW REVIEWED

OR

MUSIC IN THE STUDY

 

Long Prose

 

Copyright © 1979-2014 John O'Loughlin

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CONTENTS

 

Chapters 1-10

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CHAPTER ONE

 

After what seemed an eternity the taxi turned into Ravensthorpe Drive, where it eventually came to a sudden halt outside a large detached Hampstead house bearing the rather enigmatic name Tonkarias on a small metal plate dangling from above its front entrance.  With a distinct feeling of apprehension, Anthony Keating, junior correspondent for the influential monthly publication 'Arts Monthly', climbed out of the taxi and, resting his black attaché case on the pavement, satisfied the driver's financial demands.  Then, turning towards the house, he sighed as deeply as he had ever done at the prospect of what lay in store for him behind its impressive dark-green front door.

     Picking up his attaché case, he stood for a moment seemingly undecided what to do.  There was still time for him to turn back, resign from the magazine, and have done with this sort of apprehension once and for all!  What rotten luck that Neil Wilder had suddenly gone down with influenza and been obliged to withdraw from his professional commitments all week!  How disconcerting to be informed by the editor that, other correspondents being ill, on holiday, or otherwise engaged, he would have to deputize for the sick man and interview the composer instead!  As if he had nothing better to do than interview someone whose music he had little knowledge or understanding of, never mind inclination towards.  Really, things were becoming more than a trifle farcical at the offices of 'Arts Monthly' these days!

     He pushed open the plain metal gate and slowly walked up the gravel path towards his professional destiny.  He didn't have the courage to back out of the assignment, after all.  It would only further complicate matters to find oneself being pompously lectured at by a cunning Nicholas Webb and induced to retract one's resignation because, in his editorial estimation, the magazine couldn't afford to lose such a talented young correspondent at such an inconvenient time, since people like Keating weren't easy to find, etc.  Besides, what would he do if he didn't slave for Webb five days a week?  What else could he do?

     He stood in front of the front door and, with stoical resignation to his fate, pressed its bell a couple of times.  Almost immediately, a loud bark issued from somewhere deep inside the interior of the house, followed by a dutiful scampering of paws, as a large dog bounded towards the door and, drawing-up just short of a head-on collision with it, began to bark on a still fiercer note, until the sharp sound of a woman's voice served to create a temporary lull in its aggression.  "Be quiet, Ludwig!" the woman shouted again, as the dog, a golden labrador (and not a rottweiler or pit bull terrier, as Keating had at first feared), renewed its barking at sight of the caller.  She gave the brute a sharp slap on the nose and held it by the collar to restrain its aggression.  Then, turning to her visitor, whose attention was largely focused on the over-zealous animal, she apologized for any inconvenience.

     "Oh, that's nothing!" Keating politely assured her, smiling apprehensively in self-defence.  He gripped the handle of his attaché case more firmly and then informed her who he was and for what purpose he had come, as previously arranged.

     "Ah, do come in!" cried the grey-haired lady, ushering him, with her free hand, into a brightly-painted, elongated hall.  "My husband has been expecting you.  What name was it again?"

     "Er, Anthony Keating."

     "Right!  Just wait here a moment whilst I tell him you've arrived."  She smiled reassuringly and, dragging a reluctant Ludwig along by the collar, shut him into an adjoining room.  Then she headed down the hallway and disappeared round a corner at the far end.  Ludwig barked gruffly a few times from his new place of confinement, but his initial aggression had considerably subsided, and soon he grudgingly resigned himself to the presence of a stranger in the house by growling a little for form's sake, as it were, and then relapsing into a brooding silence.

     Meanwhile Keating had taken out a small notebook, which contained a number of hastily scribbled questions which he intended to put to the composer in due course - assuming his illustrious quarry would be willing to answer them, of course.  Unfortunately, they hadn't been compiled by him but by Neil Wilder and, since he wasn't particularly familiar with Wilder's methods of conducting interviews, he considered it worth his while to check them over once more, even though he had already checked them over in the taxi.  But before he could get beyond the fourth question, Mrs Tonks duly reappeared in the hall to inform him that her husband would be ready in a minute.  "He's just completing some work on the garden," she explained, as she led Keating down the hallway and into a large room to the right, which gave on to the back garden.  Sure enough, there, no more than thirty yards away, stood Howard Tonks with a watering can in his hands and a bed of bright red roses directly in front of him.

     "Would you like a tea or coffee while you wait?" asked Mrs Tonks, offering her guest an armchair.

     "A tea would be fine, thanks," he replied, waiting until her plump middle-aged figure had vacated the room before, abandoning his seat, he ventured to tiptoe towards the french windows.  He didn't want to go too close to them in case the composer, who had his back to the house, suddenly turned round and caught him staring through them.  But from where he stood he could just about discern the body of a bikini-clad young woman lying on an air bed a few yards to the right of the rose bushes.  Overcoming his timidity, he tiptoed a couple of paces closer to the windows to get a better view of her and discovered, to his additional satisfaction, that there were in fact two young women lying side-by-side on adjacent air beds - one in a pale-blue bikini, the other in a pink one.  He almost whistled to himself at the sight of them, for they appeared to be highly attractive.  That, at any rate, was the case as far as their bodies were concerned; for he couldn't, as yet, see much of their faces.  Perhaps if he tiptoed a yard or two closer...?   But at that very moment the composer turned towards the two bikini-clad sunbathers to his right and stared down at the nearest of them - a development which served to freeze Keating in his spying tracks!

     Slightly disappointed, he turned away from the garden and, catching sight of a medium-sized portrait of Bela Bartók above the mantelpiece, gazed up at it with mild curiosity.  But Bartók had never been one of his favourite composers, so he quickly lost interest in the portrait and turned away from it in disgust.  He soon discovered, however, that there were some other portraits in the room as well - a large one of Stravinsky on the wall opposite and, on the wall facing the garden, two smaller portraits of what appeared to be Ives and Varèse respectively.  It was evident that Mr Tonks liked to be surrounded by his musical precursors or heroes when he composed.  Perhaps they prevented him from losing faith in himself, or precluded any untoward frivolity from marring the austere atmosphere of his study?  Standing in the middle of the room with the oily gazes of these particular composers upon him wasn't exactly the most uplifting of experiences, however, for Anthony Keating and, as though in a determined effort to break the spell which their stern miens had momentarily imposed upon him, he smiled to himself in seeming defiance of everything they stood for.

     Taking mental leave of the portraits, he turned his attention upon an open music score resting against the stand of a Steinway grand piano, which stood, at that moment, with its ivory keys bathed in bright sunlight.  He stared down at it with a slightly puzzled expression on his face, since the many lines and dots scrawled across its cream-coloured surface presented him with one of the strangest-looking musical hieroglyphs he had ever beheld.  Should he attempt to decipher it?  He bent closer to the manuscript and managed to make out the words "Sonata in indeterminate key for solo performer" above the first treble staff on the left-hand page, followed immediately underneath by "At one's own pace".  With mounting amusement he scanned the treble bars of the first line, which contained a profusion of quavers, semiquavers, and demisemiquavers, and, calling upon the remnants of his youthful education in music, attempted to distinguish between the various notes on display there.  Tentatively he groped his way deeper into the score, smiling to himself and, in spite of his contemptuous attitude, almost feeling proud that he could still differentiate between quavers and semiquavers, crotchets and minims.  But there were many notes and signs there which neither the eccentricity of his school music teacher nor the concentricity of his private piano tutor of several years ago had intimated the existence of, and he wondered, while persisting in his investigations, whether he was really looking at music at all?  However, just as he was about to extend his gratuitous curiosity to line five of the treble staff, the door burst open and in came Mrs Tonks bearing a heavy-looking tea tray in her hands.  Startled out of his preoccupation with the score, Keating blanched at sight of her, then blushed when she smiled at him and apologized for her husband's delay.  "Unfortunately, he's had to go upstairs to wash and change after his gardening," she explained, placing the copiously stocked tea tray on a small coffee table to the right of the piano.  However, with nothing more to say on that subject, she pointed to a plate of assorted biscuits and informed him that he needn't feel obliged to eat any of them if he didn't want to, it simply being a custom of hers to serve biscuits with tea.

     Politely thanking her for her generosity, Keating reseated himself and, when she had withdrawn again after pouring him some Chinese tea, selected a pink-topped biscuit from the plate and devoured it in a couple of ravenous bites.  He was really quite pleased to savour the taste of a sweet biscuit, for he hadn't eaten one in about six years and had virtually forgotten such things still existed.  Washing it down with a mouthful of tea, he turned towards the garden, where the mid-afternoon sun, shining high in the right-hand pane of glass, momentarily caught his attention.  Its brightness quickly dazzled him, however, making him see sparks in the air as he averted his gaze, but it served to remind him of the sunbathers outside and, prompted by a lustful desire to spy on them afresh, he abandoned his armchair for the second time and, with cup in hand, tiptoed across to the French windows again.

     To his surprise he discovered that the sunbather in the pink bikini had risen from her horizontal position and was applying suntan lotion to her shins, massaging them slowly and steadily - first the left and then the right.  As she bent forwards Keating noted, with especial avidity, the curvaceous outlines of her ample breasts, snugly nestled in the cotton material supporting them.  They appeared to hang loosely and to swing gently backwards and forwards, like a pendulum, with her undulating movements.  He was almost hypnotized by them.  But what if she were suddenly to look up and catch him standing there in such an uncompromisingly voyeuristic position, teacup in hand and mouth hanging open like a dog in heat?  He felt a reluctant misgiving at the thought and would have abandoned his curiosity there and then, had not the subtle pleasure resulting from it induced him to stay.  Lifting the china teacup to his lips, he took a few absentminded sips of tea and continued to stare at the young woman, whose long fair hair, having adjusted itself to her movements, was now partly obscuring his view of her breasts.  But as though in compensation for this intrusion, the other young woman suddenly raised herself from her back and said something to her companion.  Almost immediately, she unclipped her pale-blue bikini top and exposed a pair of the most ravishing-looking breasts Keating had ever seen!  In his excitement the young correspondent almost spilt some tea down the front of his shirt.  For he had been about to take another sip of it when the unclipping took place and had quite forgotten to adjust the angle of his cup, which he held an inch or two in front of his quivering lips.  And now he was half-hoping that the informal striptease act wouldn't stop there; that she would remove the lower part of her bikini as well when, to his dismay, she turned over onto her stomach and lay with head turned towards the rose bushes, while her companion applied suntan lotion to her back.  He took another sip of tea and had time to note the seductive contours of her cotton-covered buttocks before a deep male voice, sounding a few yards behind him, made him start violently awake from his self-indulgent preoccupations.  Turning sharply round, he recognized the silver-haired figure of Howard Tonks advancing towards him with outstretched hand.  He almost dropped the teacup in his embarrassment, as the composer's gesture of introduction obliged him to transfer it to his left hand.

     "So sorry to have kept you waiting Mr ... er ... er ..."

     "Keating," he obliged, blushing to the roots of his hair.  Was that irony he saw in the man's eyes?  His right hand went limp as it encountered the firm grasp of the composer's predatory handshake.  He hardly dared look into his face.

     "The weather has been so fine recently that I simply had to water the flowers today," Mr Tonks informed him with an ingratiating smile.

     "Yes, I was admiring the roses when you came in here," explained Keating, who wondered whether this ruse might not serve to justify his presence at the French windows.

     The composer, having terminated his python-like handshake, directed his attention towards the garden and commented approvingly on the way his plants had thrived this year.  Not only the roses, he ventured to stress, but the dahlias and fuchsias as well.  And with an air of satisfaction he pointed to the respective beds in which the majority of those plants were reposing - the dahlias to the left of the garden and the fuchsias to the right.  "You like fuchsias?" he asked, briefly turning towards the figure in profile at his side.

     "Most beautiful," replied Keating, the consciousness of renewed embarrassment endowing his response with a degree of irrelevance which only served to embarrass him the more, insofar as the part of the garden the fuchsias were to be found in caused one to look in the general direction of the two young women to the right of the roses, and the sight of them somehow implicated one in an opinion not wholly confined to plants!  The tingling sensation beneath his skin was virtually at fever-pitch.  "Yes, I'm very fond of fuchsias," he added, automatically stressing the noun, as though to preclude any possibility of ambiguity being inferred from his statement.  And, resolutely, he kept his gaze riveted on the shrubs in question.

     "Such charming things," opined Mr Tonks, as his eyes came to rest on the sunbathers.  "Incidentally, in case you're wondering who those immodestly clad young females are, the one on the left is my daughter, Rebecca, and the one on the right is a friend of hers, a fellow-student from Music College by name of Margaret."

     "Oh, really?" exclaimed Keating, feigning surprise as best he could.  One would have thought that he hadn't noticed them until then.  His attention wavered and focused, wavered and focused again.  And the tingling sensation beneath his skin actually reached fever-pitch.

     "One can hardly blame them for taking advantage of the weather in such an unequivocal way," remarked the composer, smiling delicately.  "Though they looked sufficiently well-tanned when they arrived back from the South of France the other day.  It's a kind of addiction young people suffer from these days - call it tan-for-tan's sake.  How long it will damn-well last, God only knows!  But I shouldn't be particularly surprised if the next generation revert to the pallid complexions of their grandparents' and great-grandparents' generations, to the detriment, temporarily or otherwise, of such godforsaken places as St Tropez and the Costa del Sol.  Then any attractive young woman with a well-tanned body will be considered a pariah, to be shunned from decent society."

     Anthony Keating was wondering to what extent his red face was making him a pariah when the composer's next words, applying to the business at-hand, quickly cooled him down and restored it to something like its normal colour.  Instantaneously the spell of fuchsias and breasts, buttocks and roses was broken, as he returned to the sober context of a correspondent for 'Arts Monthly' who was there to interview the world-famous composer and conductor, Howard Tonks, on the important subject of his life and music.

     "I was quite impressed by an article your magazine did on Berio a couple of months ago," continued Mr Tonks, turning away from the French windows and slowly walking towards his Steinway.  "One felt that you had a genuine interest in the man."

     Keating feigned a smile of gratitude on behalf of Neil Wilder, the author of the article in question, while feeling less than grateful for this allusion to something he hadn't even bothered to read, let alone write.  There was certainly a genuine interest in the man as far as Wilder was concerned.  But as for himself ... he hastened to change the subject and, since Mr Tonks was standing in front of the piano, ventured to suggest he had noted a Berio-like quality about some of the music in the score there which, out of idle curiosity, he had taken the liberty to scrutinize,  shortly after entering the room.

     "How interesting!" exclaimed Mr Tonks, eyeing his score in a detached manner.  "In point of fact, this work is a little more complex than Berio."  He sat down on the velvet-cushioned piano stool and, positioning his fingers on the keyboard, informed Keating that he hadn't yet completed it, there being a number of bars in the last movement still to be composed.  "But listen to this," he went on, and immediately commenced playing the opening bars of his new piano sonata with obvious relish.

     At first Keating's reaction was one of dismay for having blundered with his reference to Berio, made on the spur-of-the-moment and without any genuine conviction.  But as Mr Tonks proceeded with his playing, the young correspondent's attitude became tinged with amusement until, by the time the composer had got to the middle of the first movement, he was obliged to grit his teeth together in an effort to prevent himself from exploding with laughter.  Really, this was becoming more than a trifle farcical; it was positively grotesque!  Where, one might wonder, was the slightest intimation of genuine music among all this confusion of notes, this outbreak of diabolical cacophony?  And why was it that a man who, only a short time ago, had given one the impression of being reasonably intelligent, should suddenly seem an imbecile - worse, a lunatic - as his fingers performed the most unbelievably strange antics on the keys?  And not only his fingers but, to judge by this performance, his elbows and arms as well!  For he had got to a section of the sonata which apparently necessitated the simultaneous application of elbows and fingers!  Keating almost bit his tongue.

     "Oh, damn it!" groaned an irate composer as the technical demands of the 'complex' work suddenly got the better of him.  "I've gone and messed it up again!" he complained, frowning down at his fingers with a look which might have suggested, to an impartial observer, that they alone were to blame for the mistake.

     Despite efforts to retain a respectful silence, Keating was unable to prevent himself from sniggering slightly.  Frankly, he would have been incapable of discerning a mistake at any stage of the performance simply because, to his mind, the whole damn thing was a mistake!  It had been a mistake from the very first note!

     "You see, I'm utilizing a technique here which requires the utmost concentration and is extremely difficult to perfect," revealed Mr Tonks, once he had recovered his aplomb to a degree which made it possible for him to articulate an explanation.  "The chord clusters in this bar are dependent upon the elbows of both arms as well as the fingers of both hands, so the successful co-ordination of each is of the utmost importance in achieving the desired effect.  Unfortunately, my left elbow struck a note adjacent to the ones specified in the score, while the middle finger of my right hand connected with a note reserved for the index finger," he confessed, leaning on the keys with elbows outstretched and fingers contorted in accordance with the exacting demands of the inner part of this particular chord cluster.  He raised himself a little from the keyboard and slumped forwards, causing the Steinway to emit a violent discord.  "There!" he cried, with an expression of unequivocal triumph on his bony face.  "That's how it should have been played.  After which one proceeds to another chord cluster formed in a similar way ..." He raised himself anew and slumped forwards to the dictates of the next cluster of chords, which somehow sounded even more violently discordant than the previous one.

     Keating put a hand over his mouth, but the mirth he was attempting to stifle somehow succeeded in relieving itself through his nostrils instead.  This being the case, he took a paper tissue from one of his front pockets and pretended to be blowing his nose.  And when Mr Tonks produced yet another violent discord, he availed himself of the cover it afforded him to give vent to his repressed amusement in the form of a series of low-key sniggers, which were successfully drowned by the noise coming from the piano.

     "Fortissimo!" bellowed the composer, as he repeated the third elbow-finger chord with triumphant glee and lent on the keys for the duration of a minim.  "Undoubtedly the most difficult bar of the entire movement!"

     Keating wiped his eyes with a corner of the small paper tissue and mumbled something about hay fever before inquiring, in a less than respectful tone-of-voice, why it was necessary to utilize both fingers and elbows simultaneously, since he had always been under the impression that, with piano music, fingers were quite sufficient.

     At this, Howard Tonks stared across at him with a decidedly reproachful air, an air which seemed to imply that it should be perfectly obvious why it was necessary, and then replied, with ill-disguised impatience, that it permitted one to explore further afield, to push back the boundaries of musical experience and embrace chord structures which lay beyond the range of the fingers alone.  "And besides," he added, on the heels of a brief reflective pause, "it makes life more interesting to have such unprecedented technical complexities to master.  That, amongst other things, is what contemporary serious music is all about."  Having said which, he turned back to the score and continued his performance from approximately where it had so discordantly left off.

     Once more a sequence of atonal motifs plunged Anthony Keating into making a renewed attempt to stifle the amusement that assailed him with the onslaught of Mr Tonks' piano music, as he plied the tissue afresh and blew his nose even more emphatically than before.  And this time it wasn't just the music which was to blame; it wasn't just the profusion of notes without melody or chords without harmony, of phrases abruptly terminated before they could develop into anything intelligible, or of cadences modulating to keys with which they had no connection whatsoever and from which they acquired scarcely any musical support - no, it wasn't just these and so many other aspects of the music which excited his disrespect.  It was also the blatant incongruity between the composer's serious and seemingly gratified approach to his work and the patently ludicrous nature of the work itself!  If one of the most garishly painted and bizarrely dressed circus clowns had sat down at this very piano and performed Beethoven's Pathétique sonata without a technical blemish, the incongruity between performance and performer wouldn't have been any greater.  In fact, it would probably have been somewhat less marked, because the music would have spoken for itself and in some degree redeemed the ludicrous appearance of its performer.  As, however, for this sonata, more pathetic by far than anything by Beethoven, the sedate and slightly pompous appearance of its performer in no way redeemed the ludicrous nature of the music but, on the contrary, served rather to intensify it, making it sound more ridiculous than it probably would have done had a clown been seated at the same piano.

     Yes, there was undeniably something grossly incongruous about the stark contrast between appearance and reality as manifested in the person and music of Mr Howard Tonks!  Could it really be true, as informative opinion had led Keating to believe, that this man was world famous; that his works were known and performed in every country which knew or cared anything about serious Western music?  And, if so, how did a man like him get to be world famous anyway?  Surely not on the strength of compositions like the one he was now playing?  The contrary thought seemed too absurd to entertain, though Keating had to admit to himself that he wasn't familiar with more than a handful of the composer's works altogether.

     He tried to recall the first occasion his ears had witnessed the disturbing vibrations of one such work - a couple of years ago, it might have been, when he was listening to a radio concert featuring avant-garde music, and had heard mention of a sextet for flute, cello, acoustic guitar, organ, french horn, and vibraphone by the 'Eminent British composer, Howard Tonks,' prior to being condemned to twenty-five minutes of the most unequivocal cacophony for small ensembles ever inflicted upon him.  How he had managed to persevere with it, throughout that time, he could neither remember nor understand.  But it seemed not improbable, in retrospect, that he must have been pretty hard-up for anything better to do on the evening in question!

     There was a sudden loud discord for two hands alone, followed by an even louder one for both elbows and hands together, which startled Keating out of his morose reflections and brought him back to the problematic present.  "There!" exclaimed Mr Tonks in apparent triumph, as the sustained notes of the final dissonance simultaneously died away.  "Did you like it?"

     "Quite thought-provoking," replied Keating, wiping his tear-drenched eyes with the remaining dry corner of his by-now sodden tissue.  But something about the composer's reaction to this comment suggested that his manner of answering the question hadn't been exactly what was expected, so he quickly added: "I'm sure it would grow on one with repeated listenings."

     "Indeed!" confirmed Mr Tonks, and, evidently mollified, he turned the page of his score to the second movement.  "Would you like to hear some more?"

     "Well, quite frankly, I don't think I've got the time to listen to that and interview you as well," replied Keating nervously.  "You see, I really ought to be asking you questions, in accordance with the agreed terms of our interview."  He hesitated, as though undecided what to say next, and, fearing that his negative response might not suffice to deter the composer from pressing ahead, he reached out his hand for the attaché case, extracted a slender battery-operated cassette recorder from its felt-lined interior and, pushing the tea tray to one side, placed the cassette recorder on the coffee table prior to turning it on.  Then, by way of introducing Mr Tonks to the interview via a question designed to flatter his ego, he asked the composer when and where he was likely to be giving a public recital of his new work once it had been completed, only to receive the curt reply: "I haven't a frigging clue."  Unfortunately, Howard Tonks' ego wasn't to be flattered by questions relating to such relatively trivial events as public recitals!  It was only in private that he took any pleasure in performing.  And, as though to confirm this fact, his hands began to respond to the score of the sonata's second movement.  "In point of fact, I haven't written all that many works for piano," he added, after a thoughtful pause which gave Keating time to take out his notebook and scan the first few questions again, "so I rarely give recitals.  I did give one at the Festival Hall last year, but that could only have been my ninth or tenth in all.  A piano concerto incidentally."

     "Yes, I know the one," lied Keating impulsively.  "Quite a success apparently."

     "The thing is, I'm not a concert pianist," revealed Mr Tonks, momentarily turning towards his young interviewer, "so I don't make a point of performing in public.  There was a time, however, when I had more interest in becoming a concert pianist than a composer - indeed, I was actually trained to become one.  But I subsequently lost interest in the idea and dedicated myself almost exclusively to composition instead.  I didn't want to end-up playing Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and other such hackneyed composers year after year in the same old germ-ridden halls to the same old stuck-up audiences with the same old prejudices against anything modern.  That would have proved too demoralizing by half!  Particularly as one would have been partly, if not largely, responsible for their prejudices in the first place!"  His fingers depressed the keys specified in the score, and another painful discord, painlessly registered by the cassette recorder, sent its belligerent waves crashing against Keating's sensitive eardrums.  "It's more pleasurable to play historical composers at one's leisure," he added, once the dissonance, having been dutifully dispatched, had begun to fade away.

     "Do you play such composers these days?" the young correspondent tentatively ventured, in an effort to maintain the dialogue.

     "Indeed I do, Mr Keating, and with considerable pleasure."  Having smiled which, Howard Tonks nodded, as though in confirmation of his feelings towards such composers, before asking: "Would you like to hear an example?"

     This offer struck Anthony Keating as well-worth accepting, since he had his doubts that the man who had just demonstrated what seemed to him a lunatic composition would also be capable of rendering a credible interpretation of one of the representative composers of, say, the previous century.  He smiled inwardly and bade the composer go ahead.

     Turning to a pile of scores stacked together in a slender cupboard to the left of the Steinway, Mr Tonks began to sort through it for something to play.  "Do you like Schumann?" he asked.  "Or would you prefer Chopin or Liszt?"

     "Schumann would do fine," responded Keating, addressing himself to a stooped back and plump backside.  He realized, with some dismay, that the intended interview, his real reason for being there, would now have to wait a while longer.

     "How about Kriesleriana, then?" suggested Mr Tonks, and, without giving Keating time to respond, he opened the score at page one of the first variation and, carefully placing it on the piano stand, reseated himself at the keyboard.  "A wonderfully brisk tempo to begin with!" he remarked in a cheerful tone, before his delicate-looking fingers set the requisite keys in fast motion, in deference to Schumann's markings.  And there suddenly, to Anthony Keating's manifest surprise, came an explosion of melody and harmony - indeed, a succession of melodies and harmonies that filled the air with their beauty and quickly transformed the room's atmosphere from sterile intellectuality into potent spirituality; from cacophonous hell into euphonious heaven.

     At first, he could hardly believe his ears; it seemed too incredible.  Yet, as the music progressed, he had no option but to acknowledge the fact that the seemingly imbecile composer of the previous performance had become, as though by magical transformation, the well-nigh brilliant performer of the composition he was now playing with such evident relish.  And as the quick first variation gave way to the long, slow second one, and that, in turn, was eclipsed by another quick one, the conviction that Howard Tonks was, after all, highly intelligent grew increasingly more difficult to suppress, and served, moreover, to throw the subject of contemporary composition into a new light - one whereby the cacophonous creations of such composers appeared not, invariably, as the work of charlatans, imbeciles, lunatics, or demons, but, more usually, as the work of dedicated, intelligent, refined men who were compelled, by the Zeitgeist, to turn their back on the past and produce music as different from Schumann's as his was from Bach's, and perhaps even more so, whether or not that meant progress or regress.

     Yes, there could be little doubt, on the strength of this performance, that Mr Tonks was a child of his time, a composer whose music, no matter how cacophonous or seemingly anarchic, was liable to make him appear less absurd, to the ears of his contemporaries, than any number of futile attempts one might make to reverse time and compose in the style of, say, Schumann or Mendelssohn or Weber.  The past was dead and what had died could not, as a rule, be resurrected.  Howard Tonks was definitely a composer - arguably one with a small 'c' compared with Prokofiev, an even smaller 'c' compared with Liszt, a still smaller 'c' compared with Beethoven, a tiny 'c' compared with Mozart, and a virtually minuscule 'c' compared with Bach.  Even so, he was still a composer of sorts, and that, after all, was better than nothing!

     A slender shadow falling across the carpet between the coffee table and the piano suddenly distracted Keating's attention from the music and, glancing towards the French windows, he beheld one of the young women from the garden staring fixedly at the composer's back.  The pale-blue bikini she was sporting belonged, he remembered, to the sunbather nearest the rose bushes, the one he had seen without her top on for an instant, and whom Mr Tonks had subsequently referred to as his daughter.  It was evident that the piano had attracted her attention in passing and induced her to spy on her father.  Perhaps she was unaccustomed to hearing him perform tonal music?  He didn't know.  But he was beginning to realize, as he sat perfectly still in the relatively inconspicuous position afforded him by the dark-blue armchair, that she was extremely attractive, and that her shapely figure possessed all the feminine attributes one could ever hope to encounter.  To spy on someone so attractive who was simultaneously, and for quite unrelated reasons, spying on someone else - what felicity!  Keating hardly dared breathe.

     All of a sudden young Rebecca Tonks cast a glance in his direction and, noticing him for the first time, began to blush.  Instinctively, Keating smiled across at her, since he didn't want to give her the wrong impression.  But the young beauty, caught psychologically off-guard, immediately turned away from the windows and disappeared from view, leaving his ingratiating smile hanging embarrassingly in the lurch.  He encountered, in her place, a weaker sun and, swiftly averting his gaze from it, became newly conscious of Mr Tonks' presence at the Steinway and of Schumann's music.  The notes of variation five penetrated his eardrums and entered his consciousness, and so, too, in due tonal course did those of the last three variations as well.  They were all so very pleasant.

     Having dispatched the final bar, the 'pianist' smiled triumphantly across at him as the silence reasserted itself.  He smiled his appreciation of the performance back at the 'pianist', thus eclipsing the composer.  But the latter had no intention of allowing himself to be eclipsed for long, and duly informed Keating that there were aspects of his playing which an Ashkenazy, a Richter, a Lill, or a Brendel would have been severely critical of, albeit, from a composer's point of view, he hadn't done too badly all the same.  Still, even if he had done far worse, even if he had been obliged to stop from time to time to correct a wrong note or had played each variation at the wrong tempo, Anthony Keating would have preferred that performance to the previous one, and he hastened to assure Mr Tonks that, so far as he was concerned, the playing had sounded virtually flawless.  In fact, almost divine.  But he was conscious, as he said this, that his appreciation hadn't been entirely confined to the music, since his opinion now embraced more experiences than the composer could possibly have suspected!  So he endeavoured to modify it, and thus save face in his host's eyes, with words to the effect that, given a little more practice, the Schumann would soon be up to recital standard.

     "Quite possibly," Mr Tonks agreed with some reluctance.  "But I don't think that I would want to run the risk of improving on it.  As I remarked earlier, I've other and more important commitments to consider."  And here he turned his attention upon the small portrait of Ives which hung from the wall directly in front of him.  "But to think that Schumann should have composed this great work in merely a few days, and at a time, moreover, when the refusal of old man Wieck to part with his daughter was causing him such acute unhappiness!  Quite remarkable, don't you think?"

     Keating blushed faintly and nodded.  Then, realizing the composer's attention was still focused on the portrait of Ives, he said "Yes," and blushed some more.

     There was a momentary silence in the room before a sharp click emerged from the vicinity of the coffee table.  To his considerable dismay the young correspondent realized that he had forgotten to press his cassette recorder off at the commencement of the Kriesleriana.  For the tape had run its course and come to an abrupt end.

     "So you've recorded my performance!" exclaimed Mr Tonks enthusiastically, as his gaze in turn fell upon the cassette recorder.  "I hadn't in the least realized."

     'Neither had I' was what Keating felt like replying, but, instead, he merely smiled and said: "I hope you don't mind."

     "Not at all!" Mr Tonks assured him.  "But it isn't something you'll be able to publish in your magazine, is it?"

     "Unfortunately not," conceded Keating, remembering anew the real reason for his presence there, and realizing, with mounting dismay, that the interview had still not got properly under way.  But perhaps they could now get on with it?  After all, there was another side to the tape and a couple of fresh tapes in his attaché case.  And he still had his notebook to hand.

     "Dear me," murmured Mr Tonks, glancing down at his watch.  "I do believe we've run out of time.  You see, I'm expected out to dinner this evening, and I have to wash, dress, pick up a couple of friends in my car, and then drive the remaining seven or eight miles to my host's house.  Since it's now half-past five, I really can't afford to lose any more valuable time."

     Keating's expectations sank drastically.  He hadn't anticipated any such prior engagement on Howard Tonks' part, and was wondering how he would explain to Webb when he arrived back at the offices of 'Arts Monthly', the following morning, without the interview, which had been scheduled to go into print in four day's time.  "But what about our arrangement?" he objected, almost desperately.  "It had been specifically arranged for today."

     "Well, I'm afraid it'll have to be postponed for a few days, Mr Keating," the composer replied in a mildly apologetic tone.  "Tomorrow and the following day I shall be in Birmingham at the request of the City Orchestral Society, supervising arrangements for the forthcoming performance of my Second Symphony.  But if Thursday afternoon would suit you, then I can arrange to be available from two o'clock."

     "Thursday afternoon?" Keating repeated on a distinctly dubious note.  But that would be too late!  The September edition of 'Arts Monthly' was due out the following week, on August 26th, and the final contributions were to be in by Tuesday.  A Thursday appointment meant the interview would have to go into the October edition instead.... Not that that was the end of the world.  Fortunately, there were plenty of other interviews or articles Webb could put into the magazine in its place, since he hoarded them up for months on-end sometimes.  All the same, it would certainly be inconvenient for him to have to change his plans at the last moment, particularly in view of the fact that he had been so determined to secure an interview with Howard Tonks in order to tie-up with the latter's sixtieth birthday on September 6th.  Not surprisingly, his professional reputation wouldn't be greatly enhanced by the public or other criticisms attendant upon its October publication instead!

     But why-the-devil had they left the interview so late anyway?  Surely it would have been more sensible ... but then, all of a sudden,   Keating recalled Webb telling him that Howard Tonks had been away when they first wanted the interview to take place, and had absolutely refused to have anything to do with the matter until he returned home.  Such, apparently, was what the housekeeper, a Mrs Marchbanks, had told Webb's sub-editor, Martin Osbourne, when he had optimistically rung the composer's number at the end of July.  And Mr Tonks wouldn't be back, she had informed him in a rather nervous tone-of-voice, until August 14th, which was a Friday.  So, all things considered, they hadn't done too badly to get him to accept the interview, as soon as he returned home, for the following Monday.  But even then the composer had shown himself oblivious to the urgency (one of Webb's favourite words) of the situation so far as 'Arts Monthly' were concerned.  With the unfortunate consequence that Keating now found himself in the unenviable position of having to accept the Thursday afternoon appointment against his will and without the prior permission of Nicholas Webb, who would probably have left the office by now.  Oh, if only Wilder hadn't gone down with the flu at such a critical time!  Being considerably more experienced in interviewing people of eccentric disposition, he would probably have gone out into the back garden as soon as he arrived and begun to conduct proceedings in front of the rose bushes.  And he certainly wouldn't have allowed himself to get dragged into listening to Howard Tonks' latest piano composition, or his performance of the Schumann piece either!  No, in all probability, he would have been heading back to the office with over an hour's steady and relevant conversation in his attaché case by 4.30pm.  And by the following afternoon it would have been transcribed to paper, edited, and made ready for the printers.  Well, they only had themselves to blame for putting someone as inexperienced as Anthony Keating on the job!  After all, it wasn't entirely his fault that things had not gone according to plan.  There was also Mr Tonks to blame.  And not only him but ...

     Packing his cassette recorder away in the large black attaché case which he personally loathed the sight of, and loathed even more at present, the young correspondent nervously shook hands with the composer, thanked him - God knows why! - for his co-operation, cast a farewell glance through the French windows at the now-deserted garden, and, turning on his heels, briskly strode out of the room.  There was muffled growling from behind a door to the left as he headed back along the hallway towards the front door, but, mercifully, no sign of its canine instigator!

     Standing outside on the pavement, he stared-up at the front windows and thought he could detect the outlines of a young woman's face watching him from behind a mesh-darkened window on the first floor.  But the face or apparition or whatever it was quickly drew back from its clandestine vantage-point, and he was left staring up at an empty window.  He smiled to himself in ironic response to this gentle comedy and, with attaché case firmly in hand, ambled off back along Ravensthorpe Drive.  Perhaps it was a good thing, after all, that the interview still had to take place?

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Nicholas Webb raised the pale-green china teacup to his parched lips and stoically sipped the hot black tea which he was in the habit of drinking at about 10.30 every morning.  Leaning back in his comfortably-padded swivel chair, with ankles crossed on top of his desk, he appeared to be staring fixedly at his expensive new shoes when, in reality, he was thinking about the new art exhibition which was due to open at the Merlin Gallery on Friday afternoon.  Why-on-earth, he wondered, couldn't it have opened a week earlier, so that he could have sent someone along to review it for the forthcoming edition of 'Arts Monthly'.  As things stood, all he could hope for was a largely retrospective review in the October edition, by which time the exhibition would be in its last week!  And, if rumour counted for anything, it was quite an important exhibition this time too - one whose controversial paintings were bound to attract considerable publicity.  Really, it was a wonder to him that he didn't revert to editing a weekly magazine sometimes, the number of times circumstances had obliged him to ignore or forego important events in the world of contemporary art.

     He sipped a little too stoically at his hot tea and burnt his tongue.  "Damn it!" he gasped, returning the offending cup to its saucer and placing them on a relatively uncluttered part of his desk.  Frowning, he wiped his mouth with the back of his right hand and then trained an aggrieved expression on the head of his senior sub-editor, who was bent over the manuscript of a collection of poems which some young scribbler had had the audacity to offer for publication.  From where he sat, all Webb could see of his colleague's face was part of a hooked nose protruding from beneath a thatch of curly-brown hair.  Alas, the nose remained - and in the nature of such things could only remain - impervious to his negative expression.  But the spectacle nonetheless gave him the analogy of some kind of inverted bird's nest with a chick hanging out of it - an analogy which partly served to dispel his irritation and return him to a less-aggrieved frame of mind.  A titter of laughter from the 'inverted bird's nest' prompted him to snigger back.  "I thought they'd amuse you," he averred, with ironic detachment.  "Nothing like a fledgling surrealist for arousing one's sense of humour, is there?"

     The 'inverted bird's nest' momentarily became the smiling face of Martin Osbourne.  "Possibly not," he admitted, before turning back into Webb's analogical chimera again.  And, reading aloud from the poem in his hand, he quoted three of the lines which he found particularly amusing.

     "Yes, the 'persistent malaise of strawberry clits' makes the mind boggle rather, doesn't it?" commented Webb, chuckling gently.  He crossed his fingers behind his head and stared meditatively at the opposite wall.  "What about the 'diaphanous horizon on the legs of bloated peas'?" he asked, quoting from memory.  "Can you make any sense of that?"

     "Not the slightest!" came the inevitable reply from Martin Osbourne, after a short pause.  "But, then again, I don't think one is supposed to make any sense of it."  And, returning the manuscript to Nicholas Webb's desk, the sub-editor inquired of his superior whether he was intending to publish any of it in the forthcoming edition of their magazine.

     "Certainly not!" replied Webb sternly, casting his colleague an incredulous look.  "I can't afford to lose any more subscriptions.  As soon as you publish one imbecile, there are a million others who imagine they've just as much entitlement to be published, too.  And from there it's simply a matter of time before you end-up in the workhouse."

     "The unemployment exchange these days," corrected Osbourne humorously and with a dash of anachronistic sentimentality.  "Our century is really quite the reverse of the previous one.  Before the rise of the proletariat, it was a punishment to be made to work.  Now, on the contrary, not having any work ..."

     "Yes, well, whatever the case," Webb rejoined with an air of impatience, "we can't afford to publish trash like that ..." he frowned down at the manuscript on the right-hand corner of his desk ... "and have intelligent, industrious, self-respecting citizens poisoning their minds with the 'tears of age on rumps of sin', or whatever the damn nonsense was!  They'd think we're running a kindergarten here."

     "We sometimes are," said Osbourne facetiously.  "Only a kindergarten in which the youngest members are the only real adults," he added, more for his own benefit than Nicholas Webb's.

     There was a short, sharp buzz from the internal telephone.  Still frowning, Webb grabbed the receiver and heard the nervous voice of young Anthony Keating requesting to see him.  "Unfortunately I'm in the middle of an important meeting at present," he lyingly pretended.  "But you can do so in about half an hour.  By the way, how did that interview with Mr Tonks go yesterday?"

     "Er, not too badly," replied the strangled voice on the other end of the line.  "In fact, that's what I wanted to see you about actually."

     "Indeed?"  Nicholas Webb raised his furrowed brows in feigned surprise.  It was a long-standing habit of his to indulge in amateur theatricals when speaking to junior members of staff, and this habit persisted even when he was on the telephone and the person to whom he was speaking had no chance of seeing him act.  But he would be accessible in thirty minutes and, with a curt "Alright?", he slammed the receiver down and returned to the 'important meeting'.

     "Not too serious, I trust?" Osbourne ventured to speculate, as an expression of annoyance suddenly suffused his senior colleague's stern face.

     "Probably not," the latter responded, picking up his by-now lukewarm cup of black tea and drinking what remained of it down in one thirsty gulp.  "With young Keating, however, one can never take anything for granted.  As long as he didn't insult Tonks and get himself thrown out of his bloody house, I needn't worry too much.... You can't imagine what a devil-of-a-job I had finding anyone to accept that assignment yesterday!  What with Wilder catching a cold or something at the last moment, probably on purpose."

     "Perhaps it was just as well that I happened to be out of town at the time," remarked Osbourne, who chuckled drily.  "Otherwise you might have picked on me instead."

     "As it happened, I was almost contemplating a return to the old days and conducting the bloody interview myself!" Webb exclaimed in a tone of voice not far short of desperation.  "Fortunately for me, however, young Keating didn't have all that much on his plate, so I kind of threw him in at the deep-end.  Naturally, he wasn't particularly keen on the idea.  He had his misgivings about interviewing someone whom he knew next-to-nothing about and whose music, apparently, doesn't appeal to him.  But I got round him in the end!  After all, his is not to reason why, his is but to do or die!"

     "Not quite," objected the sub-editor good-humouredly.  "His is but to do or lie.  The necessity of death shouldn't enter into it these days."

     "Don't be too sure about that!" countered the editor, guffawing loudly.  "But seriously, one has to remember that Keating is a relatively inexperienced interviewer.  It takes a lot of practice to make a Neil Wilder, you know."

     Returning the empty cup to its saucer, Nicholas James Webb got up from his chair and strolled over to the single window his office possessed.  At forty-two he was a tall, well-built man of resolute character and, apart from the few streaks of grey which were slowly tarnishing his black hair, relatively youthful appearance.  Coming from what would be considered a well-educated background, he had served under Sir Cecil Thomas as sub-editor of the 'Literary Review'  before going on, following the retirement of his knowledgeable predecessor, to become its editor.  It was during his five-year spell of editorship of this prestigious monthly that another periodical, the 'Music World', ran into serious financial difficulties and was managed by a succession of editors who only succeeded in making matters worse.  The last of these was Martin Osbourne, an acquaintance of Webb's from undergraduate days, who implored the latter, in conjunction with his directors, to offer capital to save the periodical from liquidation.  At first, the leading lights of the 'Literary Review' would have nothing to do with the idea.  But, before long, the prospect of taking over the 'Music World' altogether and amalgamating it with their own periodical began to appeal to them, since it had a more impressive building and, being in the vicinity of London's West End, was better situated.  So the eventual outcome of the music magazine's financial plight was the establishment of 'Arts Monthly', for which, once art and sculpture had been added to its brief, there had been a steady demand, much to the surprise and delight of everyone concerned.

     This synthesizing process had taken place a few years previously and, since then, Nicholas Webb had retained the responsibilities of editor with even greater success than before.  And in tandem with Andrew Hunt, a former sub-editor with the 'Literary Review', Osbourne had proved his worth as a competent assistant.  Indeed, so much so that Webb had evolved a private joke having its basis in a certain incredulity for the fact that some fool had previously denied Osbourne his rightful place in life by appointing him editor instead of keeping him sub-editor, where he evidently belonged!  At the moment, however, the thirty-nine-year-old assistant in question was proving his competence in nothing more than sitting still in his chair whilst he drank the remains of a mild cup of sugared tea and, in-between whiles, puffed complacently on a slender cigar.

     Standing in front of the large window that gave-on to a quite wide expanse of Bedlam Square, Nicholas Webb had caught sight of a young woman passing on foot below and, with his usual enthusiasm for the enticing curvatures of seductive females, was now following her along the pavement with lascivious gaze.  The graceful swaying of her flounced knee-length skirt to the gentle rhythms of her gait were almost hypnotizing him, as he followed the progress of her exquisitely-shaped calf muscles along to that point in the near distance where the physical limitations of the window frame inevitably got in the way, and one was accordingly obliged to turn one's attention back to someone within easier range.  As luck would have it, on this occasion, the only person to whom one could turn one's attention back was a bowler-hatted gentleman in purposeful stride and so, with an air of disappointment, he directed it across at the greenery in the middle of the square instead.  Together with the expanse of sky the view permitted, this provided him with the next best thing to watching attractive young women passing below, and constituted, moreover, a significant part of his allegiance to the philosophy of Elementalism, to which he had been moderately converted by various of the more tragic writings of John Cowper Powys.  By regularly 'plunging into', in Powys' phrase, whatever vegetation could be found amidst so much glass, steel, concrete, and other artificial materials, he believed he was gathering a sort of quasi-occult strength from it which would endow him with a psycho-physical advantage over those less enlightened than himself.  The buildings of the square became, at such plunging moments, evil powers from which one sought deliverance in the trees.  One's salvation from urban life was guaranteed not by any otherworldly allegiance or aspiration, but by a daily fidelity to Nature, to those benign manifestations of Nature, more specifically, which sprouted from the soil in the middle of the square.

     And so it was with the consciousness of one who realizes he is taking part in some esoteric and essentially anti-existential rite that Nicholas Webb now stared across at a couple of old oak trees standing close together, and reverently acknowledged the powers of good.  How strong they appeared!  And how eternal when contrasted with the stylistic transience of the surrounding architecture which, despite an appearance of solidity, was destined to perish with the birth of new styles, to grow progressively more antiquated with the passing of time, until there was no longer any place for it in a rapidly changing world and it was accordingly demolished without a trace of regret!  But the oak trees belonged not to time and society but to Nature and Eternity.  They had existed as a species for thousands of years and, providing man didn't hack them all down in the name of some hypothetical future progress, some as yet unrealized technological millennium, they would doubtless continue to exist in the recognizable form of their species for thousands of years to come.  And what applied to the oaks applied no less, in Webb's deferential estimation, to the other representatives of almighty Nature which could also be seen and plunged into from his office window, and which were just as important a source of psycho-physical strength to their humble devotee.

     Yet, if the truth were known, Webb wasn't quite the humble devotee, these days, that he had once imagined himself to be.  For he was obliged to admit that one could gather more strength from the larger and more powerful forces of good than from the smaller and less powerful ones - albeit there was always the possibility, he pedantically reflected, that a sufficient number of smaller ones plunged into together might, between them, add-up to something just as psychically stimulating and invigorating as one or two of the larger ones plunged into separately, in noble isolation from the rest.  Yes, that was always possible, he thought.  But, for the time being, it was enough to plunge into the couple of large trees he had singled out from their lesser fellows, and to do so, moreover, with all the determination of a famished suckling bent on drawing sustenance from its mother's copious breasts.  For there were so many yards between himself and the garden that one just had to pick on the largest representatives of almighty Nature if one hoped to draw anything substantially elemental from it, to establish a subtle reciprocity of psychic emanations between their deeper selves, bearing in mind that such a reciprocity also had the intervening window to contend with - an obstacle which could only weaken it and thereby reduce its therapeutic effect.  Such, at any rate, was how the moderate convert to Elementalism had first reasoned, when he began to adopt the habit of exploiting the public garden in the interests of his psycho-physical well-being, several months before.  True, he had brought a few of his own theories to bear on those of John Cowper Powys in the course of elemental time, and thus created a slight variation or two on the original pantheistic theme.  But, by and large, the great man's elemental theology was still the cornerstone of his own theological edifice, and the great man himself still the quasi-druidic high priest, as it were, of his elemental devotions.  Variations on the original theme, he mused, were virtually inevitable!

     A pretty nurse passing along the pavement below suddenly distracted him from his psychic tête-à-tête with the tallest of the old oaks and brought him back to the more sentient world of human beings.  A vague excitement in the loins accompanied the explicit excitement in his mind as, with freshly charged vision, he proudly followed the graceful progress of her dark-stockinged legs for a number of exciting yards.  How they delighted one!  And how, when he embraced a more comprehensive perspective of her person, she reminded him of that young nurse he had seduced the previous year!  The same dark hair, the same slender build, the same shapely calf muscles ... and what an extraordinary creature!  One woman with her nurse's uniform on, a completely different one with it off.  And a virgin, to boot!  At least she had been when he accosted her in the square, one summer's evening, and summarily invited her to have dinner with him.  A hapless virgin, if ever there was one.  Quite desperate for male company.  But completely transformed once she'd got it, completely the slave of the master she elected to make him!  Yes, indeed!  An attractive young nurse every once in a while wasn't at all a bad idea, providing one didn't get carried away by it.  After all, he wasn't quite the democratic Don Juan, these days, that he had aspired to being in his undergraduate days, some two decades ago.  The dark-stockinged legs disappeared from view at the far side of the window.  He couldn't crane his neck around any farther.

     "Was there anything for me this morning?" Osbourne's suave voice was heard to inquire out of the blue.

     "Only a couple of things," came the reply in a high-pitched female voice.

     Startled out of his sexist preoccupations at the window, Webb swiftly turned round, to encounter the slender fair-haired figure of his secretary standing in front of his desk with a pile of letters in her hands.  He almost blushed with the luxury of undergraduate shame.

     "You don't appear to have any room for these on your desk," she remarked, referring to the typed but unsigned letters to which the editor was obliged to put his signature in due course.

     He frowned responsively and, snatching them from her, plumped them down on top of a London street-atlas.  Then, catching sight of the poetry manuscript again, he smiled faintly and picked it up.  There were, in all, some sixty large pages of quasi-surrealistic hogwash held together by a couple of treasury tags - hogwash which he had been expected to wade through.  And not only in his capacity as editor but, more importantly in the view of its perpetrator, as 'Champion of the arts'!  Yes, it was only, apparently, as something more than an editor, a mere bureaucratic cogwheel, that he could be expected to do adequate justice to the poet by publishing his contributions in the name of the almighty 'champion' he was elected to be!

     Well, even if by some special ordinance he was such a man, he still had the right to differentiate between hogwash and poetry and to reject the former in his hard-pressed endeavour to champion the latter!  If he had his own way, if he could really be the 'champion' such people seemingly required, he would do better than simply to reject the prosy hogwash.  He would tear it up into tiny pieces, throw the pieces into the largest metal wastepaper bin he could lay hands on, and set fire to them with the aid of some liquid paraffin.  And he would do so, moreover, without the slightest qualm or moral doubt as to the validity of his actions.  He would proceed, in short, with all the fanatical conviction and unflappable self-righteousness of one who habitually burns witches at the stake!  Unfortunately for the arts, however, his powers were limited.  He could only champion them to the extent of rejecting the hogwash.  Admittedly, that was better than nothing, since it enabled him to avenge himself on the philistines and sham artists and/or anti-artists to some extent, though not, alas, to the extent he would have preferred!  The complete destruction of the hogwash would at least have compensated him for the inconvenience of having had to wade through it all in the first place!  Better, it would have encouraged him to do so.  For he had now got to the point where, cognizant of the limitations imposed upon his championship, he would only partly and, as it were, superficially wade through it.  The rest he would leave unread.

     Turning to the fifth poem of the manuscript, his smile deepened somewhat.  He quoted a line which had conspicuously come to his attention earlier and, still smiling, inquired of his secretary, who probably knew as much about poetry as a horse about philosophy, whether she could enlighten them to any extent.

     "The 'persistent malaise of strawberry clits'?" Judith Pegg repeated doubtfully, an emotional upheaval instantaneously transforming her bureaucratically impassive expression into one of baffled incredulity.  And, just as instantaneously, her emotions changed course and she began to laugh.  "It sounds rather 'risqué' to me," she confessed, as soon as her amusement would allow her to speak again.

     "Risqué?" queried the editor, casting an ironically conspiratorial glance in Osbourne's deferential direction.  "Yes, I suppose one could say that, depending what sort of a mind one has!"  He chuckled both secretary and sub-editor into chuckling along with him for a moment.

     "I trust I needn't enlighten you any further," said Mrs Pegg from a strawberry-coloured face which momentarily accentuated her bright-blue eyes.  At thirty-four, she was still quite an attractive woman, but one from whom neither man present had been able to profit in other than purely professional terms in over two years.  For, apart from a night spent in the editor's bed shortly after she joined the firm, and a couple of nights spent in the sub-editor's bed shortly after the editor had joined with her, she had resolutely kept her body for her husband and given herself almost exclusively to him - the only notable interruption of her conjugal fidelity having occurred whilst a dashing correspondent by name of Glen Walters was working at the office.  But he had resigned and gone abroad in search of greater temptations over six months ago, leaving her sadly to her marital probity.

     "No, I don't think we'll be requiring any further enlightenment on that line," murmured a disdainfully smiling Nicholas Webb.  "Though you might be able to throw some light on the 'tears of age on rumps of sin'?"  He focused a mildly inquisitorial gaze on his blond secretary, which she duly acknowledged with an appropriately ironic chuckle.

     "I don't think I could possibly permit myself to comment on that!" she protested in a tone of mock reproach.  "For it doesn't even begin to make sense to me.  But it has a faintly Baudelairean ring to it, don't you think?"

     "More a tinkle than a ring," Osbourne chimed-in smilingly.  "But, according to our contributor, it's supposed to be closer to André Breton."

     "I'm afraid I haven't read him," confessed Mrs Pegg nonchalantly.  "So you'll just have to make do with Baudelaire."  She smiled benignly at the sub-editor and, taking the manuscript held out to her by an almost-imploring Nicholas Webb, abruptly turned on her high-heeled feet and headed towards the door.  The little cross-shaped pencil mark on the top left-hand corner of its first page indicated quite unequivocally what was expected of her.  The rejection letters were never, except in rather exceptional cases, dictated on the spot.  They were pre-printed in an appropriately terse, noncommittal, polite format, and distributed accordingly.  No unnecessary time-wasting!  The execution was quick, clean, simple, and, above all, impersonal.  'Impersonality', Webb had often asserted, 'is the best mode of concealing one's identity', and, besides, it provided him with a further means of avenging himself on the philistines!

     Flicking the burnt-out remains of his cigar into the swan-shaped ashtray which invariably stood, as though on-guard, to the front of Webb's mahogany desk, Martin Osbourne mumbled something about having printers' bills to attend to and, with a see-you nod of his head, followed Mrs Pegg out through the open door.

     "Alone at last!" sighed Webb, as soon as the door had closed again.  "Free to carry on with my work!"  Saying which, he sat down and, with something approaching pleasure, proceeded to apply his signature to the pile of letters his secretary had just brought him.  How many times circumstances had obliged him to put signature to paper over the years!  It was a wonder to him that he hadn't availed himself of some kind of mechanical means of doing it by now; though where such means could be obtained he had never quite discovered, nor, so far as he knew, had anyone else.  Nevertheless he hadn't always found it inconvenient to sign letters.  There were times, indeed, when it enabled one to relax one's brain or think of other, more interesting matters.  Even times when it enabled one to satisfy a kind of egotistical gluttony for advertising one's name far-and-wide, making it more important-looking with each successive batch of letters.  And on the relatively rare occasions when one happened to be writing to someone who entertained an inflated opinion of one's professional status, who took one for a famous poet or essayist or something, it wasn't altogether far removed from signing an autograph, being a sort of autograph-substitute or equivalent.

     He had got to the 'W' of the eighth signature when the external phone rang.  Completing the remaining letters of his surname with a flourish, he picked up the receiver and, with moderately suave intonation, advertised his name afresh.  A female voice on the other end of the line responded to it with reassuring familiarity.  "Oh, hello darling!" Webb ejaculated, dropping his pen.  "I'd almost forgotten you were going to ring me.  How did the dental appointment go, by the way?"

     "Just a tiny filling on a lower-left molar, so nothing to worry about," replied the sensuous voice of Deborah Wilkes.  "I got the impression that the dentist was disappointed he couldn't do anything else."

     "Why, is he hard-up or something?" suggested Webb facetiously.

     "Well, you know ..." She sent a burst of meaningful laughter reverberating along the line.  Then, swiftly returning to her usual self, she casually inquired of him whether he was still intending to take her out to dinner that evening.

     "Naturally," Webb confirmed.  "Six o'clock sharp!  But be ready, because I don't want to miss the beginning of the concert afterwards.  You know how much I hate turning-up during the performance."

     "Of course, Nicky."  This reassuring statement was followed by a short pause while Deborah pondered something in her mind a moment.  "Would you like me to dress in any specific clothes this evening?" she at length asked, mindful of her lover's sartorial preferences, which had lately developed into a veritable fetishistic convention between them.

     "Er, I think I'll leave that decision entirely with you for once," replied Webb evasively.  "As long as it's something ... you know, kind of sexy.  Anyway, you should know my tastes pretty well by now."

     "Oh I do, I do," his girlfriend admitted.  "Who knows them better?  All the same, you sometimes change your mind at the last moment, don't you?"

     Nicholas Webb fidgeted uneasily in his chair at the critical change of tone in Deborah's voice.  "Well, as long as you wear your new black seamless stockings, pink suspenders, and matching ..."

     The office door suddenly burst open and in walked young Anthony Keating with a determined look on his serious face.  The half-hour postponement of his meeting with the editor had run its trying course, and he was now itching to confess what he had to say as quickly as possible.  He shut the door and headed with ominously purposeful stride towards Webb's desk.

     "Wouldn't you prefer me to wear the pale-blue undies this evening?" protested the female voice on the other end of the line.  "After all, you saw the pink ones on Sunday, didn't you?"

     "Er, suit yourself!" the editor curtly responded, as the intrusive presence of the junior correspondent loomed menacingly above him.  "Just do what you think best."  Waves of blood seemed to be rushing to his face and unbalancing his head.

     "You see, the pink undies are in the wash and they're the only ones I've got in that colour at present, Nicky," his girlfriend explained.  "But the pale-blues ones ..."

     "Yes, alright, alright!" Webb assured her.  "If that's the way it is!"  He was virtually shouting.

     "And they go so well with my dark-blue nylon stockings, don't they?" she purred.

     "Perfectly!" he well-nigh rasped.  "Now if you'll excuse me, I have some urgent business to attend to this morning.  Thanks for calling."  He slammed the receiver down and sighed in manifest exasperation.  His face was almost as dark as a beetroot.  This wasn't the first time someone had intruded upon his privacy at an inopportune moment.  And, to judge by the way Miss Wilkes kept pestering him, it probably wouldn't be the last!  He frowned sullenly and motioned Keating to take a seat.  It was unlikely that the young correspondent had overheard more than the outgoing part of the conversation but, even so, a word or two about advertising costs probably wouldn't be inappropriate ... just in case.  "Now then," he added, after the advertising industry had been summarily dismissed as extortionate, "you had something appertaining to yesterday's assignment on your mind, if I remember correctly."

     "Yes, I'm afraid so," admitted Keating who, with as much articulation as could be mustered, under the difficult circumstances, now proceeded to produce a slightly revised version of what had actually happened.  The composer, for all his cheerful spirits, had been suffering from a sore throat which, alas, had prevented him from giving the interview.  But to compensate the magazine for such inconvenience as this was bound to cause, he had played some delightful piano music - here Keating tactfully produced the Schumann tape - and had generously agreed to grant the interview at a later date.  Unfortunately, circumstances compelled him to go to Birmingham for a couple of days, so, assuming he was well enough on his return, it couldn't be granted before Thursday.  Which of course meant ...

     "Yes, I get the picture," said a still-frowning Webb, who emitted another sigh, this time more heartfelt.  "Too late for the September edition!"  He shook his head and mumbled something vaguely obscene under his breath about bloody composers.  "Is his throat likely to be better by Thursday?" he asked without thinking.

     "Assuming we can take his word, it ought to be," replied Keating, who naturally felt somewhat uncomfortable.

     "If we could postpone the printing for a week, all would be well," Webb declared.  "Unfortunately, however, the printers have other clients besides us and work to a pretty tight schedule.  Printing us later would mean printing someone else earlier, later, or not at all, which would almost certainly be out of the question.  So we shall just have to settle for what we can get and publish the interview in the October edition instead.  No doubt, we shall look pretty foolish if our chief competitors come-up with something substantial to commemorate Howard Tonks' sixtieth birthday in September.  He didn't mention anything about other interviews, by any chance?"

     "Not a word," Keating responded with alacrity, telling the truth for once. "Although if he was on holiday earlier this month, it would be highly unlikely that anyone else could have got to him before us, surely?"

     "Don't be too sure!" retorted the experienced voice of the editor.  "I've heard of people who were interviewed as long as six bloody months before their birthday or the anniversary of a particularly important professional occasion in their life.  Some editors won't take any chances, you know.  They gather their nuts well in advance and store them up for future use."  At which point he broke into a smile for the first time since Keating had entered the office - the smile of a crafty squirrel.  "But we're not entirely lacking in that respect, Anthony," he hastened to assure his young employee.  "There's a short essay on the composer written by your colleague, Neil Wilder, some weeks ago which will serve as a fill-in, as well as a longish interview with the painter, Miles Coverdale.  So, in a sense, your next visit to Howard Tonks' house isn't strictly necessary.  But since the public expects an interview from us once a month, and since the composer agreed to grant us one, you had better go back there and gather what information you can.  I take it you're still prepared to do that, in the absence of Wilder?"

     Keating impulsively nodded his head.  He was more than prepared; he was positively itching to go back there and peer out at the garden again!

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

1.   Who were the major musical influences of your youth?

2.   When did you first begin to compose?

3.   Which contemporary composers do you most admire?

4.   Which, if any, contemporary composers do you dislike, and why?

5.   Which of your own compositions do you particularly like, and why?

6.   Do you compose for particular musicians and, if so, who?

7.   Does composition come easily to you, or is it generally a struggle?

8.   Can you compose in your head, or do you require the aid of a piano?

9.   Do you have a specific time-of-day when you prefer to compose and, if so, when?

10.  How many compositions have you thus far composed?

 

Anthony Keating's head was fairly bulging with these and other such questions as he pushed open Mr Tonks' front gate for the second time that week and, gently closing it behind him, stood for a moment staring up at the large detached property.  Had he expected to catch someone spying on him from one of its upstairs windows?  The question subliminally presented itself to his vain imagination and was hastily dismissed.  There were quite enough questions in his head already, and the more he thought about them the more ridiculous and superfluous they seemed to become.  If he persisted in thinking much longer he wouldn't be able to conduct an interview at all.  He would answer all the damn questions himself in order not to have to drag them up again.  Or, better still, he would drop them through the composer's letterbox in the form of a questionnaire, and leave him to answer them in ink.  There were times, to be sure, when it was wiser to do that than to appear in person.  But such a procedure wasn't, alas, the general policy of 'Arts Monthly'!

     He strode up the garden path, climbed the five steps which culminated in the front entrance and, transferring his customary attaché case to his left hand, gently pressed the doorbell.  There was a gruff response from Ludwig as before, but this time it came from deeper inside the house, from one of the downstairs back rooms, and was correspondingly quieter.  As human steps approached the door, the house dog's barking grew no louder but remained mercifully confined to the same distant level.  A little of Keating's previous apprehension returned as the lock was turned, but then, suddenly, it gave way to an extremely pleasant surprise.  For there, standing right in front of him, was the composer's daughter, Rebecca!

     "Mr Keating?" she smilingly ventured, before he could introduce himself.

     "Why, yes!" he admitted, feeling slightly flattered to be expected and perhaps even recognized by this attractive young female.  "Sorry to be a bit late, but my taxi was held-up in the traffic."

     Rebecca smiled understandingly.  "Actually, I should be apologizing to you," she remarked, whilst inviting him into the hall.  "I take it my father told you on Monday about his trip to Birmingham?"

     "He did."

     "Well, he rang home this morning to say that he was being detained there an extra day and wouldn't be able to take part in your interview as arranged," said Rebecca, frowning slightly.  "However, he suggested that, if it's convenient for you, you return here tomorrow at the same time.  Unfortunately, a Friday afternoon appointment is now the best he can do."

     Keating could scarcely believe his ears, though the sinking feeling in his guts was all too real.  Really, this was the last thing he had expected!  "Oh dear," he sighed.  "So I've come all the way up here for nothing!"

     There then ensued an uncomfortable silence, which seemed to dovetail all his existential nightmares into one tight focus.

     "Would you like a tea or something?" asked Rebecca, feeling something like genuine sympathy for him.  "Seeing how grey, wet, and windy it is today, you deserve some kind of refreshment for your trouble."

     "Well, if it's no real inconvenience to you, I could certainly use some tea right now," he averred, his throat dry and sore.

     "Splendid!"  Rebecca closed the front door behind him and then led the way along the hallway into the music room at the rear of the house.  "If you'd like to wait in here a moment," she murmured, as he crossed the threshold and encountered depressingly familiar surroundings, "I'll have it ready in a jiffy."

     He stood his attaché case on the floor beside the coffee table and, with a sigh of despair, slumped down in the velvet-cushioned armchair which had served him on Monday afternoon.  What a bloody nuisance this damn composer was proving to be!  If only Mr Tonks had telephoned the offices of 'Arts Monthly' and thereby saved him the trouble of coming all the way up to Hampstead for nothing!  What a stupid waste of time!  And what a bore it would be, having to repeat the journey tomorrow!  He frowned bitterly and swore at the composer beneath his breath.  How could he return on the Friday?  He had been given another assignment in the meantime.  Really, this sort of thing was more than a trifle annoying, it was downright maddening!

     He glanced uneasily round the room.  In front of him the large portrait of Bartók appeared even more disagreeable than the first time he had set eyes on it, as also, for similar reasons, did the smaller ones of Ives and Varèse to his right.  Behind him, Stravinsky was doubtless staring down at the crown of his head with an equally disagreeable face!

     Getting up from his chair, as though to escape their gazes, he ambled over to the French windows and peered out through their misty glass.  It was indeed a miserable day, not raining at the moment, but still very damp and, for this time of year, extremely windy.  The rain clouds of the morning had given way to an unending sheet of dark cloud which completely obliterated the sky, and in the garden the roses, dahlias, and fuchsias looked distinctly out-of-place as the prevailing wind swept over and around them, severely ruffling their habitual equanimity.  One might have supposed it was the middle of November, so different was the scene from the one which had charmed his eyes a few days ago, when the sun had shone down from a flawless sky onto everything below, including the supple bodies of the two young women in eye-catching bikinis.  Yet, mysteriously, one of those very same sunbathers was now fetching him a cup of tea.  And, as though the clouds of discontent created by the composer's absence were somehow being dispersed by this thought, the sunshine of his gratitude for her presence suddenly pervaded his soul with restoring warmth, and he began to smile.  Yes, at least there was something for which to be grateful!

     A couple of minutes later the door was nudged open and Rebecca Tonks entered the room bearing the same tea-tray which her mother had brought him on Monday. "Voilà!" she exclaimed, placing it on the small coffee table in front of him, and, as she bent forwards to pour the tea, he acquired a brief but engaging view of her shapely breasts, compliments of the décolleté vest she was wearing.  "I didn't want to drag you into the kitchen because our dog is there and he would only bark unnecessarily and make a general nuisance of himself, so I hope you don't mind drinking it here."

     "Not at all," Keating hastened to assure her.  "I find this a most delightful room."  It wasn't exactly the truth, but he smiled gratefully as he accepted some milk from her and helped himself to the tea she had just poured him.  Was there something about her that was different from when he first arrived?  He could almost swear she had applied a little additional eye-shadow and sprayed or brushed her long hair.  And the perfume?  He couldn't recall having smelt anything so sweet whilst he stood in front of her in the entrance hall.  But perhaps the fact of the open door or the state of his nerves had prevented him from noticing?  He shrugged mental shoulders and sipped his tea.  "I hope you weren't offended by my curiosity the other day," he at length remarked, fearing that if he didn't say something to start a conversation she would think he didn't like her and preferred to be left alone.  "After all, it's not every day that one is blessed by the sight of such an attractive bikini-clad young person peering-in through the windows."  He could see plainly enough how this statement embarrassed her in its sudden frankness.

     "I wasn't aware that you were looking at me to begin with," she confessed, with an involuntary giggle.  "I was too intent on watching my father at the piano.  But you did give me rather a surprise, I must say!  I hadn't suspected there was anyone else in the room."  She turned her gaze in the general direction of the French windows, as though to put herself in his position.

     "Well, as long as I didn't give you a particularly unpleasant surprise I needn't be too apologetic," said Keating.  "You gave me a pleasant surprise anyway," he boldly added.

     With compliments like that, it wasn't long before he had seduced her into talking about herself, her friends, interests, and, above all, her father.  She knelt on the carpet in front of him whilst he sipped his way through two cups of tea and nibbled at the occasional sweet biscuit, the provision of which was a tendency she had apparently inherited from her mother.

     "Yes, he's quite a good pianist really," she agreed, after Keating had given her an encouraging opinion of her father's impromptu performance.  "But he isn't a particularly keen one, in view of the fact that he's far too wrapped-up in his compositions to have much time or inclination to spare on purely instrumental work.  That's why I could scarcely believe my ears when I heard him playing Schumann the other day.  He hadn't done that for ages.  If he does play the works of other composers, they're mostly twentieth-century ones - people to whom he can relate."

     "Like Berio?" suggested Keating thoughtfully.

     "Not so much him as composers like Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, and Honegger, together with such people as you see advertised in this room," she remarked, briefly drawing his attention, with an all-embracing sweep of her arm, to the portraits again.  "Personally, I'd rather he played the works of nineteenth-century composers more often," she added, sighing faintly, "and thereby gave one something melodically pleasant to hum along to.  Unfortunately, so much twentieth-century stuff only depresses me."

     "I'm sincerely relieved to hear it!" admitted Keating.  "After all, a good deal of what passes for contemporary music isn't really music at all.  It's calculated noise.  It conforms, all too poignantly, to the tendencies outlined by Spengler in his seminal tome The Decline of the West.  Anti-music would be a more accurate description."

     "I'm afraid I don't know all that much about Spengler," confessed Rebecca apologetically.  "But I can sympathize with your conviction.  Music has become far too intellectualized, rationalized and serialized, these days, for its own good.  It needs to be simplified, returned to the life of the soul."

     "Alas, that's unlikely to happen!" opined Keating boldly.  "For the soul you refer to, the soul of great classical music, is dead.  It's the contemporary intellect which rules the roost, and such an intellect is generally incapable of being other than itself.  All it can do is carry on churning out the atonal cacophony which becomes it, to live in the lunar bedlam it seemingly requires.  Civilizations rise and fall, you see, and when they're due to fall, then fall they damn-well will - inexorably.  Western civilization is falling ever more precipitously into a chasm of soulless chaos.  Every new avant-garde composition is a further stab in the back of genuine music, a further insult to the culture that preceded it.  We can't put the clocks back, and neither can we expect Western civilization to continue indefinitely.  It's in its senility now, so the compositions it produces are correspondingly senile."  He was aware that the devilish spirit of contentious didacticism had taken possession of him again and, in an instant of self-consciousness, he almost felt ashamed of himself for succumbing to its invidious influence.  But the demon had to be placated somehow, and giving vent to this spirit wasn't the worst of evils!  On the contrary, it was virtually a good, a veritable purgative.  "So the progress of anti-music is the chief concern of contemporary composers, the process of furthering the mechanistic rot which began during the late-eighteenth century," he went on, undaunted.  "How long this process can continue is anybody's guess, though, to judge by the extent to which the most radical compositions have furthered the rot, one gets the impression it will have reached its goal in a decade or two.  I mean, how can it go on getting indefinitely worse and worse?  There has to be a limit somewhere.  Otherwise you'll come full circle.  You'll end-up back at the beginning again, producing plainsong, progressing to the baroque, and culminating in the classical.  All that can happen now is for the anti-musicians to carry-on the work initiated by the Romantics and plunge contemporary serious composition deeper and deeper into the avant-garde cacophony it seemingly requires.  However, we're not exactly called upon to criticize it or to preach a crusade for the resurrection of genuine music and the correlative termination of the cacophonous.  On the contrary, if we're not direct participants, we can only be witnesses, and hopefully persevering ones, too!"  His theory, he knew, was usually on a more idealistic footing than his practice.  Nonetheless, there were times when he was capable of showing a degree of understanding and even sympathy towards what he personally abhorred.  "To my mind, however, those who now perform the works of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven are more admirable or, at any rate, less contemptible than people who specialize in composing cacophony, in being contemporary atonal composers," he defiantly concluded.

     "Thanks for the compliment!" laughed Rebecca, who was something of a classicist herself.  "I usually do my best not to perform anything too atonal."  And here she began to expatiate on the subject of her flute lessons and who she particularly enjoyed playing, which, to Keating's delighted surprise, included some leading jazz and rock   musicians.  "But seriously," she added, returning to the gist of his previous comments, "you can't dismiss all contemporary works as cacophonous, or anti-music.  Depending how you define 'contemporary', this century has produced some really fine music."

     "Oh, I entirely agree!" rejoined Keating, slightly embarrassed by the looseness of his generalization.  "Even so, it's only fine by twentieth-century standards, not by those of the previous three centuries.  The very fact that it was composed in the twentieth century virtually guarantees it a comparatively inferior musical status.... Yes, you can demur if you like, but I assure you it's perfectly true.  It has the ring of soulless modernity about it, and that is a far cry from soulful antiquity!  What we hear is less the kernel of music than its husk, a materialistic shell, brass and percussion heavy, which conveys no more than the appearance of music while being totally bereft of its essence.  The fall from melodic  grace is atonal only because it lacks a soul.  And what applies to melody applies even more to harmony, where the fall from harmonic grace has taken a discordant turn symptomatic of tonal decay.  It isn't beauty and love which rule the contemporary compositional roost, but ugliness and hate; not goodness and pleasure, but evil and pain.  The sooner such anti-values are eclipsed by new positive ones, the better it'll be for Europe in particular, but the world in general."

     From the hall, the resonant sound of a grandfather clock striking three interrupted his diatribe and made him aware of how quickly the last hour had passed.  Far more quickly, he reflected, than would have been the case had circumstances permitted him to conduct the interview with Rebecca's father instead!  But Mr Tonks was still in Birmingham, and so too, apparently, was his wife Beverly, who had gone with him.  They had left the house to the keeping of their twenty-year-old daughter, and she was still sitting at Keating's feet, lapping-up his every word and positively brimming over with juvenile admiration for his pessimistic diagnosis of the times.  But perhaps it wasn't just his intellect she admired.  Perhaps, too, there was something about his face, gestures, clothes, accent, build, etc., that contributed to the pleasure she was evidently acquiring from being in his company, virulent denunciations of contemporary serious music notwithstanding?

     Yet how beautiful she looked!  How her dark-blue eyes, smooth black hair, moderately aquiline nose, and sensuous little mouth charmed him!  And he had seen so much more of her besides!  Seen her minus the white cotton vest, the black satin miniskirt, and the purple nylon stockings.  Even seen her without a bikini top on for an instant, though she hadn't realized it.  For if she had, she would probably have blushed a little more intensely when he alluded to his curiosity of the Monday afternoon.  But that was at a distance of several yards, and now he was seeing her close-up, so close, in fact, that he could almost smell her fragrant skin through the alluring perfume he still entertained a private suspicion about.

     "Do you have a favourite composer?" she asked, once it became evident to her that he had nothing to add to his previous statement concerning contemporary music.

     "Not in any permanent sense," he confessed, smiling to himself at the thought that Rebecca was asking him the sort of questions he had reserved for her father, "though I've admired quite a number of different composers over the years, including Ravel and Martinu.  How about you, do you have one?"

     "Probably Schumann," she admitted, smiling faintly.

     "So that explains why you were at the French windows on Monday, does it?" Keating deduced, as a fierce shaft of sunlight suddenly pierced the gloom and illuminated the coffee table on which the tea-tray was resting.  The silver teapot and part of the unused sugar bowl glistened dazzlingly.

     "Don't tell me the sun's come out at last!" exclaimed Rebecca, and, scrambling to her feet, she hurried across to the windows in question.  Sure enough, the oppressive sheet of grey cloud was speedily disintegrating into small, separate cumulus clouds which permitted intermittent sunshine.  The garden, at that moment, stood bathed in sunlight.

     "You could almost do some more sunbathing now," said Keating, who had also got to his feet and was standing just behind her.

     "If it wasn't for the fact that I'm already over-tanned, I might consider it," she responded, half-turning towards him.  "But too much sun is suicidal.  That's what the latest medical reports are telling us, anyway."

     "So I hear," murmured Keating, gazing over her shoulder at the bright red roses which stood in the middle of the garden and glistened majestically in the fresh sunlight.  How exquisite they were!  And how exquisite, too, were all the other flowers and shrubs which could be seen to either side of the rose bushes, combining their individual appearances into a delicate fusion of colours and shapes!  The symmetrical brilliance of the layout was beyond criticism - virtually flawless.  The serried ranks of flowers somehow reminded one of a military display, suggested, more specifically, a parade ground where soldiers stood to attention and scarcely dared breathe.  This was especially true of the dahlias, though the fuchsias hardly qualified for the analogy which now presented itself to Keating's imagination, as he admired the beauty of cultivated nature through eyes that had been deprived of such a spectacle for too long, and simultaneously reflected upon the apparent discrepancy between the sense of the Beautiful in which Howard Tonks indulged with his flower arrangements and the overwhelming ugliness of the man's music.  How was it possible that a man whose compositions abounded in inharmonious elements to the point of cacophony could produce such a delicate harmony of colours and shapes in the garden?  Did the one necessarily preclude the other, or was it that nature was beyond the decline of civilizations and therefore enabled one to lavish aesthetic care on what remained impervious to the transmutations of art?  It didn't appear to make sense, but there it was, a picture of perfect taste, a garden where all the thistles and weeds, stones and pebbles, had been removed from the soil in the interests of the flowers and other plants of a higher order; where naturalism had been purged of realism and materialism, as it were, in the interests of an idealism which had blossomed splendidly in the guise of the various flowers straining  heavenwards towards the clearing sky.  There was little possibility of one's stumbling upon anything ignoble out there!  A regular fidelity to beauty had ensured the absence of ugliness.

     "Yes, my father's very keen on gardening," confessed Rebecca, responding to a comment Anthony Keating duly made about the harmonious layout.  "It's his main hobby, actually."

     She stood no more than an inch or two in front of him, staring at the roses.  The scent of her perfume excited him immensely, causing his gaze to wander from the garden to her hair, shoulders, and arms.  More beautiful by far than anything outside, it was ridiculous of him not to acknowledge the fact and do something to show his appreciation, to prove that one was a man and not a child or a dog or something.  Besides, was she not expecting him to do something?  Was she not secretly willing it?  Had not the intellect run its dreary course and made delight in sensuality a virtual certitude?  Yes, she had listened attentively to his Spenglerian discourse, his condemnation of bourgeois decadence, his cynical appraisal of contemporary 'classicism', and allowed herself to be seduced by the impassioned flow of his words.  Now she would be better qualified for that other, more tangible seduction, since women did not live by intellect alone!

     Thus, with a complimentary remark directed at her beauty, he enveloped her waist and gently drew her against himself.  She pretended surprise, protested weakly, and then submitted to his embrace, to the kisses he proceeded to shower upon her hair, neck, face, shoulders, lips.  Oh, how much better to cultivate the garden of such a beautiful young woman whilst it was still there to be cultivated!  And just the two of them, with Ludwig safely locked away in the kitchen and her parents up in Birmingham for an extra day.  What could be more logical?

     "You work pretty fast, don't you?" she managed to say, as he disengaged his lips from hers and applied his nostrils to the perfumed lobe of her nearest ear.

     "One has to these days," he replied.  "One can never be sure that one will get a second chance to make up for one's procrastination."

     "That's true of any time," she smilingly retorted.

     "Yes, but more so of today," he insisted, and before she could say anything else he had glued his mouth to hers and made amorous contact with her tongue.  She felt herself being drawn away from the French windows, felt her short skirt sliding to the floor, and, most poignantly, felt a hand on her left breast, felt the nipple respond to its caresses and send gentle waves of pleasure coursing through her.  How could she resist him?  The lure of greater pleasure was too strong.  If he could get this far, what sense was there in preventing him from going farther?  "We really oughtn't to behave like this in my father's study," she found herself feebly protesting.  "It's not the place to ...” But he had removed another item of her clothing and, through his persistent caresses, made it harder to resist him.

     "One can make love virtually anywhere when the desire to do so is sufficiently intense and the justification for it beyond dispute," he confidently assured her, smiling encouragement.

     "Yes, but ... not in my father's study."  The words more or less spoke themselves, without conviction.  For, by now, she was lying on the Afghan carpet with her eyes closed in the throes of pleasure and her arms wrapped around his neck.  There was only one item of clothing to be lost, and that was no longer in its original position but over half-way down her thighs.  The evidence of the senses spoke strongly in favour of love, and slowly, steadily, inevitably, the words were superseded by sounds of a non-verbal nature, the sounds became more spontaneous, frequent and intense, more the product of satisfied desire than the desire for satisfaction, and culminated, some frantic minutes later, in a sound which was nothing less than the expression of undiluted sensual ecstasy, the ultimate comment upon everything that had gone before - the sound of sounds!  Was the music room really that inappropriate a place to engender it?

     But just as she was about to offer her most sensitive parts to the probing tongue which had hitherto confined itself to her mouth and breasts, there came another sound, one that issued not from her mouth, still less from Keating's, but from the handle of the door to the study.  And this sound was quickly followed by another one, as leather-soled footsteps could be heard entering the room.  "Miss Tonks!" a voice hoarse and flabbergasted exclaimed in a pitch which bore no relation whatsoever to anything amorous.  "What-on-earth are you doing down there like that?"

     Violently startled out of her ecstatic abandon, Rebecca turned her head in the direction of the disembodied voice and encountered, with unbelieving amazement, the astonished face of Mrs Marchbanks staring down at her with open mouth and protruding eyes.  The old woman was now leaning against the wall with one hand across her bulging chest and the other on her perspiring brow.  She appeared to be on the point of fainting.

     "I don't believe it!" she gasped, as her eyes encompassed the mostly naked bodies of the two young people spread-eagled on the floor in a posture of inverted oral sex.

     "Who-the-devil's that?" exclaimed Keating, endeavouring to raise himself to a position where he could see for himself.  But his voice sufficed to ensure the old woman that she was not hallucinating and, with a gasp of unbelieving dismay, she staggered out of the room and slammed the door shut behind her with an involuntary shudder.

     "Oh, shit!" cried Rebecca, her face rose-red with embarrassment, and, disengaging herself from Keating's frozen grasp, she rolled over onto her stomach and began to sob.  The body that, a moment before, had been shaken by sexual ecstasy was now convulsed by emotional pain, the pain of a shame the likes of which she had never experienced in her entire life!

     Overcome by pity Keating attempted to console her, to mitigate the horrible shame which he, too, was now experiencing in some degree.  How was it possible to plunge to such remorseful depths after one had scaled all but the highest sensual heights?  He was virtually on the brink of tears himself.  If only he could have seen who had so completely interrupted their pleasures.

     The ugly sound of the front door slamming shut made him start from his preoccupation with their mutual distress and nervously inquire of Rebecca who had barged-in on them.

     "The housekeeper," she replied through trembling lips.  "I had forgotten the old bag was coming today.  No, not forgotten, simply overlooked the time."  Her sobbing grew more intense.  Yes, it was all her fault that this sordid thing had happened, her fault for having invited Keating into the house in the first place, instead of sending him away at the door, as her father had advised her to do over the telephone.  But she had taken a fancy to him the afternoon he saw her in nothing but a pale-blue bikini, had purposely gone out of her way to dress-up for him today, and, with secret exultation, allowed herself to be ravished by him as soon as the opportunity arose, as it was almost bound to do in sight of the rose bushes.  She had only herself to blame for having invited him not only into the house, but into the very room from which he had first laid eyes on her a few days previously.

     "Do you think she'll tell your father?" asked Keating.

     "Quite possibly," came her sob-choked reply.

     Anthony Keating sighed despairingly and, as he did so, the noise of Ludwig's fierce barking filled the air.  The house dog had evidently taken up the challenge, from the kitchen, of the slammed front-door.  For a house that, ten minutes earlier, had been the very soul of tranquillity was now a bedlam, a place from which one longed to escape, as from a cacophonous recital.  It was as though some terrible crime had just been committed, the evidence of which was to be found in the nude and trembling body of Rebecca Tonks, the items of clothing scattered across the floor, and the noise of Ludwig's continuous barking.  A ghastly dread suddenly pervaded the young correspondent's fear-racked mind: what if the housekeeper were under the false impression that Rebecca had been raped and was now going to the police?  How could he explain his conduct or justify his presence in the house when, to all intents and purposes, he was a complete stranger there?  His heart beat frantically as he pondered this possibility and imagined himself being questioned by stern-faced men in dark suits who suspected the worst.  After all, had Rebecca really encouraged him to have sex with her?  Hadn't she protested against his amorous advances?  Yes, two or three times!  But that wasn't to say she didn't want sex at all.  On the contrary, her smile of gratitude ...

     He felt a hand on his shoulder and, startled out of his sombre reflections, discovered that Rebecca was no longer a convulsed heap of guilt and shame but, in the meantime, had pulled herself together and dried her eyes.  She offered him a wan smile, saying: "If she does tell my father, I'll stand by you."

     "You will?" he responded, unsure what to think.

     "Of course.  We'll stand or fall together."

     Overcome by relief, Keating bent towards her and kissed her on the brow.  "Such a fine young lady," he murmured, holding her tightly against his chest.  "It would have been positively outrageous of me not to have given you the kind of appreciation your body deserves."

     Partly flattered, in spite of her private misgivings, she smiled in admiration, or perhaps it was forgiveness, of his romantic bravado and returned him an equally noble kiss.  "Yes, you're probably right," she conceded.

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

A sustained buzz from the doorbell of Martin Osbourne's South Kensington flat interrupted a conversation on literature which the senior sub-editor of 'Arts Monthly' was holding with its junior sub-editor, Andrew Hunt.  "That should be one of two people," declared Osbourne, getting-up from his capacious armchair.  "Take a guess."

     Hunt obligingly scanned the room, in which four other men were comfortably gathered, and shouted the name of Anthony Keating after the door-bound figure.  To his surprise, however, in walked Neil Wilder, who ironically saluted everyone before taking a seat in the chair just vacated by Osbourne.

     "I trust you've fully recovered from the flu?" Osbourne self-protectively inquired of him, while fetching his latest guest a drink.

     "As much as can be expected for the time being," replied Wilder, smiling ingratiatingly.  "Though, between ourselves, I think it expedient for me to stay off work until Monday.  There's no desperate need for me to rush back, is there?"  He directed this question as much at Hunt as at Osbourne.

     "Not that I'm aware of," the junior sub-editor responded, with an ironic snigger.  "As far as I can gather, things have never been better."

     "Then you haven't gathered much," Osbourne opined, simultaneously handing the new arrival a glass of medium-sweet sherry.  "The way I see it, things have never been worse!"

     "He says that every week," Wilder playfully objected.  "Perhaps that's the main reason why his booze cabinet is always so well-stocked.  Nothing like regular hardship for promoting inebriation, is there?"

     "It depends on the nature of the hardship," rejoined Osbourne humorously, as he took a seat beside his fellow sub-editor on the room's only settee and lit himself a thin cigar.  Now there was only one person still to come, though, as far as the creation or maintenance of an informal atmosphere was concerned, he had to be the least important.  The 'stag party' was already an hour old and proceeding quite pleasantly.

     A few yards to Osbourne's left, a little group comprised of a photographer, an artist, and a journalist was continuing the rival conversation on pornography that had formed a kind of counterpoint to the one in which he had been engaged with Hunt, prior to Wilder's unexpected arrival.  The photographer, a stocky Scotsman by name of Stuart Harvey, was denouncing the existence of homosexual pornography and emphasizing, in no uncertain terms, his preference for attractive females, whether heterosexual or lesbian.  Apparently, his profession had transformed him into a specialist in nude and partly-clothed women, and had provided him, moreover, with more than a few erotic perks.  But there were drawbacks, not the least of which being the fact that the women he was obliged to photograph in a variety of postures weren't always to his taste.  Indeed, the sight of too many nude or partly-clothed bodies over a relatively short period of time was not only boring, he hastened to assure his immediate listeners, but downright depressing, to boot!  It was a relief to be able to wash one's hands of them, so to speak, and concentrate on something else every once-in-a-while - for example, buildings or sunsets.

     "Oh, I quite agree," Michael Haslam, the artist, sympathized.  "One requires professional variety if one isn't to stagnate.  For there's no surer way of disillusioning oneself with the opposite sex than to be in their company either too long or too often."

     The journalist sniggered in implicit agreement, but declined to comment.

     "When I was an art student," the tall, fair-haired artist continued, "I used to dream of painting nude women all day.  I saw myself as a combination of Etty and Rubens, dedicated to the sensuous delineation of the female form.  What could be better, I used to think, than a lifetime spent in the company of beautiful women?  Well, after a couple of years of it, I found myself asking: What could be worse?  I found myself seeking the company of men in the evenings."

     "A time, ideally, when one should be enjoying the company of women," Harvey interposed.

     "Quite!  And not necessarily nude ones, either," Haslam insisted, as though to preclude implications of impropriety.  "So, growing disillusioned with my professional habits, I gravitated to painting fully clothed men during the day and to entertaining nude women at night.  And, suddenly, life seemed a lot more supportable."  He knocked back an ample mouthful of white wine and smacked his lips in sensuous appreciation of its vinegary tang.  "But these days I paint neither men nor women, specifically, but things like that."  He pointed towards a small canvas which hung against the opposite wall, a canvas Martin Osbourne had bought from him some six months previously for the comparatively modest sum of £500.  Not that Osbourne was particularly keen on it.  On the contrary, he could hardly bear the sight of it these days.  But, for sentimental and egotistical reasons, he had considered it worth his while to be 'up with the times', as it were, and accordingly the possessor of a work by a man whose friendship he had secured only a short time before - compliments of 'Arts Monthly'.  "My friend the painter," he would boast to the various junior correspondents and other artistic young men whom he lured along to his weekly stag parties on the pretext of a friendly tête-à-tête.  And he would point out the various aesthetic subtleties of the work, drawing especial attention to certain dubious technicalities which he enigmatically described as 'modern', whilst endeavouring to explain and, in some degree, justify the strange juxtapositions of subject-matter which confronted the startled gazes of all who stood in front of it for the first time.

     To be sure, it wasn't every day that one encountered the paradoxical spectacle of a Greek temple standing in a desert with a statue of the Buddha squatting complacently on its top step and, at the foot of the steps, two figures - one dressed in armour and wielding a mace and the other garbed in Oriental robes and wielding a scimitar - engaged in mortal combat, whilst, to either side of the temple, an impassive sphinx and a fierce Byzantine deity looked on, as though transfixed.  There was certainly something unusual, not to say radically incongruous, about all that!  And the bemused minds of those who had never met with such a work before and could only, in the circumstances, have the most hazy idea as to its philosophical implications, were nonchalantly informed by the host-owner in person that it was one of Michael Haslam's 'Cultural Chimeras', and that he was a kind of latter-day Alma-Tadema who specialized, with eclectic zeal, in depicting aspects of all the great cultures of the past at once, through a sort of multi-dimensional montage.  In short, someone who, whilst hardly eligible for inclusion within the West's own great artistic tradition, would nevertheless be remembered as a highly talented outsider and possibly even minor genius.

     "You could say that I've gone from one extreme to another," Haslam continued, staring up at his fifth 'Cultural Chimera' with pride.  "I began by over-specializing and I've ended-up by taking the adage 'Variety is the spice of life' to its utmost possible painterly realization.  If you could only see my most recent paintings!  Never such diffusion as now!"

     'Never such confusion as now' would have been a more apposite confession, Osbourne was thinking, as he savoured the aroma of his mild cigar and stared at the canvas about which the artist, at that moment, was being so immodestly and shamelessly enthusiastic.  Things were certainly coming to a low ebb when so-called serious artists could take pride in drawing inspiration from alien cultures, and cultures, moreover, which had been in decline, if not extinct, for thousands of years.  That was even worse than turning to science and technology for inspiration!

     "What's wrong, Martin?" Hunt was asking, as though out of the blue.  "Have you become hypnotized by your painting or something?"  He waved a saving hand backwards and forwards in front of his colleague's long nose.

     "Not quite," the latter hastened to assure him.  "Why, have I missed something?"

     "You will if you don't listen to what Neil's going to tell us about a cucumber," Hunt rejoined.  "A rather special cucumber, apparently."

     "Why 'special'?" queried Osbourne, his lips expanding into a sceptical smile.

     "Because it was used as a dildo," Wilder calmly informed him.  "You know what that is, don't you?"

     Osbourne irascibly pondered a moment this slight to his intelligence, but simply said: "Sure, it's a kind of vibrator minus the vibration, an ingredient in the Tao te Ching, a sort of artificial phallus."

     This answer, though purposely over-intellectualized, evidently satisfied Wilder.  "Yes, good!" he averred.  "Well, this more naturalistic dildo was long and gently curved, see, and belonged to a Mrs X."

     "Who's she?" asked Osbourne.

     "That doesn't matter," retorted Wilder.  "What does is that she and her husband, a Mr X, had invited some important guests to dinner."

     "Oh, really?"  Osbourne's tone was vaguely contemptuous, but he was mildly intrigued all the same.

     "Well, Mr X saw his attractive young wife rinsing a cucumber in preparation for the salad that was going to form the main course of the meal and, struck by a bright if perverse idea, he snatched it from his beloved's hands and commanded her to stretch out on the kitchen table, which at that moment was conveniently empty."

     Simultaneous sniggers broke loose from the throats of the two sub-editors of 'Arts Monthly'.

     "Being a ductile and exemplary wife, Mrs X climbed onto the table and, at her husband's perverse bidding, hitched up her skirt.  Mr X thereupon greased the cucumber and proceeded to manipulate it, albeit tactfully, in the manner of a dildo.  You follow?"

     "Perfectly," Osbourne admitted through the fumes of his latest cigar which, in circumstances like this, served as an extension of his temper.  "He thrust it between his wife's thighs."

     "Indeed he did!" came the amused response from an incipiently sherry-merry correspondent.  "And when he withdrew it a couple of minutes later, funky cucumber!  It smelt unmistakably feminine."

     Unrestrained laughter erupted from the occupants of the settee.  Even the little group of persons who weren't quite involved with them became, for the nonce, noticeably intrigued.  The division between Osbourne's colleagues and friends became momentarily non-existent.

     "What about Mrs X's panties?" objected Hunt pedantically.  "You haven't mentioned any."

     "Primarily because she wasn't wearing any," declared Wilder, his face flushed with excitement, "her husband being something of a compulsive lecher!  Anyway, getting back to the gist of things, he then instructed Mrs X to slice the cucumber as usual, to evenly distribute it among the five guests, and under no circumstances whatsoever to either wash it again or put anything on it.  He wanted it to retain the flavour of her carnal person.  So the duty of preparing the salad was resumed by Mrs X more or less from where it had been so rudely interrupted, she naturally obeying her husband's perverse instructions.  Now when, finally, the guests arrived and they all sat down to dinner, Mr X's anticipatory excitement was so intense that he could scarcely keep a straight face.  Even his wife wasn't quite her usual innocent self as each of the distinguished visitors helped themselves to their slices of cucumber and commented approvingly on the meal, which also included roast chicken.  Unfortunately, one or two of them, for reasons best known to themselves, quite spoilt Mr X's pleasure by swamping their slices of the carnal cucumber in copious dollops of mayonnaise.  But the remaining guests provided his imagination with the sadistic titillation it evidently required, as he lavished especial attention upon the progress of their forks whenever a slice of cucumber was in evidence.  Now there was one old lady among them who just about crowned his felicity when she ..." he struggled bravely against the temptation to explode with laughter "... sniffed suspiciously at one such slice and involuntarily raised her brows in horrified surprise.  It was as much as Mr X could do to refrain from asking her point-blank whether there wasn't something wrong!"

     Renewed bursts of laughter shook the rib cages of the recipients of this slightly scurrilous and more than vaguely implausible anecdote, connected, as some thought, with Nicholas Webb, and promoted further good fellowship.  Glasses were refilled with whatever was available and verbal inhibitions shed with an alacrity that would have flabbergasted anyone not sufficiently well-acquainted with Martin Osbourne's little weekly gatherings.  There was even room for a joke about a certain female at 'Arts Monthly' being 'well-organized', and a certain male no less well-known to them being a 'good organizer', as well as a slight variation on Havelock Ellis' first name, which replaced the 'l' with a 'c'.

     "Consummate frivolity!" exclaimed Haslam by way of congratulating Osbourne for one such joke, which transformed even his ordinarily sober mien into a transmitter of radiant hilarity.  "Strictly men only!"

     At that moment there came a short, sharp buzz from the doorbell.

     "Ah, that must be Tony!" conjectured Osbourne, suddenly turning serious.  "It's so late that I'd begun to wonder whether he was coming, the little twit!"

     A slightly flushed and nervous Anthony Keating entered the room and offered formal apologies for not being able to arrive sooner.  Unfortunately business had held him up, he claimed.

     "I suppose you mean that interview with old Howard Tonks," the officiating host responded, offering him, at his request, a glass of white wine.

     Keating frowned sullenly and, feeling slightly compromised, tentatively nodded his head.  He couldn't bring himself to disclose what had actually happened, so he mumbled something about the composer keeping him to dinner and generally making a meal of things.

     "Sounds as though he's a pretty garrulous fellow," concluded Osbourne sympathetically.  "Either that or just good at talking about himself, the wanker," he added, as a malicious afterthought.

     The junior correspondent nodded his head and frowned again.  "A bit of both," he admitted, by way of keeping up appearances.  Then, catching sight of Neil Wilder, whom in his perplexity he had failed to notice on first entering the room, he waved across at him and quickly changed the subject to his health.

     "Yes, he's sort of back to normal now," Osbourne confirmed, with an ironic snigger.  "Well enough to drink sherry and be merry here, at any rate.  However, now that you've carried off the Tonks interview, you needn't worry about being asked to deputize for him again.  Tomorrow you've got a review at the Merlin Gallery, I believe."

     "So I realize," responded Keating, and he frowned more sullenly than before.  How could he review the work of some crackpot artist and simultaneously interview Mr Tonks as well?  The dates couldn't be altered, and neither could the assignments be cancelled - at least not now.  For bossman Webb was dead set on getting the review done as quickly as possible in order to have it sent on, by special arrangement, to the printers and accordingly ensure its publication in the forthcoming edition of their magazine.  It would be the last thing printed the following week and, as such, would have to be dispatched on Friday evening at the latest.  A shade inconvenient for the printers perhaps, but, being a relatively short article, something for which they could apparently reserve a space.  "Not the kind of arrangement we can get away with too often," Webb had reminded his senior sub-editor shortly after receiving assurances from the printers in question that some degree of compliance could be expected, "but likely to win us more respect and approval from the public than would any retrospective review for which we might otherwise have had to settle."  And with a reference to Keating's eligibility for the job, he had dismissed Osbourne on an uncharacteristically optimistic note.  Things were turning out quite differently, it appeared, from what he had initially expected!

     "Still, you've got more experience of reviewing art exhibitions than of interviewing composers," the host rejoined, in an encouraging tone-of-voice, "so it shouldn't prove too difficult for you.  You're more or less back on your own professional territory again."

     "Yes, I guess so," conceded Keating, forcing a late smile to camouflage the spiritual discomfort he was experiencing.  For 'more or less' was no small exaggeration, and one that, in the circumstances, provided scant encouragement!  In truth, he knew full-well that the exhibition he would be reviewing, or was expected to review, was essentially anything but his professional territory.  Indeed, it was even further removed from it, in some ways, than Mr Tonks' music!  But art criticism was his second string as a junior correspondent and, that being the case, he had little option but to indulge it, for better or worse.  The reviewing of books, principally aesthetic and literary ones, would have to wait, seemingly, until the following week - assuming he would still be working for the magazine then.  For the way things stood at present, he couldn't be too confident.  Unless, however, he could come to some kind of alternative arrangement...?

     Yes, that possibility suddenly struck him like a revelation from On High!  Perhaps Neil Wilder would be able to help him out of the double-dealing fix he now found himself in, compliments, in no small measure, of the man himself.  After all, it was largely Wilder's fault that he happened to be in such a predicament to begin with!  A bud of incipient optimism sprouted from his soul and gently spread its enlivening aura across his face.  If there was going to be trouble at the composer's house, the following day, over the housekeeper's shameful discovery that afternoon, why should he walk straight into it?  Wouldn't it be wiser to induce Wilder to take his place and conduct the interview instead, bearing in mind that he was better qualified to do so anyway, and probably wouldn't invite further trouble?  Yes, that had to be the solution!  For if Wilder wasn't due back to work until next Monday, no-one would know what he was doing on Friday.  And if no-one would know that, then neither would anyone have cause to suspect that he had been enlisted by Keating to take care of an assignment which should have been wrapped-up on Thursday!  With Wilder seated in the music room at Tonkarias, asking the simple questions he had hurriedly and somewhat facetiously prepared in the first place, Keating would be free to dedicate himself to the fiasco at the Merlin Gallery.  As long as the tape-recording was kept away from the ears of Webb, Osbourne, Hunt, et al., the transcription onto paper wouldn't give anything away.  With Keating's signature appended to it, there would be little cause for suspicion.  And even the tape-recording could be redone, so that one heard Keating asking the questions instead of Wilder.

     Yes, there was indeed a way out of the fix circumstances had landed him in, after all, a way that depended on the co-operation of the cheerful character who was now approaching him through the haze of cigar smoke.  But he needed to get rid of Osbourne, since it would be impossible for him to unfold his plan with the senior sub-editor standing blithely in the way.  Indeed, it would probably be impossible for him to unfold it anyway, since there were only seven of them in the room, which wasn't a particularly large one.  Unless.... His eyes alighted on the  stereo system to the left of the wine cabinet.  Why wasn't it on?

     "What's happened to the music tonight?" he exclaimed, pointing a gentle finger in the direction of Osbourne's sound system. "I'd hoped that you'd have a new disc or tape to boast of."

     "As a matter of fact I have," declared Osbourne, his patrician countenance instantaneously betraying a degree of collector's pride.  "Would you like to hear it, then?"

     "Of course I would!" responded Keating enthusiastically.  "I've got great faith in your taste.  As does Neil, don't you mate?"

     "If you say so," said Wilder sheepishly, smiling vaguely.

     "Actually, I was so preoccupied by my friends' conversation, before you arrived, that it just didn't occur to me to play anything," confessed Osbourne, striding across to the midi.  "But now that you've raised the issue."  He bent down and began to sort through his audio cassettes, many of which were piled together in heaps on the floor.

     Meanwhile, Anthony Keating was manoeuvring himself in the direction he wanted things to go.  "I hear you've recovered from your flu bug," he revealed to Wilder.

     "Just about," the latter conceded.  "I'm well enough to drink sherry anyway."

     Osbourne found the cassette he intended to play and inserted it into the tape deck with a loud retort.  There was an uneasy silence of anticipation as it got under way, but then the first notes of a composition with a powerful beat and an elastic electric guitar exploded upon them.  "Any guesses?" he asked.

     Keating didn't have to guess.  He recognized the music immediately and confessed as much.

     "So you're familiar with Jeff Beck's latest release too," Osbourne rejoined, as the heavy rock riff ground its way through the track in question.

     "Too familiar!" shouted Keating, to the amusement of Wilder, who was also vaguely familiar with it.  However, with Osbourne still standing in close proximity to them, it was impossible for Anthony Keating to reveal his plan, so, fearing that if he stayed put the senior sub-editor would engage him in conversation about his latest tape or some other musical irrelevance, he ambled across, glass in hand, to the other side of the room, where Michael Haslam had just that moment launched himself into a defence of contemporary art, 'Cultural Chimeras' and all, at the expense of the little Scots photographer, Stuart Harvey.  A copiously stocked bookcase standing against the wall a couple of yards behind them presented him with the pretext he felt he would require to justify his presence there, and, bending down, he pretended to scan its predominantly literary contents.

     "But if one painted landscapes like Constable, these days, one would be laughed at," Haslam was protesting in a tone bordering on exasperation.  "All this return-to-nature-business is irrelevant, outdated, irresponsible.  You've got to paint in a way that's chiefly if not entirely your own.  The influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau on painters is now virtually extinct.  You've got to change with the times, to lead the times, which is something photography can't do.  So photography isn't an art."

     "It is an art," retorted Harvey in what sounded like an exaggeratedly aggrieved manner. "In fact, it's the only truly contemporary visual art."

     "Bullshit!" exclaimed Haslam, clearly the worse for drink.  "It's not a fine art."

     "It's a damned sight finer than the crude muck you painters dredge-up, like puke, from your frigging subconscious and apply to the canvas, or whatever, with the aid of your boots!" asseverated the photographer on the crest of Scots arrogance.

     "Crude or not, it would still be more of an art than photography," Haslam countered, not a little flushed, "because photography is too impersonal and doesn't change all that much.  The photo you take today can be taken in twenty or in thirty years' time and, providing the subject-matter hasn't changed dramatically, it won't look all that different.  Admittedly, the photographic material may have changed a little and the technological quality of cameras been improved in the meantime, but the photo would still be the same, or approximately so.  With art, however, everything changes.  Blake is different from Turner, and Turner's different from Bourne-Jones, who is different from Beardsley, etc.  Individualism is the key to genuine art.  It has the personal touch.  But your celebrated photographers ... where's their personal touch, eh?  They have a machine and they're dependent on the way that machine, the camera, functions for the results they get.  One of them specializes in brothels, another in castles, a third in models, a fourth in nature, and that's about as much individualism as you get from them.  In short, not enough to justify the term 'art'!"

     "Nonsense, man!" objected Harvey, feeling personally affronted.  "There's much more to serious photography than merely pressing the button when you've got something in your lens!  There are all sorts of technical considerations to bear in mind."

     "Yes, but all that has nothing to do with genuine art," came the impatient rejoinder from the self-respecting artist.  "In the final analysis photography is little more than the average philistine's approach to art, the nearest he can get to it.  For fine art demands skills which you photographers wouldn't even be capable of imagining, let alone realizing!"

     Stuart Harvey suddenly gave vent to an explosion of sardonic laughter.  What was all this nonsense about fine art and skills!  As if they still existed!  It was more than he could bear to hear someone endeavouring to equate the latest 'experimental' developments in painting with fine art!  What was particularly 'fine' about different-coloured paints that had been haphazardly splashed across a canvas, a number of straight or curvy lines which made one dizzy to behold, simple geometrical shapes that had been painted with a naiveté which made even the 'naives' appear sophisticated, or anything else which could be unequivocally equated with late twentieth-century 'art'?  Wasn't there a chronological divide between fine art and crude art, a time, so to speak, when fine art had generally ceased to be painted and been supplanted by the sort of arcane, not to say inane, rubbish all-too-frequently encountered in exhibitions of so-called contemporary art?  And wasn't the term 'art' something of a misnomer when applied to such rubbish - a cunning deception on the part of its purveyors which served their purely exploitative purposes?  Surely the terms 'sham art' or 'anti-art' would have proved more apposite?

     With hand on stomach the stocky Scotsman laughed more spontaneously and pleasurably than he could remember having done for some considerable period of time.  How pretentious of Michael Haslam to suggest that contemporary painting, which included most late twentieth-century abstracts, was genuine art, and that photography, by contrast, was merely the average philistine's approach to it!  As if he were some kind of Raphael or Rubens or Rembrandt or even Dali with a special set of painterly skills inaccessible to anyone else!  Why, when one considered the nature of his 'Cultural Chimeras', wasn't it better to be a relatively unpretentious photographer?  If Haslam had been capable of excelling in Modern Realism, and could produce portraits or interiors virtually indistinguishable from photographs, it would be quite another matter, irrespective of the absurdity of slaving-on in an objective painterly manner in an age of photography, which could do the job so much better and quicker and which, in any case, was doubtless the real reason why most so-called avant-garde artists were unable or unwilling to carry-on painting in an objective manner at the risk of appearing even more anachronistic and redundant than they were already, the quasi-mystical transmutations of anti-art notwithstanding!  Rather than admit defeat and abandon art for photography or some other, more relevant and truly contemporary mode of perceptual objectivity, the reactionary bastards persisted in their paradoxical creations quite as though they were really contemporary and not cultural anachronisms who, in consequence of middle-class prejudice, attested to the moral bankruptcy and aesthetic degeneration of painterly art to a level which made photography seem comparatively beautiful, irrespective of its subject-matter.

     "Photography is superior to crude art," insisted Harvey with a sort of republican fervour, as soon as his amusement had subsided.

     "Bullshit!" Haslam protested.  "Painting can only be a fine art, not a crude one like photography.  What you're in fact implying is that photography isn't a crude art, but something superior to that, superior, in other words, to cooking or gardening or dress-making or ..."

     Anthony Keating had heard more than enough by now!  The polemical obsessions of these two semi-drunken friends of Martin Osbourne were becoming more than a trifle exasperating, particularly since, like monarchs and presidents, they tended to cancel one-another out in a mutually exclusive context of old- and new-brain perceptual objectivity, so to speak, with or without incompatible class implications.  Thus with the fragile hope that by moving to another part of the room they wouldn't exasperate him so much, he straightened up and, abandoning the bookcase, strode across to where Andrew Hunt and his journalistic protégé, David Turner, were discussing spiritualism.  But even there, whilst he stood in front of Haslam's 'chimera' and pretended to scrutinize one of its 'cultural' components, he was still too close for comfort to the men who considered themselves the successors of Brassai and Dali, and accordingly felt obliged to abandon his intention of listening to the advantages of spiritualism over materialism by returning, tout de suite, to the proximity of the midi system.  There, thanks to the tape that was still playing, one could only hear snatches of what was being said or, rather, shouted in defence of the visual arts.  But, more importantly, Osbourne had left the room and Neil Wilder was squatting down beside a pile of audio cassettes through which he was searching with the look of someone who, given on principle to CDs, only touched tapes as a last resort.

     "Where's Martin?" he asked, drawing closer to the midi, where he pressed the volume increase a couple of times before going across to Wilder.

     "Gone to the loo," the latter replied.

     "Oh, good," sighed Keating with a look of relief, and, seizing the opportunity of Osbourne's temporary absence, he made mention of the interview with Howard Tonks, adding: "I have to speak to you about it in private, as soon as possible!"

     "What's wrong with now?" asked Wilder, looking a shade perplexed.

     "Shush! keep your voice down!" pleaded Keating, as side one of the tape came to an end and momentarily exposed their conversation to the ears of anyone who might have been interested in overhearing it.  Fortunately, Andrew Hunt, the only other real threat to Keating's plan besides Osbourne, was still preoccupied, like some old woman, with his conversation on the spirit world.

     "Did something go wrong?" Wilder asked him in a lower and more apprehensive tone-of-voice.

     "Yes, dreadfully!" confessed Keating.  "So I need your assistance."

     "In what way?" Wilder wanted to know.

     It was difficult for the young correspondent to broach the subject, so: "I'll explain later," was all he would say at this point.  "First, I want to ensure that no-one overhears, okay?"

     "Sure.  But couldn't we arrange to discuss this, er, problem somewhere else?" suggested Wilder, frowning.

     At that moment Martin Osbourne returned from the lavatory and, gently closing the door behind him, began to advance towards them.  Keating pursed his lips in dejected anticipation of the senior sub-editor's intrusion but, to his relief, the man halted half-way across the room, turned with a look of annoyance towards the two loudest conversationalists, who were still intellectually at one-another's throats, and advanced towards them instead, evidently with a view to restoring the party spirit.  With an involuntary sigh of relief, Keating took his colleague by the arm and led him towards the furthermost corner from them, where, in a low voice, he proceeded to divulge some details about his little problem.

  

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

Across the square the tall oaks creakingly swayed in the stiff breeze which had recently sprung out of Nature's strange and unpredictable life.  It was the sort of breeze which, though not strong enough to wrench the leaves from their moorings on the sturdy branches of the great trees, nevertheless caused a series of violent agitations among them which was somewhat disquieting for Nicholas Webb to behold, and for two reasons.  On the one hand, it served to remind him that autumn was just a few weeks away and that, after the autumn, there wouldn't be any more leaves to look at until the late spring of the following year, and, on the other hand, it insidiously contrived to undermine his faith in the goodness of Nature, albeit not, as yet, to any appreciable extent.  For it was virtually axiomatic with him that, by comparison with the city, Nature wasn't merely good but almost divine.  Nevertheless, there were times when it seemed less good or quasi-divine than formerly.  Times, indeed, when one was tempted to use the word 'evil' to describe how one felt about it.... Not that there was any need to think of man-devouring earthquakes or ship-sinking tornadoes or house-flattening hurricanes or village-smothering volcanic eruptions or anything of the like.  God, no!  It was far wiser to shut-out such diabolical phenomena from one's mind altogether or, if one wasn't permitted that luxury, at least as much as possible.  After all, the cult of Nature Worship, like most other cults, demanded a certain imaginative myopia, or myopic imagination, on the part of its humble devotees if they weren't to jeopardize the spiritual benefits accruing to the meticulous cultivation of a faith which could so easily be assailed and, if the worst came to the worst, completely shattered by logical posturings.  A few cracks in it, now and again, would not be the worst of outcomes, provided one didn't encourage them to unduly expand.  For a chink in the faith would be harder to repair than a few cracks.  And after a chink ...?

     No, Nicholas Webb hadn't developed more than a few tiny cracks since falling under the influence of John Cowper Powys, the prophet of sublimated Nature Worship, or Elementalism, and becoming a humble devotee the year before.  They had appeared in the middle of winter at a time when the icy inclemency of January had reduced his worship to the barest minimum, to a degree of dilettantism, one might say, which he subsequently considered deplorable and hastened, with the inception of spring, to atone for as best he could.  He had even fallen partly under the confusing influence, during those bitter January weeks, of a dualistic philosopher whose ambivalent attitude towards Nature, more ambivalent by far than anything characterizing John Cowper Powys, further managed to undermine his faith in its goodness.

     According to this philosopher, Nature was neither good nor evil but a paradoxical combination of both, the good chiefly manifesting itself in summer and the evil, by contrast, in winter, it being duly inferred that the one couldn't exist without the other.  Thus from Webb's ailing devotion to Elementalism there emerged the heresy that, in contrast to those aspects of Nature embodied in inclement weather conditions, the buildings of the square, as indeed the city of which the square was but a tiny component, were alone good at such a time - a heresy which almost served to transform the few cracks into a veritable chink!

     But all this had happened, he subsequently reassured himself, at a juncture when his faith hadn't had sufficient time to blossom into what it was in the process of becoming under favourable climatic conditions; when it hadn't had adequate time to put down firm roots, so to speak, and consequently withstand the temptation to err.  Next time he would be better prepared for whatever the winter held in store for him!  So much so that even the bare branches of the oak trees in the middle of the square would be able to assist him, would encourage him to stand at the window just as often as at more propitious times of year and 'plunge into' the snow or ice or ...

     He was on the point of returning to his paper-strewn desk when the blue-stockinged calf muscles of a passing female caught his wandering eye and induced him to plunge into them with even more avidity than he had mustered for the fluttering leaves.  A connotation with Deborah Wilke's lust-provoking attire of the previous evening duly came hovering to mind and invoked a complacent smile from his lips.  Why, she had looked even more ravishing, if that was possible to believe, than on Tuesday, and so much so that it was as much as he could do to restrain the impulse to indulge his passion before he took her out.  And when they were out and seated together at the theatre, his impatience to bring her back to his flat became so acute, at one point, that he lost all interest in the frigging play and felt obliged to mumble something derogatory about it every few minutes.  He even wanted to walk out of the theatre before it had finished; though he knew from experience that Deborah liked being seen in public and wouldn't relish missing the rest of a play which she evidently found amusing, not to say socially gratifying.  But he had weathered the compromise between taking her out and bringing her back quite successfully in the long run.  For she rewarded him most generously, in private, for all the pains to which he had put himself in public.  If she looked ravishing with her clothes on, she appeared absolutely irresistible with them off, and he wasted no time in making it perfectly clear to her just how irresistible she was!  For the fact that he had kissed her anus was proof enough of the respect she inspired in him.  To how many other women had he done that in the past?  Only one - the lady who subsequently became his wife and bore him two children.  At the height of his passion for her he would have preferred to kiss her arse than to kiss another woman's lips.  She was beautiful to him all over, even on the soles of her feet, and he wanted to prove it to her, he needed to prove it to her, in order to testify to the strength and genuineness of his love.

     But strong and genuine though his love was at the time, it subsequently became less so, weakened to a point where the prospect of kissing her in relatively unconventional places would have revolted him, made him contemptuous of himself, and disgusted with her for allowing or encouraging him to do so!  And then it weakened to a point where he couldn't even bring himself to kiss her in conventional places, where the attempts he made at doing so increasingly began to disgust him and resulted, several unrewarding endeavours later, in his not kissing her at all - resulted, ultimately, in the divorce which brought about their final separation just over two years ago.

     Now, however, after a succession of fairly lukewarm relationships with other women, he was beginning to experience something akin to the passion he had felt for Pauline in the early days of their love, some fifteen years previously.  A memory of those heightened times was returning to him and, with that memory, one or two of his former habits were also being resuscitated.  Could it be that Deborah Wilkes, his twenty-eight-year-old girlfriend, had all the makings of a future wife?  He couldn't be sure at this stage but, all the same, it didn't seem implausible, particularly if his enthusiasm for the entirety of her body was anything to judge by - an enthusiasm which she evidently found agreeably flattering!  And why not?  It wasn't every day or with every man that one could, as a woman, consider oneself desirable all over!

     He turned away from his voyeuristic vantage-point by the window and returned to his desk.  There were still a few letters to sign and a number to read, as well as some recent journalistic contributions from the outside world to consider.  He was grateful that fate had spared him the ignominy of an idle existence, even if the one he normally led, in his editorial capacity, wasn't always to his taste.  But even poor contributions and tedious letters were better than nothing; even they sometimes provided him with a couple of hours' agreeable preoccupation.  Take that young surrealist poet the other day, for instance.  One's peace of mind often depended upon such people.  One never quite knew what to expect next!  Not to mention the stuff which the regular contributors, the professional employees of 'Arts Monthly' (arse-lickers every one of them), habitually churned out, ostensibly in the service of the magazine.  Young Anthony Keating, for instance, with his petty-bourgeois obsession with the decline of the West, an obsession which somehow found its way into just about everything he wrote.  Really, there were times when one had to laugh at the earnestness with which the poor fellow set about the uphill task of disillusioning people with the concept of continuous social and moral progress!  Spengler couldn't have wished for a better heir to his pessimistic theories, a more ardent disciple than young Keating, who was even more piously Spenglerian than Malcolm Muggeridge, if that were possible to believe!  And yet he appeared to have purposely closed his eyes to the things that showed no evidence of decline, including the beauty of the most attractive contemporary women.  But how could one think or worry about the decline of Western civilization with a ravishing blonde like Deborah Wilkes in one's arms?  Perhaps that was what Keating needed?  Something to make him conscious of the way certain things rose in contemporary life!

     And then there was Andrew Hunt, with his otherworldly spiritualism, his penchant for speculations about the Afterlife.  How many times had one been obliged to read about the survival of consciousness following death in an essay ostensibly treating of, say, contemporary poetry or drama?  More times than one could bare or dare to remember!  And yet the public appeared to like it, even to delight in the sharp juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated topics as presented by the more scholarly, and possibly schizophrenic, of his two sub-editors.  But how could one be expected to believe that consciousness survived death?  It didn't make sense, at least not to Nicholas Webb, who was aware that his scepticism would probably have been condemned by Keating, if not by Hunt also, as a further symptom of Western decline.  One was expected to believe that consciousness could continue to function in some kind of otherworldly way, without the assistance of a brain and of the blood being pumped through it to keep it alive.  But that was tantamount to believing the impossible: that mind, as we understood it, was something that could continue to function without physiological support!  And where exactly did this 'mind', this bodiless consciousness of oneself and others, go, following death?  Where, exactly, was it to be found?  Could you pluck it out of the air around you, this something which couldn't even be seen but which nonetheless continued to dream its own dreams, or did it exist on a higher plane - for instance, somewhere up above the clouds?  If so, how overcrowded it must be up there, what with the billions upon billions of 'minds' which had once belonged to prehistoric men, prehistoric reptiles, historic men, fish, birds, animals, insects, etc., and, assuming there was life on other planets throughout the Universe, innumerable aliens of one kind or another as well!  And now that there were so many rockets and satellites and other technological marvels being sent out into space by the Earth, not to mention what other hypothetically habitable planets were probably dispatching, how these 'minds' must have been jostled about and generally disturbed by the technological brainchilds of the lesser minds still attached to bodies!  Really, it was as much as one could do to keep a straight face at the thought of what life must be like in the other world - assuming it was as one imagined it to be!  Everything that had ever lived and possessed a mind from the year dot to the current second on any planet capable of sustaining autonomous life in any part of the Universe would be 'living', as contemporaneous neighbours, on the higher plane!  It didn't bear thinking about!  And yet, if Andrew Hunt was any authority on the subject, it had been thought about, in various ways, since the dawn of thought, and would doubtless continue to be pondered until such time as thinking minds ceased to exist.  But would Hunt think about this world in the other one - assuming he wasn't already effectively in it?  Nicholas Webb smiled ironically and proceeded to apply his stylish signature to the letters in front of him.  At least he had no doubt as to which world he inhabited.  The other one could wait until he died, so far as he was concerned.

     A gentle rap on the door momentarily aroused him from the development of his signature and induced him to glance in its direction, where the oval face of Judith Pegg was now to be seen.  He smiled his acknowledgement of her secretarial function and motioned her to enter.  "Had a nice lunch?" he asked, glad of an opportunity to speak to someone so unequivocally down-to-earth.

     "Very nice, thanks!" she replied, taking her customary seat in front of his paper-strewn desk.  "A Madras curry."

     He raised his brows in a show of admiring surprise and continued to apply his signature to the letters still requiring it.  "Not very much dictation this afternoon," he murmured while writing, "so you needn't worry about having to work too hard.  Just one or two things left over from yesterday."

     She smiled deferentially and glanced over the contents of his desk.  The pile of letters that constituted the morning's post was still resting where she had left it at 9.30, which of course meant that he hadn't got round to reading any of them and therefore wouldn't have formulated any kind of appropriate response to their proposals.  He never read and dictated simultaneously.  The process of assimilation had to take place in solitude, where there would be no-one to distract his attention or impair his powers of concentration.  Only after the contents of a letter requiring a reply had been thoroughly digested could they be regurgitated, a number of hours later, in an appropriately pertinent manner.  It was as though he planned his dictation in advance, like a military campaign, and secretly flattered himself over his ability to remember, at a later time, what he had earlier decided upon, since the letters subsequently required only the slightest attention.  The greater part of his attention appeared to be focused on his secretary, whom he enjoyed watching, and in whose person he still had a vaguely amorous interest, despite the passage of time.

     "Now then!" he gently exclaimed, having dispensed with his signature-cum-autograph and pulled a small pile of letters out of a drawer to the left of his desk.  "Three of these can have the same reply, since they relate to an identical subject."  He briefly scanned the letters in question and commenced dictation with: "We are most grateful for your inquiry regarding the advisability of submitting an essay on the novelist Hillary Parker for the October edition of our periodical, but regret to say that the edition in question has already been planned and could not now be rearranged STOP We would however be willing to consider such an essay for the November edition if circumstances permit STOP Your interest in the magazine is much appreciated and we look forward to receiving your contribution STOP".  He read out the names and addresses of the people concerned and cast their letters to one side.  Not often, he mused, that potential contributors bothered to sound one out beforehand.  Most of them just sent things, and pretty unsuitable things, too!  But these three must have had some raw experiences in consequence of former optimism, and accordingly become more cautious.  And rightly so, since Hillary Parker's latest book hadn't received the most flattering of critical introductions to the general public in certain other influential periodicals.

     Nicholas Webb frowned down at the remaining letters in his hands, all of which could be covered by the same response - one relating to the superfluous nature of the many articles received on Howard Tonks from contributors, or potential contributors, who had previously been of use to him.  Thus: "Whilst we are must grateful to you for offering us your article on Mr Tonks ... we regret to say that we have already decided to publish an interview with him in the September edition ... which has precluded us from considering any further material STOP Nevertheless ..."

     The ringing of the external telephone suddenly interrupted his rather florid dictation, the product in part of a slight inebriation.  With an expression of annoyance on his ruddy face, he snatched up the receiver and briskly announced his name, as though to a subordinate.

     "Good afternoon, Mr Webb!  This is Howard Tonks speaking, and I regret to inform you that I wish to lodge a serious complaint."

     "Mr Tonks!?"  Webb's expression immediately changed from annoyance at being interrupted to apprehension at the words 'serious complaint'.  "What appears to be the, er, trouble, sir?" he asked.

     "The trouble, Mr Webb, is that my daughter appears to have been raped, yesterday afternoon, by one of your correspondents whilst I was detained in Birmingham an extra day," came the blunt rejoinder from an irate composer.  "I received a letter this morning from my elderly housekeeper, informing me that she has decided to resign her post in consequence of the deplorable spectacle she was obliged to witness in my study, of all places, at the time in question - a spectacle, apparently, in which your young correspondent had availed himself of Rebecca's generosity for purposes which common decency prevent me from enlarging upon.  At her age, it was more than she could bear to witness such a scene!  I have no notion of how she is at present, but I can only suspect the worst.  And the same, alas, applies to my daughter, whom I haven't seen today.  Whether she's dead or alive I cannot tell, for she's certainly not at home.  I hunted through all the rooms in my house after reading the letter from my housekeeper - or perhaps I should say ex-housekeeper - earlier today, but she was nowhere to be found.  And her bed hadn't been slept in the previous night.  Not the slightest indication of where she had gone or been taken.... You can't imagine how upset my poor wife is over this."  The note of anger in his voice could not be sustained beyond these words, but faltered into one of grief.  He seemed on the verge of tears, as though on behalf of Beverly Tonks.  "I haven't yet ... contacted the police," he went on falteringly, "but will have to do so ... if no news of Rebecca's whereabouts reaches me ... within the next couple of days."

     At the mention of police, Webb flinched and blanched perceptibly.  The possibility of 'Arts Monthly' being involved in a scandal of such magnitude positively horrified him.  "Are you absolutely certain it was one of our correspondents whom your housekeeper discovered, er, having improper relations with your daughter?" he hastened to query.  For he simply couldn't believe that Anthony Keating would involve himself in such disgraceful behaviour.  It sounded altogether too preposterous.

     "Not absolutely certain," the composer admitted, in a slightly trembling voice, "because Mrs Marchbanks hadn't seen your correspondent before."

     "You mean, Mr Keating?"

     "Yes, he was the one who came on Monday to interview me, wasn't he?" Mr Tonks recalled.  "Mind you, he didn't actually succeed in doing so, because he was more interested in hearing me play the piano and talking about irrelevant issues."

     "But I understood from him that you had a sore throat, sir, and was unable, in consequence, to take part in the interview as arranged."

     "Not at all, Mr Webb!" the composer hastened to correct.  "I was as fit as a fiddle.  I could have talked all afternoon and was perfectly prepared to do so.  But Mr Keating was more interested in hearing my music, and even went so far as to record me playing Schumann."

     Webb frowned gravely.  It was evident that young Keating had lied to him on Tuesday morning!

     "However, all that is really beside the point," continued Mr Tonks, his voice regaining a hint of its former anger.  "The fact is that I agreed to give the interview on Thursday afternoon, as soon as I got back from certain last-minute professional engagements in Birmingham, so your correspondent was scheduled to return then.  Unfortunately, as I remarked earlier, I was detained there on the day in question and, not having your office number with me, could only telephone home in the morning to instruct my daughter, who has not yet returned to college from her summer recess, to get in touch with you and cancel the interview on my behalf.  Whether she did or not, I don't know."

     "I didn't hear about any such call," Webb impulsively responded, in the teeth of a temptation to say the contrary and thereby acquire a pretext for asserting that Keating had been instructed to go elsewhere in the afternoon.  But that might have led to further complications.

     "Well, it appears someone visited my house yesterday afternoon," Mr Tonks rejoined, "since there is no reason for me to assume my housekeeper was simply imagining things.  And the way things stand, Mr Keating seems to be the most likely suspect.  There is, however, one other possibility, so far as your employees are concerned, and that's a young man by name of Wilder."

     "Neil Wilder?" ejaculated Webb, hardly able to believe his ears.  "But he has been off work all week with influenza."

     "Really?" exclaimed Mr Tonks in some perplexity.  "Well, he was well enough to turn-up at my door for a few minutes this afternoon, Mr Webb, with the express intention of conducting the interview in Keating's stead.  He knew, curiously, that I had been away the day before, and he knew, too, that I'd agreed to give the interview this afternoon - two factors which led me to assume that my daughter could have seen him on Thursday and passed on the information I'd imparted to her by phone.  As it happens, he denied having visited my house the previous afternoon, but claimed that Mr Keating had informed him of my change of circumstances the same evening.  In other words, he induced me to assume that Mr Keating had visited the house on Thursday.  But when I asked him point-blank as to exactly when Mr Keating had last visited it, he immediately replied: 'Monday'.  There was no mention of anyone coming here yesterday."

     Nicholas Webb was flabbergasted.  "But that's impossible!" he asseverated, directing a look of horrified amazement at his baffled secretary.  "Someone must have gone to your house yesterday to discover that you were postponing the interview an extra day, since Mr Keating was under no doubt, when I spoke to him on Tuesday morning, that you had only postponed it until Thursday."

     "Yes, I fully appreciate that fact, Mr Webb," responded the composer.  "It would seem that one of your two correspondents is lying, and, until I know which of them to blame, I'm afraid I shall have to postpone the interview indefinitely.  And if I don't hear from my daughter over the weekend, I'm afraid I shall have to notify the police in the hope that they can trace her.  In the meantime, I suggest you question your correspondents as to what they were up to, and then take appropriate measures to ensure that it doesn't happen again!  I look forward to hearing from you at the earliest possible opportunity, Mr Webb.  Good day!"

     A sigh of despair escaped from between Nicholas Webb's parted lips, as he gently returned the receiver to its customary position on the body of the telephone.

     "What was all that about?" asked Mrs Pegg, with an air of bewilderment.

     "Something pretty serious!" he replied, furrowing his brows to a degree that left his secretary in no doubt of the matter.  "Something that may well concern the future of our magazine."  Then, realizing that there was little time to be lost, he asked Mrs Pegg, in dismissing her, to send Osbourne in to see him.  The senior sub-editor, he knew, held Thursday-evening gatherings at his flat to which several of the correspondents and other members of staff were often invited.  Perhaps it would be possible to elicit some relevant information concerning the whereabouts, yesterday evening, of either Keating or Wilder from him?  Unfortunately, there was no way he could see them in person that afternoon, since the one was out reviewing the new art exhibition at the Merlin Gallery, and would probably remain out for the rest of the day, while the other was officially still off work with flu.  But he would certainly see them both first thing Monday morning.  There could be no doubt about that!

     Before long the door opened again and in walked Martin Osbourne with an anxious expression on his thin face.  "Is anything wrong?" he asked.

     "You bet there is!" Webb affirmed in a gruff voice, before motioning him to sit down.  "I have just heard from ..." Realizing it would probably be more tactful to keep quiet about the telephone conversation with Howard Tonks for the time being, he cut himself short on that score, and continued: "I take it you still hold your Thursday-evening, er, gatherings?"

     Osbourne felt inclined to smile at his superior's tactful formality in spite of the solemnity of the occasion.  "Why yes, I held one last night in fact," he calmly admitted.

     "And was Keating there?"

     "Only just, for he arrived over an hour-and-a-half late, excusing himself on the basis of his interview engagement with Howard Tonks," revealed the senior sub-editor.

     Webb could barely conceal his anger and frustration.  Nevertheless he just about contrived to hold himself in check, as he asked: "And did he say anything about it?"

     "Only that the composer had kept him to dinner and talked about himself a great deal."

     Here Webb felt obliged to give minimum vent to his pent-up feelings in the form of a protracted sigh, the negative breath of which Osbourne must have felt across the other side of the desk, for he shifted uneasily in his chair.  There could be no doubt that Keating had lied!  It was his word against Mr Tonks'.  But what of Wilder?  How did he come to get involved, unless he happened to be at Osbourne's little gathering, too?  It seemed the most likely explanation, and yet it was difficult to put the question point-blank to Osbourne, difficult because he would feel decidedly uncomfortable at the prospect of revealing that someone who was ostensibly ill, and off work in consequence, was nevertheless well enough to attend his little soiree.  But there remained a more subtle approach, and Webb was all for trying it.  "I take it Keating was the only member of staff present at your party last night," he commented.

     The senior sub-editor's face appreciably darkened at the memory of what Wilder had said to him about keeping his attendance confidential.  It simply wouldn't have been fair on him to disclose his presence there, and thereby enable Webb to infer that he ought to have been well enough to return to work today, assuming he had really been sick in the first place.  So, after a moment's painful hesitation, he simply said: "No, Andrew was also there."

     "Only Andrew Hunt?" queried the editor in what, to Osbourne, seemed like an impertinently sceptical tone.

     "Yes."  The temptation to mention Neil momentarily presented itself to Osbourne again but was instantly quashed.  "But what is all this about?" he cried, unable to restrain his pique at being interrogated in such fashion.

     "I'll tell you what it's all about!" exploded Webb and, throwing caution to the wind, he proceeded to divulge the information which Howard Tonks had imparted to his worry-strained mind only a few minutes before.

     "Oh, I see," murmured Osbourne, as the implications of the affair began to register with him.  "And Wilder turned-up on the composer's doorstep this afternoon?"

     "He did indeed! confirmed Webb.  "Which leads one to assume that Keating must have phoned him or visited his flat either before or after he visited yours," he added, "and thus got Wilder to stand-in for him."

     Martin Osbourne bit his lip in a panic of guilt.  All-of-a-sudden it was perfectly obvious to him what had happened.  They must have come to some such arrangement while he was in the toilet and talked about it behind his back, the deceitful bastards!  Even Keating's desire to listen to music must have had some ulterior motive, like ensuring they wouldn't be easily overheard.  For when he returned from the toilet, Osbourne remembered, the music was louder than before, and, partly because of this, he had gone across to the far corner of the room and left the two correspondents to groove, ostensibly, to the other side of the Jeff Beck instead of attempting to get into conversation with either or both of them, as he had initially intended.  But how could he now admit that Wilder had been at his party?  How could he go back on what he had just said?  He bit his lip again in the throes of this quandary.

     "Yes, it's quite a problem," admitted Webb, misinterpreting his colleague's pained expression.  "We can't afford a scandal of this magnitude and, what's more, we can't tolerate it!  One if not both of them will have to go.  We cannot continue to employ people who betray our trust in them in such a blatantly underhand and frankly criminal fashion!"

     "But I can't believe that Anthony Keating would actually rape anyone," objected Osbourne on an incredulous note.  "He's much too civilized."

     "Too devious would be nearer the mark!" declared Webb aggressively.  "Yet if what Howard Tonks' housekeeper apparently wrote in her letter of resignation is true, then we have no choice but to believe it.  Besides, the fact of the old woman's resignation is bad enough.  It may cost us the interview."  He frowned angrily and leant back in his chair.  As if there wasn't enough to worry about already!

     "Well, now that you've told me, what are we to do?" asked Osbourne nervously.

     "Nothing until Monday morning," replied Webb, frowning.  "Then we'll get to the bottom of the matter.  In the meantime, I suggest you carry on as normal and pretend, for everybody else's benefit, that nothing has happened."

     The senior sub-editor nodded acquiescently and, with some relief, took his leave of Webb's office.  But he returned to his own office via Andrew Hunt's one.  For he had no desire that the editor should subsequently find out, via Hunt, that his own account of what had happened on Thursday evening was less than totally true!

 

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

Anthony Keating carefully raised himself on one elbow and stared down at the still-sleeping body of Rebecca Tonks beside him.  How beautiful she looked!  And how delightful the scent of her soft femininity!  He had been celibate for so long, before meeting her, that he had quite forgotten what women smelt like.  Not only that; he had quite forgotten what they felt like, too.  But Rebecca had made it possible for him to put his celibacy behind him and embrace his sexuality with a sure knowledge.  She had made it possible on Thursday and Friday and, with a little coaxing, she would doubtless make it possible for him again today.

     He bent down closer to her head and gently inhaled the fragrance of her soft hair.  It seemed to him even more delightful at this virginal time of day than during the night, when he had playfully run his fingers through it and delicately buried his nostrils in its silken strands.  There was certainly something aphrodisiac about it, something that aroused one's desire.  But his desire had been so thoroughly satisfied, the previous evening, that it could only be aroused to the comparatively feeble extent of putting the tip of his tongue to a few strands of hair which he now held in his right hand.  He didn't want to be deprived of the taste and texture of her hair simply because of an essay he had read, some time ago, about the existence of ticks, those insect-like bloodsuckers!  To him, it was as much a gesture of confidence in her hair as an indication of his growing love for her, the implication being that even if, by some remote chance, her hair did contain ticks, he would still find it no less attractive.  For they would be her ticks, after all, and therefore no ordinary ones!  On the contrary, they would almost be something special.  But why was he thinking about ticks now, about tiny parasites which she had probably never even heard of, let alone contracted.  It was really quite absurd.

     Letting go of her hair, he gently eased himself back to his former horizontal position by her side and shut his eyes to the wan light filtering in through the pale-green curtains of his bedroom.  What a strange dream he had dreamt just before waking up!  It was so strange that he couldn't quite remember it, at least not accurately.  But there had been a thing about Portsmouth in it - a Portsmouth, however, that existed somewhere near the north-east coast of England!  For he had looked at a map, in this dream, and discovered that there was no such place on the south coast.  Where one might have expected to find Portsmouth one encountered, instead, a place called Sunderland, which had apparently changed places with it, or almost so, give or take a few miles.  But how odd one's dreams could be sometimes!  It was as though.... And then he suddenly recalled his experiences at the Merlin Gallery the previous afternoon.  Yes, there was definitely a connection of sorts between some of the exhibits on display there and what he had dreamt of during the night!  If Alan Connolly hadn't indulged in map surrealism, so to speak, he had certainly indulged in a surrealism of sorts or, more accurately, of the body.  Not in the sense that where one expected to find toes one found fingers or, alternatively, legs where one had expected arms.  No, Connolly's surrealism had simply applied names to parts of the body to which, in reality, they had not the slightest applicability.  For instance, in one of the three large drawings of the nude male on display, one found oneself staring at a foot which had been designated, with the aid of a large red  arrow, 'nipple'.  Higher up, the component of the body that one ordinarily regarded as the forearm had been similarly designated 'nose'.  And where the nose was, one's baffled mind encountered an arrowed designation of 'kneecap'!  

     Having dealt with the front of the male body in such an unconventional manner, the artist had then proceeded to apply similar principles to the back of it in another drawing, so that, to take a single example, the left buttock bore the noun 'nape' and the right one 'calf muscle'.  And in a third drawing, which focused upon internal organs of the body, one found oneself staring at designations such as 'heart' for kidneys, 'lungs' for bladder, and 'appendix' for liver.  As Keating had to admit, it was more than a trifle perplexing, particularly in an age when surrealism was no longer quite in vogue!  But, on subsequent reflection,  it also contained an amusing side which poked fun at conventional conditioning and gave one a short holiday from the everyday world, including, no less importantly, of the current art establishment.  And so too, for that matter, did the attendant drawings of the female body, with a slightly different arrangement of names and, following them, the drawings of the various animals, birds, fish, and insects which the artist had decided to submit to an identical treatment.  Indeed, there were so many seemingly misplaced names or eccentrically designated parts on display, in this particular section of the exhibition, that one had cause to wonder whether their perpetrator would have been capable of applying the correct names to the relevant parts, or of naming the relevant parts correctly, had circumstances obliged him to do so.

     Yet if that kind of mental or psychological surrealism wasn't weird enough, what followed was even more so!  For the surrealism of names, as one might term it, was only one aspect of Connolly's art, and arguably not the most revolutionary or unconventional aspect, either!  There was also a surrealism of colours applicable to paintings in which roses were bright green, dark blue, or black; tulips grey, emerald, or dark brown; leaves bright orange, pink, or blue; trees red or pale blue; hedges black or dark grey; suns bright blue or mauve; clouds yellow, cabbages violet, skies green, apples purple, bananas maroon, earth silver, and so on.  Really, it was difficult to distinguish shit from sugar when one found the natural world painted in these unrepresentative colours!  One was made conscious of how much one's ability to recognize familiar shapes depended on their colours, how much one took these colours for granted, and how even the most carefully and accurately defined shape became somewhat ambiguous and even problematic when deprived of its rightful hue.  But there may have been something in it for the colour blind, Keating reflected, as he lay beside his sleeping beauty and gazed up at the brightly-painted white ceiling which, under the light-restricting influence of his cotton curtains, looked more like a smooth grey cloud.  For those who couldn't see red, even a dark-blue rose would probably have been a more interesting, not to say satisfying, proposition than a relatively colourless one.  And what applied to roses must surely apply just as much, he imagined, to a number of other natural phenomena - for example, trees and apples.

     An arm stirred beside him, moved a little farther across the pillow on which it was resting, and came to a gentle halt against his left earlobe.  It was evident that Rebecca moved parts of her body about during sleep from time to time, and did so, moreover, in a manner which suggested that she knew exactly to what extent.  But suggestions could be misleading, and just because Keating had had the good fortune to have woken up, the previous morning, at a time when Rebecca's left hand was in the process of sliding down his stomach towards his flaccid penis, it didn't mean that she could be depended upon to do the same thing again today, and with greater moment!  Even so, sharing a bed with another person was certainly something of an adventure.  One could never be absolutely sure what would happen during one's sleep, whether, on waking, one would find the various limbs resting in exactly the same positions as the night before or whether, on the contrary, they would be in positions affording one a degree of sensuous pleasure at the other person's expense.  That, at any rate, was how it seemed to Keating when he reflected on his previous experiences with bed partners - few-and-far-between as they were.  In all but one case he had been the partner to wake up first, the person with the privilege, if he so desired, of contemplating or smelling or even touching and gently caressing the sleeping body beside him, of experiencing that peculiar sense of possession which such a privilege entails.

     He smiled faintly and relapsed into his reflections on Connolly's art exhibition again.  It was certainly one of the strangest exhibitions he had ever seen, whether privately or in his professional capacity as a correspondent for 'Arts Monthly', and one that, in the main, merely confirmed him in his low opinion of contemporary art.  Of course, he had to admit that there were exceptions to the general rule.  There were dedicated artists who, even these days, produced work of real artistic value - perhaps of lesser artistic value than Rembrandt or El Greco or Tintoretto, yet nevertheless of some value when judged by traditional painterly standards.  As a rule, however, artists like Alan Connolly prevailed, purveyors of the sham art which circumstances had obliged him to review yesterday, and which he hadn't yet got around to writing about.  How he would bring himself to do so, he didn't know.  But as a salaried member of Webb's staff, he was under strict orders to get it done as quickly as possible and sent off to the printers before Monday.  There wouldn't even be time for the editor to look it over beforehand.... Not that Webb knew anything much about contemporary art and would be likely, in consequence, to find fault with it from a connoisseur's standpoint!  On the contrary, his only real interest lay in ensuring that words prejudicial to the financial or legal welfare of the magazine didn't get printed, and, as far as that went, he knew exactly what to look for, the crafty sod!  So it was up to Keating not to invalidate his trust.  Up to Anthony, in other words, not to succumb to the temptation which was developing within him to slate contemporary art, through Alan Connolly, in a manner guaranteed to excite public hostility and, no less importantly, to slate Connolly, through contemporary art, in a manner guaranteed to excite private hostility from the artist himself.  The principal thing was to restrain one's subjective feelings in the interests of objective reality, to give an outline of the exhibition for what it was rather than for what, in one's unreasonableness, one would prefer it to have been.  There could be no question, therefore, of one's condemning the artist on the perfectly feasible grounds that what he did wasn't really art.  That would have been sheer imbecility!  The only reasonable stance was one that recognized his work as somehow inevitable, as something that had a right to be done at this point in time, given the overly exploitative and, from a bourgeois or middle-class standpoint, decadent nature of the age.  Otherwise one would fall into the ignominious trap of wishful thinking, of self-righteous moralizing about the need to improve contemporary art when, to all appearances, it couldn't be improved upon, least of all in a way that equated improvement with a return to former standards, and to standards, moreover, quite beyond the abilities or beneath the inclinations of most living artists.

     Viewed objectively, the small number of genuine conservatives, analogous in some respects to the purveyors of popular culture, might be producing work of an artistically superior nature to those who, after their decadent fashion, reflected the times and preferred to be avant-garde.  But that wasn't to say that they were saints and the others, the more contemporaneous, abject sinners!  Au contraire, their rejection of avant-garde trends was, in itself, a kind of spiritual suicide, a denial of the age and, as such, a concession to the spirit of aesthetic determinism, with its representational objectivity.  For just as the most admirable of men were those who aided the development of a new culture when an old one was crumbling around them, men who, like the first Christians, faced torture and death in the name of a new religion, so, conversely, the least admirable were those who endeavoured to sustain the old, crumbling culture beyond its proper life-span and consequently held up the development of the new - assuming, of course, that a new culture was really in the making.  It was a question, in short, of knowing when to create and when to undermine or destroy; of knowing when creation was more credible, because pertinent, than destruction and, conversely, destruction more credible, because pertinent, than creation.

     Now as far as contemporary art, particularly in the West, was concerned, it was the destroyers and underminers who reigned supreme, the men who, realizing there was little to be got from traditional religion by way of nourishing the arts, had turned, via the insidiously narcissistic route of l'art-pour-l'art, to science and technology for their inspiration.  And the result, needless to say, was the wintry aridity that characterized the representative or, more usually, non-representative art of our time, the ridiculously simplistic or crack-brained works of people like Alan Connolly!  The result was not art, since no genuine art can flourish after the decline of the religion which brought it into being and provided it with the thematic guidance and sustenance it requires, but sham art - the prevailing scientifically-minded worms that fed on the putrescent corpse of the culture which had engendered them.  The result, then, was not something to be particularly pleased about!  It was simply a fact of contemporary life, one that had to be understood and endured no less than any other.  And, in this respect, Keating was slowly but surely becoming more adept, more resigned to the superficially fatuous though, at the same time, profoundly meaningful works of the leading contemporary artists.  In a sense, most of them weren't really artists at all, since the criteria of genuine art had long ceased to apply and could not now be resurrected.  And neither were they truly contemporary, since photography was the real art of the age.  As petty-bourgeois anti-artists, however, they still had a valid role to play in chronicling Western cultural decline from a perspective rooted, degeneratively, in the decadence of a civilization.  Whether or not one liked the fact, the legitimacy of that role was beyond dispute.  The only alternative to sham art was no art at all, and until that day arrived, until the civilized West declined to a point where it couldn't decline any further, having reached rock bottom, so to speak, of its materialistic degeneration, the arid productions of its leading cultural representatives would have to be tolerated, come what may!  After all, were they not the only kind of spiritual fodder to which the civilized West could properly be expected to relate at present?  It was a thought which Keating loathed to entertain, though he had to admit that it contained a germ of truth so far as the bourgeois intelligentsia were concerned.

     He felt a bodily movement beside him, followed by the sound of a voice asking whether he had slept well.  Startled out of his sombre reflections, he turned over to discover Rebecca staring across the pillow at him.  He smiled his appreciation of this fact and responded affirmatively.  "But not as well as you, if your expression was anything to judge by," he added, putting an arm round her bare waist.  "You not only woke up after me, you bloody-well got to sleep before me as well!"

     "I'm usually a very sound and compulsive sleeper," she admitted, with a hearty yawn in attendance for good measure.  "I can usually sleep for eight hours at a stretch."

     "Six is the most I can manage," he murmured, becoming a trifle embarrassed by the mutual bad breath being exhaled with every word.  It was more than enough to make one feel both ashamed and disgusted with oneself!  But it was virtually inevitable, a fact of life with which a majority of couples who shared the same bed probably had to persevere.  Doubtless most of them came to some arrangement for lessening or even avoiding it.  One of the couple concerned would always get up before the other or, assuming that wasn't possible, they would make a point of either not speaking at all or of only speaking with their backs turned on each other, so that the bad-breath factor wouldn't unduly impair or undermine their relationship.  For until one brushed one's teeth, etc., and thereby freshened-up one's mouth, the reality of bad breath would have to be borne as stoically as possible.  Providing one wasn't coupled to a person who suffered from halitosis throughout the day, one could at least consider oneself relatively fortunate.

     "So what are you intending to do today?" asked Rebecca sleepily.

     "Firstly, I shall have to get started on that review I was supposed to have written yesterday evening," replied Keating, primarily addressing his softly-spoken words at the ceiling, "and then, if there's any time left before lunch, I'll take you for a stroll round Croydon.  After lunch, we can take a bus out to Redhill and visit one of my friends, and later, well ..." He smiled vaguely and lapsed into a ponderous silence.  It wasn't easy to address oneself to the ceiling, since it tended to highlight one's motivation for doing so.  Better to turn one's head from time to time and expose the other person to a whiff of bad breath.  After all, he wasn't the only one to blame.  He turned to face her and offered her a wan smile, a smile not open but sort of closed-in upon itself.

     "I'm sure we'll find something to do," murmured Rebecca, reciprocating in kind.

     "Yes, I'm sure we will," he whispered, and he gave her a quick peck on the lips as though in confirmation of some new-found confidence.

     At that moment, however, the telephone rang and, feeling slightly apprehensive, he climbed out of bed and hurried into the adjoining room to answer it.

     "Hello Tony, it's Neil here," the voice on the other end of the line responded to his formal announcement.  "I phoned your place three times last night and couldn't get a reply, so I assume you were out."

     "Until 1.00am to be precise," Keating admitted.  "I was entertaining a very attractive young lady, actually."

     "Not Rebecca Tonks, by any chance?"

     "Why, yes!  How did you guess?"

     Wilder sighed before saying: "It wasn't a question of guessing, Tony.  It was simply a case of being confronted, yesterday afternoon, by an irate composer who was of the express opinion that one of us had raped and abducted his daughter."

     "Raped and abducted?" echoed Keating in amazement.  "What d'you mean?"

     "Perhaps that's something you could tell me," rejoined Wilder threateningly.  "It seems there were one or two things you didn't tell me about, the other evening; things that led to my being accused of them and made to feel a fool yesterday afternoon."

     The nervous excitement that shot through Keating's body, with the reception of this information, nearly caused him to urinate on the carpet.  He could barely hold the telephone receiver still.  "You didn't have any trouble with the interview, did you?" he gasped, after a few seconds' trembling silence.

     Wilder repeated his sighing act of the moment before, then said: "Unfortunately it didn't take place, Tony.  He absolutely refused to let me into his house to conduct it."

     "Refused?"  Keating sank to his knees as his legs suddenly lost their ability to support him.

     "It's most unlikely that he'll allow anyone to interview him now," asserted Wilder.  "Unless, perhaps, he finds out exactly what went on between you and his daughter on Thursday, and is satisfied that it wasn't as bad as his housekeeper has evidently led him to believe.  And then he'll want to find out what's going on between you now, won't he?"

     Keating chewed his lower lip in desperation and then emitted a loud groan.  It appeared that he had landed himself in quite the most serious fix of his entire journalistic career at 'Arts Monthly'!  For a horrible thought suddenly assailed his worry-stricken mind.  What if Mr Tonks had been in touch with Nicholas Webb about it?  Or the police, for that matter?

     "He made no mention of having done so to me," replied Wilder to a desperate question based on that assumption.  "But we have no reason to assume that, if he hasn't already been in touch with them, he won't do either or both next week, particularly if he doesn't find out what's happened to his daughter in the meantime.  And if he does do either or both, then it's you who must take the consequences, Tony, not me!  I'm  merely your dupe, remember?  And not a very grateful one, either!"

     "I'm dreadfully sorry, Neil, but I had absolutely no idea this would happen," confessed Keating, trembling.  "After all, I was obliged to go to the Merlin Gallery yesterday afternoon."

     "Yes, but you could have told me what actually happened between you and Mr Tonks' daughter on your last visit to her house, couldn't you?" Wilder snapped.  "But perhaps you'll tell me now."

     Anthony Keating sighed his heartfelt reluctance at having to expatiate on that subject, what with Rebecca in the adjoining room, presumably still in bed, but, realizing he had little alternative, he began to explain things in a subdued tone-of-voice and as well as his distinctly nervous condition would allow - the most important thing being to make it perfectly clear to his fellow-correspondent that there had been no question of rape or abduction.  On the contrary, a sexual relationship had developed by mutual consent - naturally, joyfully, inevitably.

     "A little rushed all the same, don't you think?" opined Wilder in the strained wake of his colleague's explanation.  "You hadn't known her for very long, after all."

     "Yes, I realize that," Keating conceded.  "But, under the favourable circumstances, the house being otherwise deserted and Rebecca being conspicuously affable, not to say erotically attired, it seemed the most reasonable step.  I mean, what would you have done in my position?" he asked in desperation.

     In spite of his seriousness, Neil Wilder felt compelled to stifle a snigger with this question.  There could be no denying the fact that, for all his faults, Tony was a likeable person!  "It would depend on whether she was my kind of woman or not before I could hope to reach a decision about that," he at length rather academically replied.  "In such a delicate matter as love, we're all on our own.  But even if I can't particularly blame you for having done what you did, it ought to be fairly obvious that sex at such short notice, and in the context it evidently happened, is more likely to be open to allegations of rape, from external sources, than would be the case had it taken place following a period of courtship.  You have to be very careful where some of the older generation are concerned, you know.  I didn't see the housekeeper personally, but I suspect she was getting on a bit."

     "In her early seventies apparently," obliged Keating, recalling what Rebecca had later told him.

     "Well, that speaks for itself, doesn't it?" declared Wilder.  "And as for your girlfriend's father, who is probably more of an idealist than a prude, what do you expect him to think?"

     Keating frowned gravely.  Such a rhetorical question was just like Neil and it pained him to have to swallow it.  The way matters stood at present, he could only expect Mr Tonks to think the worst.  But there was, it suddenly occurred to him, a means of getting the composer to think less badly.  Perhaps even a means of inducing him to change his mind and grant the interview: namely Rebecca herself.  She could phone home, tell him where she was, what she thought of her latest boyfriend, and so on.  Yes, that had to be the solution.  After all, who else could he be expected to believe?

     "Well?" pressed Wilder, after several seconds' silence had prompted him to wonder whether his colleague was still on the line.

     "Listen Neil, I believe I have the solution," revealed Keating with enthusiasm.  "If I can get Rebecca to phone home this morning, we should have this mess cleared up by Monday.  Her father might even allow me to interview him tomorrow or the day after."

     "I hope he does," came the slightly sceptical response from a more experienced correspondent.  "Otherwise you won't find life particularly congenial at 'Arts Monthly' next week!  I wish you luck."

     The telephone clicked off, leaving Anthony Keating to his worried thoughts.  Of all the unfortunate things to happen!  And just at a time when life was beginning to show signs of promise!  He clambered to his feet with some difficulty, staggered back to the bedroom, where Rebecca was brushing out her long dark hair in front of the dressing-table mirror, and threw himself across the bed.

     "So what was all that about?" she asked, getting up from the small stool on which she had been kneeling and going across to him.  "You look quite upset."

     "I am actually," said Keating, who then proceeded to reveal the substance of his conversation with Neil Wilder.

     "A bit of a problem" she agreed, as his divulgence ran its sombre course and culminated in his request for her assistance.  "But I can do what you want, if you really think it'll help."

     "Please go ahead," he urged her.

     A naked goddess about to protect her devotee, she strode calmly into the adjoining room and closed the door behind her.  For ten minutes the sound of her muffled voice reached Keating's ears and kept him on tenterhooks.  It seemed an eternity of suffering while the conversation, presumably with her father, droned on, and always with the possibility of his being called upon to offer an apology or, at the very least, an explanation of his behaviour.  But at length, when he was on the verge of a nervous collapse, the conversation ended, and a slightly pale-faced but still relatively calm-looking Rebecca Tonks returned to the bedroom.  "It's alright," she said, offering him a reassuring smile.  "He'll give you the interview Monday afternoon."

 

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

The final chord of César Franck's Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue gave rise, following its timely demise, to a burst of spontaneous applause from both Howard Tonks and Sean Carroll.  The two men clapped as though they were at a concert.  For something about the consummate manner in which Roy Hart had just played the piano created the illusion they were.

     "Quite remarkable," opined Carroll, as the novelty of clapping his hands together, fingers to palm, in the presence of only two other men began to wane.  "T(h)at was quite the best performance of this composition I've ever heard.  One would have t(h)ought you were playing to hundreds."  And to make doubly sure that his professional appreciation was felt or at least registered by the pianist, he sent a broad Irish smile in hot pursuit of his words.  With jet-black hair, bright-blue eyes, a florid complexion, and a generous smile like that, there could be little doubt as to his country of origin, even if one were deaf to his strong Dublin accent, with its plethora of silent h's in connection with the letter 't', in ironic contrast, one might have supposed, to the silent t's of Gaelic in connection with the letter 'h'.  But right now he was in England at the invitation of Howard Tonks, some of whose orchestral works were going to receive a Dublin première in a week's time, and by an orchestra of which Carroll was the principal conductor.  For it was mutually understood that the performance of these works in the Irish Republic would bring their composer fresh admirers there, and considerably strengthen his reputation as one of the contemporary world's foremost musical geniuses.  However, the problem of musical interpretation couldn't be left completely to chance or, more accurately, to the whims of Sean Carroll alone.  Accordingly, he had been invited across the Irish Sea to directly consult with Tonks on a number of technical matters and musical subtleties contained in several of the scores.  A few days of intensive consultation were bound, Tonks felt, to have a salutary effect upon the conductor's interpretative abilities and enable him to return to Dublin properly armed to do justice, at the Royal Dublin Society, down in Ballsbridge, to the works concerned, which included a piano concerto and two orchestral pieces.

     "Don't you t(h)ink Franck was as great a composer for solo piano as Liszt?" remarked the conductor in question, turning to his host.

     "No, I can't say I actually do," the latter thoughtfully and almost apologetically replied, not a little surprised by the nature of Carroll's statement, which struck him as rather obscure and pretentious.  "Though there are undoubtedly similarities between them," he conceded.  "The work we have just been listening to certainly has some marked affinities with Liszt.  Not lacking in passion or brilliance, by no means the sort of music to have appealed to a more reserved and graceful composer like, say, Saint-Saëns.  But not, for all that, the sort of music which is ideally suited to the piano, unlike much of Liszt's.  One gets the impression that the organist in Franck usually got the better of the pianist and affected his piano compositions accordingly.  Even when composing for piano, he often tended to think in terms of the organ."

     "Yes, I would find it hard not to agree with that observation," Roy Hart, the 55-year-old concert pianist still seated at the Steinway, elected to comment.  "Not that I know a great deal about the, ah, organ.  But there are certainly occasions during the course of this particular composition when relatively unpianistic writing imposes itself upon one, to the detriment of technique.  The fugue is, I think, as good an example as any."

     No stranger to Tonkarias, Roy Hart had been a good friend of the composer for several years.  With the sole exception of Maynard Ferguson, a pianist five years his senior, he was the leading exponent in Britain of Howard Tonks' piano music, a man who had given recitals of this music in just about every major city in Europe and America, and been acclaimed, wherever he went, as one of the most versatile of modern concert pianists - a reputation stemming, in the main, from his ability to give piano recitals of virtually any major composer for that instrument who had ever lived (though, these days, he was increasingly coming under the influence of the avant-garde, and, more specifically, of a group of five British composers, including Tonks, who represented in some people's estimation the most radical departure from traditional classical forms which the Western world had yet experienced).

     "But there are compositions by Franck, surely, t(h)at match if not surpass anyt(h)ing Liszt ever did," objected Carroll good-humouredly, taking up the thread of his earlier comment.

     Howard Tonks scratched the crown of his head with the middle finger of his right hand and turned a mildly quizzical gaze on the middle-aged figure seated in the armchair to his right.  "Yes, I suppose one could argue that Le Chasseur Maudit is as good as any of Liszt's better symphonic poems, with the possible exception of Prometheus," he concurred, after due consideration.  "As for Psyché, I'm not so sure.  Some people, I know, regard it as the greatest symphonic poem ever written."

     "Probably the greatest by a Frenchman," said Hart, as he returned a half-consumed glass of medium-sweet sherry to the small coffee table by his side.  "Though I, personally, would hesitate to rate it any higher," he added as an afterthought.

     "That's not a particularly high rating anyway," averred Howard Tonks.  "How many other Frenchmen - it not being forgotten that Franck, though a naturalized Frenchman, was Belgian by birth - have actually written symphonic poems?"

     "Two or three at the most, beginning with Berlioz and ending with, ah, Debussy," stated Hart confidently.

     "Yes, La Mer isn't a bad work either, is it?" opined Howard Tonks, and he proceeded to hum a bar or two of Debussy's major work in the genre - a species of scholarship to which Sean Carroll felt compelled to add another bar in order, seemingly, to prove how well-versed he was in the repertoire of symphonic poems.  "But as regards the symphonic poem in general," Tonks continued, ignoring the conductor's humming, "I don't think you'll find a greater exponent than Liszt, notwithstanding the important contribution made by Richard Strauss.  At least six of his thirteen examples are of a quality which should endure for some time to come, and the good work Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic have done, in recent years, to record them all and bring them to public attention in an excellent production is something, I feel confident, that Liszt himself would justifiably be proud of, were he alive today."

     "Here, here!" interjected Hart, his pale-grey eyes suddenly glinting with the enthusiasm being generated by his spirit.  "In point of fact, I would rather listen to Les Préludes and Festklange performed by a poor orchestra than many symphonies-proper, including the Franck, being performed by a great one.  I still think the result would be more, ah, congenial to my ears."

     "I'm sure it would," Howard Tonks graciously concurred, though he had to admit to himself that the idea seemed rather odd.

     There was a short pause in the conversation which prompted the composer to glance at his watch and wonder at what time his daughter would be home.  It was now half-seven, and he had been told to expect her early that evening.  Despite his concern, he had almost forgotten about her - at any rate, to the extent of not remembering how upset he had felt by her absence the day before.  But thank god she was safe and presumably on her way back!  He would certainly want to speak to her when she arrived, ask her a number of questions about that young correspondent and her experiences of the past few days.  What a pity he had been out when she telephoned home that morning!  The task of meeting Sean Carroll at Euston Station and transporting him across North London had to be attended to somehow, since it was too late to cancel the invitation.  But at least his wife had taken the message and passed on the good news of her safety to him as soon as he got back.  So that was something.

     "A curious t(h)ing about Liszt," observed Carroll, by way of starting-up the conversation again, "is t(h)at his music so often seems to be in complete contrast to his lifestyle.  I mean, for a man who reputably led such a busy social life, who was by inclination a 'man of the world', it is really quite extraordinary t(h)at much of his music should be so refined, so exquisitely otherworldly, if you'll permit me to say.  You would t(h)ink he lived in an ivory tower most of the time, an isolation of the spirit t(h)at enabled him to perfect his unique style.  And then the spiritual tower would seem to have been supplemented by a material tower, like the one Yeats had at T(h)oor Ballylee, which would grant its fortunate possessor comparative freedom from all the social engagements and professional obligations of life in a major city."

     "Yes, I suppose one could think that about Liszt," conceded Howard Tonks, nodding vaguely, "particularly as regards works like Orpheus and Die Ideale - the most otherworldly of his symphonic poems.  But, even so, the man-of-the-world is very much in evidence in certain other works."

     "Doubtless he needed the contrast between his social and professional life to ensure that much of his music attained to a high degree of, ah, spirituality," conjectured Hart from the piano.  "He was able to make the best of both worlds, rather like Oscar Wilde, his nearest literary equivalent.  Remember that line in The Picture of Dorian Gray about curing the soul by means of the senses and the senses by means of the soul?  Well, it would appear Liszt was a master of doing just that, a man who knew how to make the senses serve the spirit instead of hindering it.  For, in the final analysis, it's a question of knowing how to live well or, alternatively, of being in a social position where one can live well, which is to say properly.  If one is either too poor or too rich the chances are that one won't be able to live properly, that, on the contrary, circumstances will force a kind of, ah, spiritual or sensual lopsidedness upon one and thereby hinder one's creative development.  But in Liszt's case, circumstances evidently favoured his creative development and enabled him to produce works which testify to a healthy spirit.  And, unlike Schumann, he didn't suffer from manic depression and syphilis."

     "Tertiary syphilis, wasn't it?" Mr Tonks suggested, out of academic interest.

     "So it is generally believed," the pianist confirmed.  "Though there are still some doubts as to the, ah, exact cause and nature of Schumann's madness.  But genius though he undoubtedly was, we nevertheless have good reason to assume that his art was, in some degree, tarnished by the nature of his health, both mental and physical, and therefore fell short of true greatness.  Or perhaps I should say proper living?"

     "That may be partly true of the late works," rejoined Mr Tonks, his impassive countenance suddenly betraying signs of deep anxiety, "but I would hesitate to apply such a sweeping assumption to the early ones.... Though to what extent his art was tarnished by ill-health is something that few if any of us will ever be able to ascertain."

     "Oh, I quite agree," conceded Hart, smiling defensively.  "But the assumption itself is by no means invalid.  Indeed, we could apply it to artists in every field, to painters and poets as much as to composers and novelists.  The inability, for one reason or another, to live properly, healthily, naturally, fully - call it what you like - inevitably makes for bad art.  Or, if that sounds a little too rhetorical, let us rather say for art which is less good than would otherwise be the case, had its creator not been, ah, poisoned in some way.  Even Beethoven's music, great though it undoubtedly is, must have suffered to some extent in consequence of his solitary lifestyle.  And what applies to Beethoven probably applies even more to Tchaikovsky, whose solitude was complicated by, ah, repressed homosexuality."

     There was a protracted sigh of disapproval with this attitude from Sean Carroll, whose blue eyes now shone less brightly than before.  He couldn't abide the idea that anyone who, by normal standards, was something of a freak ... should be doomed to producing inferior art on that account.  Was there not sufficient historical evidence to show, on the contrary, that it was precisely those who most lived against the natural grain, in one way or another, who produced the greatest art?  Were not the greatest artists almost invariably perverted solitaries - men like Gerard de Nerval, Baudelaire, Huysmans, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Tchaikovsky, even Nietzsche?  Did not genius presuppose a certain level of freakishness, born of solitude and inspiration?  And was it not in the nature of great works of art that they required freaks of one sort or another to pursue them, that they depended, in other words, on the unusual circumstances of their creators for their originality and uniqueness as art?

     "Naturally, there is some truth in what you say," Hart conceded, after the conductor had concluded his objections.  "But that is hardly reason for us to assume that only those who are sexually perverted or mad or crippled or ailing or whatever are qualified to produce the greatest art.  Such art is generally produced, in my opinion, by men who live well, have a healthy sex-life, good companions, a pleasant environment in which to work, regular food, relatively good health, and so on.  Admittedly, it may be true that an artist who lives badly, for one or more reasons, may have more innate genius than a majority of those who live comparatively well, in consequence of which he'll probably produce finer work.  Even so, his work will almost certainly be tarnished by the nature of his, ah, circumstances.  Take Beethoven, for instance.  One of the greatest composers, even given the fact that we are made all too conscious, in a number of his works, of the depression and frustration which underlay his repressed sexuality and habitual solitude.  There is decidedly something of a sickroom atmosphere there, particularly in his later works, and this atmosphere detracts, in my opinion, from his, ah, creative genius.  It's the same with Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, Satie, and any number of other sexual perverts and solitaries.  Their work may be great, but, in the final analysis, it's more the record of  men who lived under, ah, pathological conditions and produced such work in consequence of those conditions than a record of the highest art."

     "I'm afraid I can't agree with t(h)at idea one little bit!" confessed Sean Carroll, shaking his large handsome head from side to side in gestural testimony of his disagreement.  "They may have lived under relatively unusual or frustrating conditions, but they were still capable of producing great art!"

     "Yes, but not the highest or greatest art," countered Hart, briefly shaking his own head from side to side, "for it stemmed from a maimed and perverted self.  Compare Beethoven with Bach or Mozart and you have to admit that, great though he was, his illustrious predecessors possessed both a psychological and a physiological advantage over him, and accordingly wrote healthier music.  And it's the same thing, if from a different standpoint, with Liszt, who must have possessed a like-advantage over Schumann, even given the fact that Schumann had a wife and, ah, six children.  Unfortunately, his family weren't able to prevent him from losing his mind as a result, one can only assume, of the syphilitic infection he, ah, contracted in his student days.  And neither were they able to rid him of the manic depression he probably acquired at the time he was struggling to make a name for himself and get that megalomaniac Wieck to part with his, ah, talented daughter.  So, you see, it makes a lot of difference what shape your health is in when you compose music or write poetry or paint pictures.  In nine cases out of ten, the cripple is at a distinct disadvantage to the healthy and sound!"

     "I don't t(h)ink there would be much great art left in the world if you disqualified everyone who had been either diseased or solitary from your final assessment," opined Carroll, offering the pianist an ironic smile.  "After all, it's in the nature of genius to be solitary."

     "Not necessarily!" Hart retorted.  "A genius may not have time to spare on too many friends or acquaintances, but he should at least be able to spare some time on a wife or mistress.  Wasn't Bach a genius?  Weren't Mozart, Goethe, Blake, Brahms, Emerson, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Liszt, Chopin, Turner, Dickens, Tolstoy, et al., all geniuses?  The fact is that those who were solitary and perverted tended - and still tend - to be the, ah, exception to the rule.  It isn't the likes of Swift, Van Gogh, Baudelaire, or Dadd who form the majority in this respect, but such married men as Bach and Mozart who generally produced healthier work.  So, in my opinion, a genius needn't necessarily be a freak.  The assumption to the contrary seems to me somewhat misguided and, ah, over-simplistic.  Even those who were freakish were more often victims of unfortunate circumstances than simply freaks by natural inclination - assuming one can be such a thing by natural inclination!  Such, at any rate, was the case as regards Baudelaire and Van Gogh, not to mention Nietzsche."

     Howard Tonks raised his head from the bowed position in which it had remained, during the course of this metaphysical debate on genius, and gave Roy Hart, who struck him as having only a very limited and intrinsically philistine concept of genius symptomatic of an interpreter, a cursory glance.  He was almost expecting the pianist to allude to him as one such circumstantial freak.  But there was no sign of irony or malicious intent upon the latter's plump face.  Staring straight at Sean Carroll, it bore, on the contrary, one of the most smugly earnest and serious expressions the composer had ever beheld on it - an expression, one might have supposed, of a ministering priest convinced of his own unshakeable self-righteousness.

     "I still t(h)ink the greatest art comes from men who are what you arbitrarily call freaks," declared Carroll, unable to restrain the impulse to keep up his side of the argument.  "After all, great art is an expression of inspired individuality, and those who are most qualified to be inspired individuals don't lead a relatively conventional existence, hedged around with all manner of worldly and commonplace concerns or duties.  For nature and art are ever antit(h)etical, and if one is too close to nature one can't produce great art."

     "Yes, but living with a wife or a mistress doesn't necessarily imply that one is too close to nature!" countered Hart, his acerbic tone-of-voice now betraying a degree of impatience with the conductor that he had hitherto managed to conceal.  "And neither does it necessarily mean that one can't be highly individualistic in one's art.  I have already mentioned Blake, Liszt, and Turner in this respect.  But I could just as easily mention James Joyce, Stravinsky, Picasso, Aldous Huxley, Yeats, Prokofiev, and Tolkien.  What was there about marriage or concubinage, for that matter, which prevented them from expressing themselves in a highly individualistic manner, I wonder?  All right, there are also the solitaries and sexual perverts, the cripples and madmen - the likes of Genet, Céline, Satie, Raymond Roussel, Utrillo, Kafka, et al.  But if your purpose is to convince me that they were the ones who, in consequence of their respective psychological or physiological anomalies, were producing the greatest art, then you're a bloody long way from succeeding!  Fortunately, the criterion of great art doesn't depend upon the, ah, extent of its weirdness or the comparative weirdness of its creators.  It depends, rather, on the nature of its subject-matter and the way in which that subject-matter is, ah, handled.  The finest subject-matter, embracing the finest treatment or technique, will make for the greatest art.  Hence, in the realm of painting, a work which focuses on a beautiful country house will be aesthetically superior to one, displaying a similar standard of technical proficiency, that uses for its subject-matter a rat-infested city slum.  In the realm of literature, a work which focuses on the leisurely upper classes will be aesthetically superior to one, with a similar standard of technical proficiency, whose focus is the hard-pressed lower classes.  And, by a like token, a work of music utilizing the finest melodies and harmonies will be aesthetically superior to one which doesn't.  That should be fairly obvious, surely?"

     He looked inquiringly at both Sean Carroll and Howard Tonks, as though to elicit an affirmative response from them.  But such a response wasn't needed or indeed desirable.  For it would have humiliated its perpetrator, particularly Tonks, whose music, judged by this rather narrow estimate, would have appeared anything but great!  Compared with the finest works of Bach, Handel, Haydn, or Mozart, it would have dwindled to an insignificance virtually beneath contempt.  For if beauty was a constant, and the greatest works of art were those which approximated most fully to the highest beauty, whether human or otherwise, then it was only too evident that the works of Howard Sebastian Tonks were among the aesthetically poorest which had ever been composed; that they were, in fact, not music at all but anti-music - creations, in other words, that took their inspiration from ugliness and hatred, and, to judge by his most recent tendencies, the worst ugliness and hatred, to boot!

      But if that was so, why did Roy Hart bother to perform such radically degenerate compositions in public?  Why did he specialize, these days, in giving recitals of just such anti-music instead of confining himself to what his theory and taste knew to be best?  Was it simply because he had grown weary of performing traditional classical music, or was there perhaps some deep-rooted psychological malaise at the heart of it, a manifestation, for instance, of middle-class masochism, or maybe even some desperate love-affair which had caused him to ignore his better knowledge in the hope of gaining a satisfaction that would otherwise be denied him?  Supposing the woman he had fallen desperately in love with happened to be a keen avant-gardist, would not the intellect be sacrificed to the heart and his taste be trampled underfoot in the interests of what his tyrannical passion demanded?  These were conjectures that Howard Tonks had formulated on more than a few previous occasions, when the pianist had taken a similar line as regards the relative merits of diatonic composition and caused him to wonder why he bothered to perform contemporary music at all, commercial factors notwithstanding.  But despite their friendship, Roy Hart was such a secretive devil, where his private motivations were concerned, that Tonks' conjectures, whether plausible or not, were unable to penetrate the barricade of secrecy which the pianist had stubbornly erected to protect himself, presumably, from the outside world.  And because of this, the composer was no nearer today to unravelling the enigma of his friend's divided allegiance, his theoretical allegiance to the past but his practical allegiance to the present, than he had been during the first months of their friendship.

     Returning to the fray after the brief lacuna in their conversation brought about by Hart's rhetorical question, Sean Carroll said: "On the basis of the criterion you have just revealed to us, it would seem t(h)at a work of literature like Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu would strike you as being of greater artistic significance than, say, James Joyce's Ulysses because, unlike the latter, it deals with the upper classes rather than the lower, the rich rather than the poor, and consequently has a finer subject-matter."

     "Absolutely!" came the implacable rejoinder from the man at the piano.  "I do consider Proust superior to Joyce on that account, since the subject-matter of lower-middle-class life is, ah, less good, aesthetically considered, than the subject-matter generally favoured by Proust.  And the same holds true for the comparative merits of, say, Aldous Huxley and D.H. Lawrence.  I'm not against art that either predominantly or exclusively focuses on the lower classes - far from it!  All the same, I would never pretend that the use of such, ah, humble or vulgar subject-matter could make for art of the highest order.  To my mind, there's all the difference in the world between a play like The Importance of Being Earnest and one like Waiting for Godot.  The first is art, the second anti-art.  The first deals with life at the top, the second with life at the bottom.  The first is Victorian, the second absolutely modern.  The first, being essentially aristocratic, is relatively unpopular.  The second, being effectively democratic, is all too popular.  Need I say more?"

     "I'd rather you didn't," responded Mr Tonks in a somewhat depressed tone-of-voice.  "For if you carry on applying your elitist criteria to contemporary art, you'll either drive me to suicide or, assuming I can't muster the nerve for that, induce me to tear-up my scores and prohibit anyone from publicly performing my works in future!"

     "T(h)at would be a terrible blow to the Dublin Symphony Orchestra," Carroll ventured to object, with an impulsive though respectfully restrained chuckle.  "After all, the contemporary arts have to be represented somehow, even if they're less good than the traditional or historical ones.  For one t(h)ing, they provide variety.  And for another, the cultured public generally expect them.  Wit(h)out some kind of contemporary creativity in the arts, our appreciation of the past would quickly diminish and our opinion of the present would sink even lower."

     "Do you really think so?" queried Hart, a sceptical expression on his bearded face.

     "I know so!" affirmed the conductor, offering his opponent a mildly ingratiating smile.  "For anyone with a genuine interest in the arts, even poor art is preferable to no art at all.... Not t(h)at I wish to imply your music is poor, Howard," he added, turning towards the figure seated a few feet from him, "since t(h)at would be the height of presumption!  If it is grand enough to be known and played around the world, then it's grand enough for me!"

     Howard Tonks made a valiant effort to simulate gratitude for this piece of flattery from an overly sycophantic guest.  But his heart remained heavy with the burden of being contemporary or, more specifically, relatively contemporary and therefore not even truly contemporary by the standards of, say, rock musicians, with their electric instruments, but simply an outmoded species of man who carried-on in one tradition whilst other and more representative currents raged all around him, to the detriment of his creative stability.  It wasn't the first time he had found cause to doubt himself on account of his professional activity, or to feel sorry for himself for having been born into a middle-class world at a time when classical music was on the decline and would soon decline to a point which made even the cacophonous sounds of the more overly barbarous rock bands seem comparatively musical!  Indeed, on more than one previous occasion he had actually contemplated abandoning composition altogether, in order to dedicate himself to his garden instead.  But the world had prevented him from doing so, had well-nigh insisted on his continuing to compose, and forced him to live-up to his international reputation.  By now the habit of composing was too much a part of his nature to be eradicated or supplanted by anything else.  It was a veritable obsession, and nothing short of death could be expected to prevent him from pursuing it.  Whether he liked it or not, he would have to continue from where he'd left off and present the cultured world or, at any rate, the mainly middle-class part of it with still more atonality.  For it had not escaped his notice that even rock music and other such broadly proletarian forms, against which classical avant-garde music continued to battle in vain, was becoming civilized at last, thanks, in large measure, to drum machines  and to a variety of synthesizers and synthesized sounds which had the effect of interiorizing the music, both rhythmically and pitchfully, and thus rendering it comparatively sensible.  As yet, this tendency was only embryonic.  But an age was nonetheless approaching when it would be impossible to take the barbarism of proletarian music for granted, and then where would he and his ilk be, he wondered?  What place would there be for civilized acoustic music in a world that had evolved to its electric counterpart and thus rendered what he did - assuming it was still civilized and not so decadent and far gone in aesthetic degeneration as to be effectively barbarous anyway - totally superfluous and redundant?

     Fortunately he still had the political establishment behind him, so there was no immediate worry on that score!  Still, time could not be reversed, even if it could be slowed down and even held-up a little, to suit the tastes of a generation and class which could hardly be expected to groove to the latest rock music, as though such music were an integral part of Western civilization and not the product, in large part, of a  barbarously subcultural imposition inflicted upon it by relatively uncivilized people who, in this day and age, had as much right to express themselves in their own more openly aggressive manner as he had in his comparatively more genteel one, and probably more right, if the financial success of their simple music was anything to judge by - a success which put even his 'grand' music in the shade, where it doubtless deserved to be and where it would remain, irrespective of Hart's occasional attempts at publicly airing it, along with the rest of what was once a proud civilization which now merely tottered-on, in cultural senility, towards its inevitable demise.

     Startled out of himself by the finality of the word 'demise', which seemed more unpalatable than usual in view of his imminent birthday, Mr Tonks reached across the coffee table for his sherry and downed what was left of it in one hearty gulp, much as though it symbolized the impending death of the civilization into which he had been born at a time when it was already way past its prime and therefore mostly used-up in any case.  There were two other men in the room besides himself, men whom he had almost, with good reason, forgotten about, who were now respectively engaged in performing and listening to his new piano sonata.  At the Steinway, Roy Hart was tentatively probing his way through its second movement, sight-reading a work about which he had known nothing more, the day before, than that it had just been completed, whilst, in the remaining armchair to the right of the coffee table, Sean Carroll was displaying, with insufferable complacency, all the signs of an attentive listener - part critic, part devotee of the performance in question.

     A hand on Mr Tonks' shoulder made him start from his morose reflections, as, not without surprise, he recognized the heavily made-up face of his wife descending towards him.  "Sorry to disturb you, Howie," she whispered in his nearest ear, "but Rebecca has just returned.  So I think you'd better see her at once."

     "Yes, of course!" agreed Mr Tonks, getting-up from his armchair with some difficulty, in view of the amount of time he'd already spent in it, and tacitly excusing himself, with a gentle wave of the hand, from the increasingly odious proximity of his two musically engrossed guests.

     He followed Beverly out of the study and along the hallway to the front room where, dressed in tight jeans and a loose tee-shirt, Rebecca was waiting for him in the company of Ludwig, their golden labrador, who happened to be dozing quietly by the windows.  At sight of his daughter, Howard Tonks rushed towards her and gave her a tight hug, releasing all the pent-up anxiety that had tormented him, to the detriment of his professional self-esteem during the past couple of hours, through an emotional effusiveness the likes of which Rebecca hadn't experienced in years.  He was virtually in tears as he hugged her against himself and stroked her long silken hair with paternal fondness.  "Thank God you're alright!" he gasped, as soon as the emotional upheaval had subsided to an extent which made intelligible speech possible again.

     "But I was always alright," confessed Rebecca in a slightly puzzled and offended tone-of-voice, which was intended to impress upon her father the superfluous, not to say hysterical, nature of his concerns.

     Angered by her daughter's ungrateful and apparently cavalier attitude, Mrs Tonks spat: "Yes, but you might have left a note or phoned us on Thursday evening to prove it!  You can't imagine the amount of worry your disappearance has caused us, these past three days.  What with Mrs Marchbanks' letter of resignation ..."

     "Oh, sod old Marchbanks!" Rebecca spat back.  "As it happens, I knew nothing of her letter until this morning, when one of Tony's colleagues phoned his flat to inform him about what had happened here Friday afternoon."

     "I take it that would be a Mr Wilder?" Howard Tonks ventured to speculate.

     Rebecca briefly nodded confirmation.  "And then Tony told me and, as soon as I found out, I phoned home to inform mother what had actually happened," she revealed.  "As to the contents of Mrs Marchbanks' letter, I can only repeat now what I said then: I was not raped, neither on Thursday afternoon nor at any subsequent time."

     "Thank goodness for that!" cried Mr Tonks, whose voice was still strained with emotion.

     "But if you were not raped, Rebecca, then what-on-earth were you doing on the floor of your father's study with no clothes on?" Mrs Tonks demanded to know.

     "I was ... just having sex with Tony, mother, that's all," explained Rebecca nervously.

     "That's all?" echoed Mrs Tonks, her lips trembling with anger.  "You ought to be ashamed of yourself, allowing such a thing to happen in your father's study, of all places!  What about poor old Mrs Marchbanks?  What about your ...?"

     "Mother, will you please stop scolding me!" interposed Rebecca, becoming angry.  "I'm not a child any more, you know."

     Mrs Tonks' mouth shot open in horrified disapproval of her daughter's callous attitude.  How could she behave like this after all they had done for her?  How could she let herself be seduced by a man she hadn't even known for more than an hour at the time?  It was simply unthinkable!  That sort of thing simply didn't happen to young women who had been properly brought up.  "Are you absolutely certain you weren't raped?" she persisted in doubting, as soon as her emotions would allow her to articulate another question.

     "Mother, I've no wish to repeat myself," Rebecca retorted.  "I told you what happened and that's as much as I can do.  If you must know, I'm in love with Tony."

     "In love ... after three days?" exclaimed Mrs Tonks in a tone of petulant incredulity bordering on the hysterical.

     "No, before then actually," her daughter corrected.  "I fell in love with him last Monday to be precise, the day he first came here.  Perhaps love is too strong a word but, well, suffice it to say that I felt strongly attracted towards him.  I had gone to the French windows on my way-in from the garden to catch a glimpse of dad playing Schumann, and that was when I first saw him and became aware he was staring at me with one of the most admiring looks I had ever seen on any guy's face.  Naturally I was embarrassed at first, given the surprise factor and the skimpy way I was dressed.  But, well, my interest in him was aroused,  and so much so that, when I learnt from dad that he would be returning on Thursday afternoon, I distinctly found myself looking forward to it."

     "Even so, Rebecca, that's no excuse for such immodest behaviour in your father's study, is it?" countered Mrs Tonks on a fresh wave of petulance.  "It wouldn't have been quite so indecent had you taken Mr Keating into your bedroom instead.  At least Mrs Marchbanks wouldn't have stumbled upon you there!"

     "Quite so!" concurred Mr Tonks, nodding in tacit approval of his wife's judgement.  "And we wouldn't have lost the services of a housekeeper who, as you well know, has been loyal to us for over six years."

     Rebecca frowned sullenly.  "Isn't there any chance of your inducing her to return?" she asked, turning a guilty pair of eyes on each of her parents by turn.

     "Virtually none," Mrs Tonks averred.  "A woman of her age won't treat such an occurrence lightly, you know.  In fact, you were fortunate that it didn't cause her a heart attack.  Had it done so, matters might now be a good deal worse than they already are."

     Rebecca shook her head, shrugged her shoulders in a gesture of helplessness, and, turning away from them, flung herself down into a nearby armchair.  How depressing it was to have to hear all this, to be confronted by her parents in such a humiliating situation, and all because of a stupid old bag who probably hadn't had anything even remotely resembling sex in several years!  Was it really necessary for mother to treat her like a young adolescent, the way she had done a few years previously, at the time of her first date?  To Rebecca, the only thing that mattered now was her relationship with Tony, her respect for and love of Tony.  Thursday was in the past, and what was past had to be forgotten.... Not that there weren't things about it she didn't care to remember!

     "Well, at least we won't have to contact the police now," Mr Tonks remarked, after a painful silence, "and that is something which Mr Webb of 'Arts Monthly' will be relieved to hear, I'm sure, particularly since his managerial incompetence was largely to blame for this whole sorry affair in the first place.  As to the interview, however," went on Mr Tonks in a sterner tone-of-voice, "I shall have to inform the bugger on Monday that, in consequence of his correspondent's grossly unprofessional conduct, I have no choice but to withdraw my permission to grant it."

     Rebecca's heart seemed to shoot-up into her mouth with the stunning reception of this.  "But, dad, you mustn't!" she cried, going over to him in a panic of disbelief.  "I told Tony, this morning, that you'd be prepared to see him on Monday."

     "You what?"  Howard Tonks was patently flabbergasted.

     "She asked me whether it would be possible to give Mr Keating a provisional date for the interview and, since you weren't here when she rang, Howie, I suggested you might be prepared to see him on Monday afternoon, assuming you weren't otherwise engaged."

     Mr Tonks had raised outstretched hands in indication of his exasperation.  "But, Beverly, how could you possibly tell her such a thing after what's happened?" he declared rhetorically.  "How-the-devil can I be expected to grant an interview to someone who took advantage of my absence, last Thursday, to seduce our daughter in my very own study of all places?  It's unthinkable!"

     Mrs Tonks had turned pale.  "But the poor girl sounded so worried, Howie, and I was so relieved to hear from her at the time that ..."

     "It's unthinkable, Beverly!" repeated Mr Tonks, cutting her excuses short.  "Even if I didn't have that damn conductor here on Monday, I would absolutely refuse, on principle, to grant the interview!"

     Rebecca's eyes filled agonizingly with tears.  She couldn't believe he meant it.  After all, Tony Keating wasn't entirely to blame for what had happened.  She, too, had willed it.  But, despite her protestations and excuses, her father remained adamant, and to the point of forcibly removing her beseeching arms from around his neck and unceremoniously pushing her away from himself.  The man who, no more than five minutes ago, had clasped his daughter to his chest in an expression of unmixed gratitude for her safety had suddenly become, as though by schizophrenic transmutation, the stern father-figure who refuses to allow his principles to be undermined by emotional appeals, no matter how sincerely felt.  He stood by his word like a sentry at his post.  Whether she liked it or not, Rebecca would have to inform Mr Keating that, under no circumstances, could he ever set foot in their house again.  If she wanted to see him in future, she would have to visit him personally, not bring him home.  And if Tonkarias was no longer good enough for her, then she had better go and live with him instead.  That was all!

     "I'm dreadfully sorry, Becky," declared Mrs Tonks at the close of her husband's impassioned diatribe, "but if your father says no, then no it will have to be."

     Rebecca pursed her lips in grim response to an idea which had just occurred to her.  There was a chance that she could induce him to change his mind and become more flexible.  "Mummy, would you be kind enough to leave the room and allow me to talk with dad alone?" she requested.

     "I can't see what good it will do," said Mrs Tonks doubtfully.  "But if you insist."  She cast her husband a puzzled and vaguely disdainful look, turned on her high heels, and left the room without further ado.

     Rebecca listened to the receding footsteps of her mother heading back down the hallway towards the kitchen before, confident that the coast was sufficiently clear, she decided to proceed with what she wanted to say.  "There are two things that I have to remind you of, father," she began in a respectfully subdued tone-of-voice.  "One of them concerns me, and the other my best friend, Margaret."  She paused to gauge the effect of her words, but Mr Tonks' expression, tinged with impatience, remained relatively impassive.  "If you refuse to grant Tony the interview, then I'll have no choice but to expose them to public attention through the daily press."

     "I don't know what the hell you're talking about," declared Mr Tonks.  "What two things?"

     Rebecca drew herself still closer to her father, looked him straight in the eyes, and whispered: "Sexual things."

     "Sexual ...?" he echoed incredulously.

     "Margaret has occasionally served as a convenient substitute for mother, hasn't she?" Rebecca went on.  "And as for me, well, the way you've behaved towards me, on a number of occasions in the not-too-distant past, wasn't exactly what one would call paternal, was it?"

     "How dare you!" Mr Tonks exclaimed.

     Rebecca smiled faintly and drew back a pace from the by-now outraged countenance of her world-famous father.  "It would certainly be inconvenient for you if the interested public subsequently came to learn that your sexual relations weren't exclusively confined to mummy  but also embraced your daughter and her best friend, wouldn't it?" she remarked.

     "How dare you!" Mr Tonks exclaimed again, barely able to restrain the impulse to lash out at his daughter and stop her mouth.  "You've no idea what you're saying!"

     "Haven't I?"  Rebecca smiled anew and turned towards the bay windows in order to be free of the sight of him and better able, in consequence, to proceed in as objective a manner as was compatible with the requirements of the situation.  "And will you also say that to Maggy, once I inform her of my intentions and get her to testify against you as well?"

     Mr Tonks was beside himself with rage.  "But I had been drinking when I ..."

     "Took advantage of her youth?" interposed Rebecca cogently.  "Yes, that has to be admitted - at least as far as the last time was concerned.  But before that, when mum was at her sister's and you had the pair of us alone here, luring Maggy into your bedroom on some aesthetic pretext - were you also drunk then?"  She paused to allow the full weight of what they both knew to be a rhetorical question to have its desired effect, before continuing: "And what about the time before that, when, mummy again being absent, you induced us to take off our clothes and pose for your new camera for the sheer hell of it?  Admittedly, you didn't commit yourself to any physical contact with either of us then, but, all the same, you certainly got us to reveal ourselves in a manner which can only be described as erotic, if not downright pornographic!  And what became of the photos after you had secretly developed them?  Isn't that something which only you and one or two of your closest friends, including Roy Hart, know anything about?"

     "Stop, for God's sake stop!" protested Mr Tonks, and so loudly that it caused the dog to bark excitedly from his resting place nearby.  "I won't tolerate any more of this nonsense!  You've no right to blackmail me!" he added sternly.

     "If I were you, dad, I'd lower your voice a little," Rebecca calmly advised him, turning round to face him again.  "Otherwise mummy may get wind of it even before I take my incestuous story to the papers."

     "But you have no proof that what you say actually took place.  None whatsoever!"  He was almost sneering triumphantly at her now.

     For her part Rebecca sniggered ironically, then retorted: "Who needs proof?  When I take my story to the press, the very fact that the daughter of a world-famous composer has such a tale to tell will be sufficient to arouse considerable interest on that account.  After all, even if it weren't true, your name would still be associated with mine, the lies or madness I'd be accused of by you would still prove of interest to anyone with a knowledge of your professional reputation, and, before long, rumours would begin to proliferate like lice, to the detriment of more things than your marriage.  But, of course, with Margaret to back me up and reveal her own part in the story as well, you'd have a much harder task trying to prove that I was either lying or insane, particularly since Maggy was the principal target of your lust."

     "Enough, enough!" cried Mr Tonks, his face burning-up with a potent mixture of anger and shame.  "I can't believe you'd actually do this to me.  Why, you're my only daughter!"

     "Yes, daddy, and that's something you haven't always remembered," said Rebecca, who lowered her eyes under pressure from her own feelings of anger and shame, which caused a few self-pitying tears to well-up from the depths of her humiliated soul and drip onto her cheeks.  "But if you're now prepared to grant 'Arts Monthly' the interview, then I'm prepared to forget the incestuous anomalies of our past relationship, to forget and, more importantly, to forgive."

     An uneasy silence ensued, during which time Mr Tonks managed to cool down slightly and to assume an appearance of peeved resignation to his fate.  "You must be rather fond of this Mr Keating," he at length remarked in a resentful tone.  Then, realizing his daughter had nothing further to say by way of confirming this, he added: "Tell the man to be here by two o'clock on Monday afternoon," and briskly left the room.

     "Thank God for that!" sighed Rebecca, as she flopped down into the nearest of the available armchairs and closed her tear-drenched eyes with an almost prayerful reverence.

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

It was with a distinct feeling of apprehension that Anthony Keating arrived outside the editor's office door at nine-thirty on Tuesday morning and gave it a gentle knock.

     "Come in!" responded Webb's voice in its usual brisk manner.

     With attaché case in hand, Keating pushed open the door and strode towards the editor's desk.

     "Ah yes, take a seat!" Webb advised him, briefly looking-up from a letter which he held in crab-like fashion between the chubby fingers of each hand.  The young correspondent did so, and his employer evinced no desire to look at him again until approximately a minute had passed and the letter duly been cast aside without comment.  "Now then," he remarked, leaning back in his soft-leather chair and fixing a pair of dark   eyes upon the worried face in front of his desk.  "I take it you have something to tell me."

     "As a matter of fact, I wish to apologize for not being here yesterday but, unfortunately, I was rather sick on Sunday evening and didn't feel particularly well enough to return to work the following morning," confessed Keating nervously.

     "That's alright, Anthony!" affirmed Webb, smiling understandingly.  "As long as you're feeling well enough to do some work today."   He glanced down at the attaché case on the young correspondent's lap and then returned his gaze to its former position.  "How did the review at the Merlin Gallery go, by the way?" he asked.

     "Quite successfully on the whole," replied Keating, recalling to mind the few hasty notes he had compiled on Friday afternoon and endeavoured to expand into a review on Sunday evening.  "I sent the finished product off to the printers late Friday evening."  Under the circumstances of what had actually transpired, lying seemed the best solution.

     "Ah good! I hoped you'd been able to do so," Webb remarked.  "That means they should be working on it today."  He frowned briefly, as though in spite of himself, and lowered his gaze a moment.  "And what about the interview with Howard Tonks the previous day?" he continued, looking up again.  "How did that go?"

     After some hesitation, a slightly nervous correspondent replied:  "Better than I'd have expected.  For Mr Tonks had fully recovered from his sore throat and was only too keen to oblige.  I have the recording here."  At which point he tapped the top of his large attaché case and offered Nicholas Webb a complaisant smile.  "If you'd like to hear some of it now, I need only ..."

     "Frankly I don't think I can spare the time now, Anthony," averred Webb solemnly.  "But I should be grateful for an opportunity of listening to it during the next few days."  There was a pause before he added: "I take it the transcription has still to be done."

     Keating fidgeted nervously in his chair.  "Well, as a matter of fact, I managed to transcribe some of it to paper on Friday morning, before setting off for the Merlin Gallery, and I did a little more yesterday afternoon," he said.  "So if there are no pressing engagements lined up for me today, I should have it completely transcribed and edited by tomorrow evening.  But if it's scheduled for the October edition, then there's no immediate rush, is there?"

     "Quite so!" agreed Webb, his face suddenly becoming hard.  "Especially as far as you are concerned."

     "I'm afraid I don't quite follow you," responded Keating, bracing himself for the worst.

     Webb had abandoned his informal posture and was now leaning across the desk with fingers intertwined in a business-like manner.  "I sincerely regret having to tell you this, Anthony, but you had better resign yourself to finding alternative employment as from the end of this month.  For the fact is that I just cannot continue to employ a person who lies to my face as much as you do, and since you entered my office this morning you've done very little else!"

     The young correspondent's head jerked backwards, as though from the force of a blow to the chin, and his face darkened appreciably.  "I don't quite understand," he confessed, with intent to covering up the truth.

     "Don't you?" retorted Webb in a patronizingly sceptical manner.  "Then permit me to enlighten you!"  At which point he proceeded to expatiate on the subject of Howard Tonks' telephone call on the Friday afternoon of the previous week, followed by the conversation he had conducted with Martin Osbourne shortly afterwards, during which time it was ascertained that Keating had confessed to having conducted the interview on schedule, when he visited the senior sub-editor's flat late Thursday evening.  Unfortunately, Osbourne wasn't as forthcoming as he ought to have been in the circumstances," the editor continued, frowning regretfully, "since he withheld valuable information from me regarding the whereabouts of Neil Wilder on the evening in question.  But I suppose that was only to be expected, in view of Wilder's official absence from work at the time.  However, it was Wilder himself who, soon after returning to work, yesterday morning, confessed the truth and admitted that he had talked to you at Osbourne's flat and offered, albeit reluctantly, to bail you out of trouble by conducting the interview with Howard Tonks on your behalf.  As things stood, he hadn't realized the extent to which you'd deceived him until his phone call to you on Saturday morning, and, even then, what you told him wasn't the whole truth, since he was literally astonished by some of the things I was obliged to impart to him regarding Mr Tonks' call last Friday.  Now partly because of this deceitfulness on your part, Anthony, and partly because I threatened him with dismissal if he tried to contact you before I'd had an opportunity to see you today, he wisely consented to keep his mouth shut and allow you to speak for yourself, which of course you have done.  So if you're wondering why you haven't heard from your colleague since Saturday, it's because of what I said to him yesterday!"

     Keating bowed his head under the ton weight of shame that had descended upon it in the wake of the avalanche of sordid revelations which issued from Webb's glib tongue.  No doubt, that explained why he hadn't seen Neil earlier this morning as well.  For his office had been empty.  And even Osbourne had made what seemed, at the time, an implausible excuse about having to attend to an important task, when encountered on the main stairs not less than ten minutes ago.

     "Having got this far, I suppose I had better inform you of the telephone call I made to Mr Tonks' residence first thing yesterday morning, in order to ascertain whether your intention of getting a late interview, revealed to me by your one-time collaborator, had in fact borne fruit," the editor went on, ignoring Keating's shame.  "As luck would have it, the composer answered the phone personally and admitted, not without serious misgivings, that he had agreed to see you in the afternoon.  I asked him to keep my call confidential, since I had no wish for you to learn that I'd been checking up on you, and this he graciously consented to do.  Thankfully he kept his word.  Though even if he hadn't, and you had modified your explanation accordingly, the outcome for you would have been exactly the same, since your disgraceful behaviour towards his juvenile daughter last Thursday afternoon is, of course, more than sufficient grounds for your dismissal.  Indeed, you can consider yourself jolly fortunate that you've got away from all this so lightly, and that Mr Tonks didn't call the police and have you arrested for indecently assaulting her."

     "I didn't indecently assault her!" protested Keating on the verge of tears.  "She freely consented to my advances."

     "So I was led to understand from Neil Wilder yesterday morning," Webb conceded.  "Though what her father himself told me, last week, was somewhat less than a romantic account of the affair!  But even so, even if she 'freely consented' to your advances, the fact that you initiated them at a time when you ought to have been conducting an interview or, failing that, reporting back here for something else to do in the meantime is, beyond question, a gross impertinence and flagrant breach of our trust in you.  While you're being paid to work for 'Arts Monthly', you damn-well ought to be working for it, not fooling around with the only daughter of such an eminent man as Howard Tonks and causing his elderly housekeeper the shock of her miserable life.  Goodness knows, we pay you well enough, don't we?  And that was after you'd failed to wrap-up the interview on Monday when it should have been done and, had you used a little more intelligence and common sense, jolly-well could have been done!  Instead of which you encouraged the composer to play the piano and then told me some cock-and-bull story, the following day, about his suffering from a sore throat which had prevented him from taking part in the interview!  Really, I fail to understand how you had the audacity to walk in here today and carry on lying to my face as though I were an ingenuous idiot fresh out of college or something!  If anyone was being made to look a fool it was you, and not only with regard to Howard Tonks."  Here Webb imperiously cleared his throat, as though to change gear and steel himself for what was to come, before continuing: "I received a call from our printers, earlier today, informing me that the review of the Alan Connolly exhibition which you ostensibly dispatched to them on Friday evening still hadn't arrived.  Now if you sent it when you claimed you did, they'd have received it by yesterday morning.  But they hadn't even received it this morning, which doubtless means you lied to me about that as well!"

     Keating was experiencing an apotheosis of shame, as he stared down unseeingly at his attaché case and reluctantly nodded his head in bashful confirmation of the editor's inference.  He couldn't remember an occasion when he had felt more ashamed of himself for being so obviously in the wrong.  It was even worse than how he had felt when Neil Wilder phoned him, Saturday morning, to break the news of his failure to clinch the interview the previous day.  Rebecca notwithstanding, there had been no-one else present save himself then.  But now he was in Webb's presence, and Webb had always given him the impression of being a useful and likeable member of the staff, a veritable credit to his profession.

     "Have you dispatched the review yet?" asked the editor, whose voice was trembling with barely concealed exasperation.  "Indeed, have you even written it yet?"

     "Yes, I wrote and dispatched it on Sunday," confessed Keating, momentarily raising his eyes to the level of his interlocutor's chest.  "Unfortunately, circumstances prevented me from working on it earlier."

     "And what kind of circumstances would they be?" Webb imperiously wanted to know.

     Something about the arrogant tone in which the editor delivered this question stung Keating into anger, and his response was simply: "Is that any business of yours?"

     "Only inasmuch as it concerns the welfare of my periodical and the well-being of my staff!" retorted Webb sharply.  "But if you dispatched the review to the printers on Sunday and they didn't receive it this morning, we may infer, I suppose, that it has either gone astray in the post or will turn up there tomorrow.  And tomorrow, as you should know by now, is too damned late!"

     "Not if we postpone the distribution of the magazine for another couple of days and get them to print it first thing in the morning," suggested Keating, who was now flailing around out of his depth.

     "Goodness gracious, how many times have I told you that we can't arbitrarily interfere with their schedule like that?" shouted Webb, his face positively twitching with exasperation.  "By rights we shouldn't have had to request them to reserve a space for it in the first place.... Though I suppose I'm mostly to blame for having taken the chance and put more trust in you than circumstances evidently warranted!"

     Keating frowned gravely and pursed his lips in desperation.  Being so preoccupied with the Tonks affair over the weekend, he had scarcely given a thought to the possible repercussions which might result from his inability to get the review posted as quickly as possible.  Or, rather, he had thought about the necessity of getting it written on Friday evening, but had then been prevented from doing so by Rebecca's company and his overriding desire to please her.  Giving-in to which, he had again thought about it on Saturday morning, only to be prevented from executing his thoughts, that time, by Neil Wilder's phone call and the subsequent state of his nerves.  So Sunday was the first real opportunity he'd had to do anything about it.  But, even then, he hadn't been able to give the review his full attention, primarily on account of the amount of noise being generated by both the upstairs neighbour, who was entertaining various friends in what sounded like a seventh-day orgy, and a neighbour in the flat next-door, who spent at least five hours of the day driving nails into wood with the aid of a heavy metal hammer.  Now this latest of Webb's sordid revelations was really quite disastrous, particularly in light of the immense effort put into getting the review written.

     "So what are you intending to do?" he at length asked the editor.

     "Fortunately, what had to be done was taken care of before you entered my office," Webb revealed.  "As soon as I heard the bad news, I arranged to have the page reserved for your review taken over by one which our principal art critic did of the painter Catherine Williams, a couple of weeks ago, before he went on vacation.  They will consequently be printing a rather scathing review of an artist whose work is largely derivative and whose exhibition is now, in any case, entering its last week.  Needless to say, I'm not at all happy with this last-moment change of plan.  But, since you failed in your duty, it's the only alternative available to me at present, and one which I had no option but to endorse.  Doubtless, it will cause some brows to be raised somewhat higher at our expense than would have been the case, had you submitted your review on time and thereby given the public an opportunity to find out what the exhibition was all about and what we thought of it.  But I dare say a blank page would be even worse from our standpoint!"

     "Yes, I dare say it would," echoed Keating, his head still bowed under the imponderable weight of so much shame.  "I really don't know how to apologize for all the inconvenience this has caused you."

     "Don't bother trying!" the editor rejoined, turning an uncompromisingly disdainful gaze upon Keating's bowed head which, unlike Osbourne's, had nothing of the 'inverted bird's nest' analogy about it and held no source of amusement for him in consequence.  "It's too late as far as you're concerned.  For nothing you could say, by way of an apology, would do anything to alter my low opinion of you.  There's only one thing I now require from you," he went on, rising in temper, "and that is to get out of my sight once and for all!  Your Connolly review is no longer needed and neither, needless to say, is the interview with Howard Tonks."

     Keating's head suddenly jerked up in horrified disbelief.  "What d'you mean?" he gasped.

     "Exactly what I said!" Webb declared.  "Since you are being dismissed from the firm, your latest assignments are no longer valid.  The October edition will feature an interview with the author Michael Bagshott instead.  Naturally, I've little doubt that Mr Tonks will be disappointed by my decision to omit his interview at this late juncture.  Once I impress upon him my motives for doing so, however, I'm quite confident that he'll understand and lend me his unequivocal support.  Indeed, he may even agree to grant the magazine another interview in the not-too-distant future, one, needless to say, that would have to be conducted by someone more trustworthy and competent in the matter than you.  For as far as you are concerned, end of story!  I cannot allow your name to appear in print, as the instigator of that interview, after you're no longer here.  Therefore much as I regret having to do this, in view of the work involved, I would be grateful if you'd kindly hand over the tapes, to ensure you don't get it into your devious head to take them elsewhere.  That, after all, would be quite inadmissible!"

     "You dirty rotten bastard!" screamed Keating, jumping to his feet and angrily staring down at the editor, while clutching to his chest the attaché case in which the tapes were still locked.  "If you think I'm simply going to hand these over for you to destroy or store away somewhere, then you've got another thing coming, you double-crossing pig!"

     "Mr Keating!  Would you mind restraining your language and kindly hand over the tapes, please!" insisted Webb.

     "Fuck you, bastard!" shouted the young correspondent, who, beside himself with rage, was now on the point of throwing the attaché case at his employer's flushed head.

     "Mr Keating!" shouted back the editor, who had also got to his feet as he held out his hand for the tapes.  "I need hardly remind you that you are still under obligation to the magazine to do as requested and behave in an orderly and responsible manner.  Otherwise I shall have no alternative but to call the police."  His tone was firm but not threatening.  Authority was on his side, after all.

     For an instant Keating felt like throwing the attaché case and all its precious contents, which included the cassette recorder, at the editor.  But realizing that such an act, no matter how seemingly justified under the circumstances of his outrage, would almost certainly result in his being accused of assault and landed in still deeper trouble, he begrudgingly complied and, by way of emphasizing his wholehearted distaste for the act, slammed the attaché case down on Webb's desk.  There was a rattling noise, as of something breaking, and then, apart from the sound of Keating's heavy breathing, complete silence.

     "Right!" said the editor, returning his hand to his side.  "Now get out!"

     It wasn't an order Keating had any immediate desire to obey right then, given his loathing for the man and the fact that both of them were locked in an eyeball confrontation which seemed unbreakable in its near-hypnotic intensity.  But, as the seconds ticked by, the suspenseful undesirability of the situation became increasingly unbearable and, as though snapping out of an evil spell, the junior correspondent briskly turned on his heels and strode purposefully towards the door which, on reaching, he wrenched open and, without looking back, slammed shut behind him.  A picture calendar fell from the wall in which the door was located, and the tall window of the office vibrated with an intensity hitherto unknown to its occupant.

     "Phew!" sighed Webb, once the office was his own again.  "Thank goodness for that!"  He slumped into his capacious swivel chair and brushed a nervous hand across his worry-strained brow.  He hadn't expected Keating to react in such a forceful way to his decision to invalidate the interview.... Not that he was absolutely sure he would invalidate it - at least not before he had listened to it and considered the possibility of amending its contents slightly.  But the temptation to hit back at Keating by asserting the contrary had been too strong to resist, particularly in view of the fact that the young correspondent had evidently gone to some considerable pains to get the interview taped and was doubtless confident his work would be fully rewarded.  Now, however, Keating would have a good reason to curse himself for having lied his way into trouble in the first place.  And that might be a sufficiently cogent motive to deter him from doing the same thing again in future, wherever the future might take him.

     The door opened and in walked old Mrs Tyler, the charwoman, with her employer's mid-morning tea things.  By rights, she ought to have brought them in about fifteen minutes earlier, but the tone of conversation reaching the passageway from Webb's side of the door had inhibited her from doing so, and duly necessitated her throwing the original tea away and brewing him a fresh pot when matters had quietened down again.  "I hope you don't mind it a little later today," she murmured, gingerly approaching Webb's desk.  "Only, I didn't want to disturb you while you had that rowdy young man in here," she added in a confidential and vaguely conspiratorial whisper.

     "That's alright, Lilly!" affirmed Webb cheerfully, clearing a space for the tea-tray.  "Quite frankly, I wouldn't have wanted it any earlier today!"

     The old charwoman obediently lowered the tray onto the space provided by her employer and commenced pouring him some black tea, to which she nervously added, in due course, a spoon-and-a-half of brown sugar.  When the bounds of her duty were reached, however, she reluctantly shuffled back towards the half-open door and gently closed it behind her departure.

     Left alone with his thoughts again, Nicholas Webb continued to reflect upon Keating's disgraceful behaviour and the means by which he had endeavoured to punish him for it.  He couldn't remember the last time anyone had sworn at him so viciously, and was now feeling somewhat humiliated by the fact that young Keating had dared to insult him in such unequivocally vulgar terms.  But to some extent he had brought it upon himself, to some extent it was probably true to say that he had brought everything upon himself, including both the interview with Howard Tonks and his decision to press ahead with the Alan Connolly review at the last moment.  And, no less humiliatingly, it was even true to say that, to some extent, young Keating hadn't been entirely to blame for what had happened over the past week, since circumstances had forced it all upon him.  Determining the exact extent to which this was true, however, was no easy matter!  Indeed, it was well-nigh impossible, if only because there were so many factors involved.  What was clear, however, was that Keating had been dealt with in the only credible way, that is to say, by being dismissed from his post.  The circumstances in which the dismissal had taken place were perhaps open to dispute, but the dismissal itself ... no, there could be no room for doubt as to the legitimacy of that!  Anthony Keating had got what he deserved, including, of course, the rejection of his work.

     Leaning back in his comfortably padded chair, the editor sipped steadily of the hot black tea, which sent small tickling spirals of steam up his nostrils and simultaneously had a calmative effect on his nerves.  He was grateful, on further reflection, that Keating hadn't done anything worse than to swear at him; that, despite his manifest rancour, the young man had managed to restrain the impulse to resort to violence, and thereby impose upon him the onerous necessity of recourse to some mode of formal vengeance.  But what a shame that matters should have come to such a sorry pass, considering how useful and generally reliable Keating had shown himself to be, during the brief course of his promising career at 'Arts Monthly'.  It was just too bad that fate should have decreed his dismissal at a time when he was becoming increasingly respected and, hence, respectable as a talented correspondent.  And all because of a young woman whom he had been unlucky enough to get himself caught deflowering by an old woman of seemingly delicate sensibility!

     For a moment, the association of young woman and deflowering caused Webb to recollect that time during his youth when his dear mother had caught him in a patently erotic position with his first girlfriend - a girl whom, at the time, he had been madly keen to deflower.  Fortunately, it hadn't resulted in anything worse than a stern lecture from his father on the importance of behaving 'properly' towards young ladies one was not in a financial position to marry.  But the shock and shame which had overcome him, when his mother suddenly walked into a room she believed to be empty and discovered him lying on top of his girlfriend with his pants down and his upturned member buried deep inside her ... was something he remembered years afterwards with unavoidable distaste!

     Yet that was also true of another, albeit later, incident which had occurred whilst he was serving under Sir Cecil Thomas at the 'Literary Review', and had been caught red-handed by that venerable old man fondling his then-secretary, Mary Ashcroft, in the office assigned to him as sub-editor.  Since it was after official office hours, Sir Cecil hadn't taken it too gravely, merely advising him, in a patronizingly ironic manner, not to do anything he wouldn't do.  For Nicholas Webb, who had a profound respect for the old devil, the experience of being caught in flagrante delicto, with one hand up his secretary's skirt and the other on her heaving breasts, was enough to make him refrain from repeating such an act on the premises for the remaining time he spent there.

     Unfortunately, it wasn't enough, however, to prevent him from getting caught, less than a year later, glancing through the pages of a pornographic magazine which a junior colleague had lent him to while away the time when things became too tedious, as they sometimes did.  Barging into his small office without forewarning, one midsummer's afternoon, the editor-in-chief, as he was formally known, had given him no time to thrust the magazine either back into the drawer in which it had been secreted or, alternatively, under a pile of papers on top of the desk, with the regrettable consequence that he was left holding it between his fingers while the chief informed him of an important board-meeting he was due to attend later that afternoon and, to make matters worse, stared down at the garish item in Webb's hands with a somewhat forbidding expression on his pallid face.  Oh, how embarrassing it had been, as Sir Cecil stood in front of him with his waxed moustache twitching uncontrollably and his inflamed eyelids blinking so rapidly that they suggested some kind of silent cinematographic apparatus bent on animating the large inverted rump which, at that moment, photographically presented itself to his horrified gaze!  What had taken the chief but fifteen seconds to narrate seemed to its recipient like an eternity, so acute was the embarrassment which resulted from the old man's untimely intrusion.  Again, the experience had made such a profound impression on Webb that he absolutely forbade himself the luxury of such pornographic material thereafter, resolving to lead as chaste a life on the premises of the magazine as, to all intents and purposes, did Sir Cecil himself.

     But what had all this to do with Anthony Keating?  Puzzled by his lapse into personal reminiscence, the editor returned his by-now empty teacup to its saucer and, carefully depositing them both on the desk, ambled across to the window, where he hoped to recover a little of his managerial dignity by 'plunging into' whichever representatives of almighty Nature first met the eye.  Fortunately, the trees in the middle of the square were still in full bloom and appeared more summery, if anything, than the week before, when a strong breeze had heralded the approach of hostile autumn.  For all that, however, there was little about them he could take any genuine pleasure in, little in which his glum mood and difficult circumstances would permit him to take any genuine pleasure.  The world was, indeed, too much with him, as he stared through the window and reflected anew on the ironies of editorial fate.  Had Keating the sense to pay more attention to the eternal in Nature than to the temporal in cultures, he might not have got himself into such a fix in the first place.  But his obsession with the decline of the West had gradually brought about his own moral decline as a human being, had sanctioned a defeatist attitude to life which made it easier or more credible to behave in a disgraceful manner than to behave reasonably well.

     At least that was how it now seemed to Webb, as he stared unseeingly across the square and recalled to mind what he had read in Lewis Mumford, some years ago, about the decline of Western civilization owing more to individual perversity than to historical necessity.  And yet, if that was indeed the case, why were so many people choosing to drag the West down instead of to build it up still further?  What was it about modern life that gave so much encouragement to the barbarians?  Perhaps this was a question Keating would know how to answer.... Though, if Nicholas Webb knew anything about modern life, he had enough answers of his own, and not only philosophical ones either!  But it was curious, all the same, that he should have been privately criticizing Keating the previous week, in light of his apparent need of female company, at a time when the young man in question was helping himself to all the female company he could.  There was indeed something curiously ironic about that!

     Turning away from the window, Webb returned to his desk and unlocked the attaché case, which had been so violently deposited there by the lover of Howard Tonks' daughter that it looked somehow evil and threatening.  The cassette recorder was still more or less in one piece, but whether it would now be working...?  Removing it from the interior of the case, he placed it on an uncluttered part of his desk and, noting the presence of a tape inside, pressed the ON button.  Yes, thank goodness for that!  A rather too loud "Having been born with perfect pitch, I'm able to compose in my head" assaulted his eardrums and induced him to lower the volume.  Evidently Tonks was answering a question that had just been put to him, and answering it, moreover, with some relish, since he went on to explain that he had composed at least fifteen works, including four orchestral ones, without the assistance of a piano, having mastered the art of "... imagining or hearing the actual sound of just about any combination of notes in my head, so that, with few miscalculations, I was able to transcribe to paper the various complex chordal and melodic progressions I had invented more or less as they occurred.  I don't know whether you're familiar with my third piano sonata, but you might be interested to learn that the whole of the first movement, which is rather long, was composed in a railway carriage whilst I was travelling between Paris and Rome one year.  It took at least two hours of busy transcription from my head to manuscript paper - a feat of which I'm still rather proud, inasmuch as I had to compete with both the clatter of the train's wheels and some tedious intermittent chatter from fellow-passengers.  By the time we arrived in Rome, however, I had completed the entire movement and was beginning to string together a number of musical ideas for the second one.  I had often wanted to emulate Saint-Saëns, you know."

     "And you obviously succeeded!  Tell me, do you have a time of day when you prefer to compose, when you do most of your best compositional work?"  The voice was Keating's, and it sounded slightly hoarse with nerves.

     "Yes, in point of fact, I usually do most of my best work in the morning," came Tonks' confident rejoinder.  "Though I sometimes compose in the afternoon as well.  But never at night!  To me, the night is too negative a time, too complacent a time for me to do any serious or arduous work.  At one time, incidentally, I did compose at night - from about eight till eleven o'clock.  But I subsequently realized that the music resulting from this was rather pedestrian, lacking in imagination and flair.  Had I been writing nocturnes, however, then the night would have been an ideal time.  But I was never a nocturne writer.  Consequently ..."

     Webb pressed the OFF button on the cassette recorder and fast-forwarded the tape to another part of the interview.  Then he pressed the ON button again and, ignoring one or two clipped words, continued to listen:-

     "... it isn't a question of endeavouring to resurrect Bach or Handel or any of the other great composers of the classical past, but of being oneself and giving the world into which one was born something it can recognize as relatively contemporary.  Naturally, you may not like or understand a great deal of what you hear in this respect.  But that is no reason for you to assume it's wrong, corrupt, irrelevant, and therefore shouldn't exist.  The only alternative to contemporary serious music is no music, irrespective of whether or not you prefer to regard this music in an antipathetic light, as I understand you, for one, do, given its acoustic limitations.  What we contemporary composers are doing has been thrust upon us by historical precedent and cannot possibly be avoided.... An acquaintance of mine once asked me whether I would rather have been born in Bach's time than in our own, and I immediately answered: 'Yes! Good God, yes!'  From the cultural point of view it seemed incontrovertible to me that one would have been better off as a minor composer in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than as a so-called major one today.  Yet this acquaintance, a man of considerable technological expertise, was perfectly justified, when I put the same question to him, in asserting that Bach's time would have proved virtually anathema to him - the reason apparently being that he had everything going for himself in the twentieth century.  So, you see, it depends on who or what you are, as to whether you're likely to take an appreciative or an unappreciative view of the age in which you happen to live.... Broadly speaking, the men of religion and the arts profit in one age, those of science and technology in another - the two groups rarely or never profiting equally at the same time.  Admittedly, there has always been this fundamental dualism, since the one group can't be expected to exist completely independently of the other.  But, in practice, it's more of an oscillatory than a balanced dualism, which favours either the one group or the other according to the nature of historical circumstances at any given time."

     Webb pressed the OFF button again and pushed the cassette recorder to one side.  He wasn't sure that he agreed, in principle, with everything the composer had said, nor that he even understood it, but he felt fairly convinced, from what little he had sampled, that the interview would be well-worth publishing in the near future.  It almost seemed as though young Keating had won Howard Tonks' confidence to an extent and in a way he would probably failed to have done, had he not become amorously involved with his daughter beforehand.  Which was surprising really, considering all the fuss that had been made of the issue.  But if, as appearances suggested, the interview would be well worth publishing, then what about the interviewer himself?  How could Keating be disposed of without causing a breach of contract or some other ticklish legal problem?  Obviously it was now too late to inform him of any change of intention in that respect, since the nature of his dismissal had been so peremptory as to preclude the possibility of any reconciliatory prospects.  The only option open to himself, Webb felt, was to transcribe and edit the interview personally, so that Keating would have no reason to suppose it was going to be used - as he might do were the task duly entrusted to someone like, say, Neil Wilder or even Martin Osbourne.  And in case Keating duly informed Mr Tonks that the interview had been invalidated, as he might well do during the next few days, it would be necessary to telephone or, better still, write to the composer in order to enlighten him concerning one's change of intention, to bring him into one's confidence with regard to one's motivation for misleading Keating, and to ask him, in accordance with the trust that had already been established, to refrain from passing on news of this change of intention to anyone else.  Since Tonks had already complied with one such request, it seemed not improbable that he would also comply with another, thereby guaranteeing himself a degree of revenge upon a young man who had, after all, caused him a considerable amount of personal trouble over his daughter and housekeeper, the latter of whom had of course resigned.

     With a faint smile of conspiratorial satisfaction on his patrician lips, Webb leant back in his upholstered chair and crossed the fingers of both hands behind his head.  It was almost lunch time, and he was beginning to feel a wee bit peckish.

 

 

CHAPTER NINE

 

Martin Osbourne glanced down at his wristwatch and noted it was five-past nine.  The last guest had arrived over an hour ago, so it rather looked as though Keating wouldn't be coming, after all.  He mumbled some words to this effect to the man seated beside him on the settee.

     "Yes, I didn't think Anthony would come somehow," admitted Wilder, briefly turning his head in deferential acknowledgement of his senior colleague.  "He didn't seem particularly enthusiastic about the idea, when I put it to him this morning.  It's as though he thinks we're all secretly against him."

     "I suppose he feels too ashamed of himself for getting the sack," conjectured Osbourne, smiling vaguely.  "I don't think Webb has fired more than a handful of people in his entire managerial career, at least not among the 'Arts Monthly' correspondents.  Thus Tony is the latest victim of a fairly tolerant regime."

     "But the first to leave for other than purely professional reasons," declared Wilder, before taking a further sip of the sherry he was in the habit of drinking on Thursday evenings - usually, though not invariably, compliments of his magnanimous host.

     "I should think that must be something of an embarrassment to him," Osbourne suggested.  "All the same, he didn't give old Webb much alternative, did he?  I mean, what would you have done in Webbo's position?"

     Wilder gently shrugged his shoulders and emitted a faint sigh of exasperation.  "I guess we ought to be thankful that we didn't get the push as well," he said.  "After all, we lied to him too, didn't we?"

     Osbourne had to smile.  "Yeah, but not to the same extent as Tony, since we merely told small lies," he averred, before finishing off the wine in his glass and smacking his lips in moderate appreciation of its vinegary tang, which was quite to his taste.  "And my lie was smaller than yours," he added, with a gentle laugh.

     "Not a lot smaller," retorted Wilder, recalling to mind his unnerving experiences of Monday morning, when he denied having gone to Hampstead when Webb had asked him, point-blank, whether he'd been there the previous Friday.  A stupid denial, of course, since Webb wouldn't have asked him had he not already known something to the contrary!  Nevertheless, a denial which shame and fear had forced upon him on the spur-of-the-moment.  And when the editor went on to mention a telephone call from Mr Tonks, giving information about an unexpected visitor by name of Neil Wilder, how that shame and fear had increased!  It was obvious to Neil, from then on, that lying wouldn't do him any good, in consequence of which he felt obliged to reveal everything he knew about the matter, including, to Osbourne's detriment, the meeting he had conducted with Keating at the senior sub-editor's Kensington flat on the Thursday evening.  Not that Osbourne was threatened with dismissal on his account.  It was just rather embarrassing for him to subsequently learn that Webb knew he had been lying about Wilder's whereabouts at the time.

     There was a short pause while Wilder sipped some more sherry and then, by way of elaborating on his last utterance, said: "Though I still regret not having lied to Webb about my presence at your flat.  It might have been more to your advantage had I done so."

     "Yes," conceded Osbourne, offering his colleague a wry smile.  "It might at least have spared me the guilty feelings I had each time circumstances obliged me to enter Webb's bloody office.  But, seriously, the only thing that would have got you the sack would've been a phone call to Tony after Webb had expressly forbidden you to contact him."

     Wilder nodded his journalistic head in sage agreement.  "Yeah, I know that only too well!" he admitted.  "Though, entre nous, I was almost on the verge of disobeying orders, once or twice on Monday evening, and committing professional suicide, so to speak.  Frankly, I still regret not having warned Tony of Webb's intentions, since we were quite close as colleagues go.  But, there again, I suppose that even if I had phoned him and advised him not to lie about anything on Tuesday morning, he would still have got the sack for all the trouble he caused Tonks, not to mention his behaviour with the composer's delectable daughter."

     "Without a doubt!" confirmed Osbourne, lighting himself a slender cigar with the aid of a small match.  "Not to mention his endeavour to enlist you into his clandestine services.  So it's just as well you did what Webb wanted.  Otherwise there would have been two sackings instead of one.  And a rather wasteful sacking in your case!"

     Wilder sagely nodded in professional agreement, before declaring: "Well, I'll be relieved, in a way, to see the back of Tony tomorrow, insofar as his presence at work makes me feel somewhat guilty about what happened."

     "Has he given you any indication of what he intends doing after he leaves?" asked Osbourne, extinguishing his match.

     "Only that he hopes to take a short trip abroad somewhere and continue with his latest novel," declared Wilder, smiling ruefully.  "But I suspect he'll take up freelance journalism when he returns.  That seems the most plausible supposition, anyway."

     "Yes, I suppose so," agreed Osbourne.  "By the way, David, you wouldn't be interested in joining the illustrious staff of 'Arts Monthly' as a junior correspondent, by any chance?"

     The tall figure of David Turner had just crossed the room and was now standing in front of the two seated men.  Having grown weary of a conversation he had been holding with Andrew Hunt on the subject of UFOs and their relationship with the spirit world, about which, in any case, he was less well-informed, the journalist had excused himself on the pretext of needing to take a leak and, following his return from the toilet, had decided to pay the other two 'Arts Monthly' representatives a brief visit.

     Meanwhile Hunt had barged his way into a conversation between Michael Haslam, the artist, and Stuart Harvey, the photographer, on the nature of God, and was doing his best to impress upon them the necessity of knowing how to differentiate true divinity from strong divinity, the immanent deity from the so-called transcendent deity which  was presumed to exist independently of man, as 'Creator of the Universe' and other such variations on a Cosmic theme.  He proceeded, from a higher mystical angle, to explain how atheism was nothing less than loss of faith in the deity that had traditionally served as God for the masses in what might be termed lower, or primitive, religion.  The fact, however, that true divinity was immanent meant that, from the vantage-point of higher, or advanced, religion, atheism was irrelevant, since immanent deity never died but continued to exist within the upper, or superconscious, part of the psyche for ever.  As Schopenhauer had contended, there was a religion for the Many and a religion for the Few, though the latter wasn't so much academic philosophy as loyalty to true divinity.  Academic philosophy was all very well, but it could soon prove an obstacle on the path of personal salvation if pursued too ardently.  For the truth of God-within had nothing to do with the many secular truths in which academic philosophy ordinarily specialized, and could be obliterated by them if the desire to gain power by use of such rational truths became too obsessive.  "Take Nietzsche, for instance," Hunt went on, warming to the challenge of his convictions, "could anyone have been further removed from the inner deity than him?  And yet he was as ardent a truth-seeker as ever lived.  But a truth-seeker, alas, who ignored the one essential truth in the fixity of his fight against Christianity.  Had he turned, once in a while, to God-within, he might not have taken the traditional deity quite so seriously!  Alas, he seems not to have been aware that the deity he spent so much time proclaiming the death of was a grave obstacle on the path of his discovering the truth which ultimately mattered!"

     "That may be," conceded Haslam with ill-disguised impatience, "but your fixity on inner deity is just as much an obstacle to your discovering the whole of God as Nietzsche's obsession with popular religion was an obstacle to his discovering a part of Him.  For God, if one must use such an outmoded and ambiguous term, is manifested as much in the natural world as in the supernatural one, and cannot be considered in His entirety in either context.  A spiritual divinity is no closer to being the whole God than a material one.  If you acknowledge the spiritual manifestation of God you're merely acknowledging half of Him, and your concept of divinity is accordingly apt to be lopsided.  And the same is true of the material manifestation of God in nature.  From what you've told me in the past about Nicholas Webb's predilection for Elementalism, it would seem that he's no closer to acknowledging God in His entirety than you, since he recognizes only what John Cowper Powys has philosophically taught him to recognize and is all-too-ready, in consequence, to equate God with nature by indulging in a modern version of pantheism.  Now you, with your Eastern-inspired Aldous Huxley scholarship, are only too ready to equate God with the Clear Light of the Void and overlook His body altogether!  But the truth would seem to lie midway between Powys and Huxley, so that God can be regarded, in His entirety, as possessing both body and spirit, like Christ.  After all, the fundamental nature of life is dualistic, and what applies to life must surely apply to God.  It would be a fine thing if, instead of acknowledging man for the mind-body relationship he is, we chose to view him as a creature either all mind or, worse still, all body, and then proceeded to treat him in accordance with our lopsided assessment, so that, in the one case, he wasn't accredited with an ability to walk and, in the other case, he wasn't accredited with an ability to think.  You can be pretty sure that, in a very short space of time, he would entirely cease to exist! And yet, what applies to man surely applies no less to God, so that if you persist in regarding Him simply as a mind or simply as a body, you not only misrepresent Him but endanger His very existence, since too much attention to the one aspect of His being tends to diminish the other and, eventually, may even do away with it altogether.  In short, one must learn how to modulate between Powys and Huxley, not take either of them for the whole truth!  For, in the final analysis, God-without is just as entitled to our acknowledgement as God-within, and shouldn't be treated as something having merely a secular existence.  After you've died you might well, as mystics generally believe, find yourself experiencing the Clear Light.  But, whilst you're alive on this earth, you would be well advised to make the most of God-without, and not try to live too exclusively in the other world - one which would seem to lie beyond nature altogether."

     "That sounds all very well on a theoretical plane," rejoined Hunt swiftly, his oval countenance betraying a degree of embarrassment at, not to say impatience with, the artist's conventionally dualistic viewpoint, which seemed to him somewhat too Christian and even  bourgeois in its insistence on a God-without, "but when you live in a big city, as I do, then the temptation to turn to God-within on a more or less exclusive basis is all-too-real, in view of the comparative lack of God-without.  Can you be surprised that I should acknowledge only the spirit of God when there is so little of His body, so little nature, in evidence there; when, on the contrary, one is confronted every day by so many thousands if not millions of cars, taxis, buses, lorries, shops, houses, factories, offices, streets, etc. - in short, by things that weren't fashioned by God but by man?"

     "No, I can't be surprised," Haslam admitted, grimacing painfully.  "For the predominance of man over nature in any big city does indeed make it difficult to give sufficient attention to God-without.  But that's no reason for you to suppose that God-within is the whole of God, any more than it would be a reason for you to imagine that nature, in all its incredible diversity, was the whole of Him if you lived in the country, where the inventions of man are comparatively scarce.  Now the fact that city life is a predominantly man-made or artificial thing is no reason, either, for you to suppose it's exclusively so.  For there are always manifestations of nature to be found in it, including the great expanse of sky over our heads and the air, polluted though it be, which we habitually breathe.  Thus whilst I can sympathize with the fact that city life may induce you to concentrate on your mystical self-realization, I can't see that you should thereby be led to ignore or belittle God-without.  You may be at a disadvantage compared with someone who lives in the country, but, even so, you can always find a park or a woods or even a garden where it's still possible to establish some contact with nature and thus, implicitly, with God-without, the creator of nature."

     Andrew Hunt laughed derisively.  The small park near where he lived was almost invariably overcrowded with dogs, kids, and expletive-prone adults when the weather encouraged one to visit it, which frankly wasn't all that often, and had an effect of depressing rather than impressing or cheering one.  Had it been a bit bigger, things might have been otherwise.  Unfortunately, the city hemmed it in on all sides, was visible from all sides and, no less depressingly, was all too audible.  Walking about on grass which had been walked about on too often, looking at flowers which had absorbed a little too much traffic pollution and were, in consequence, somewhat atrophied and virtually devoid of scent, sitting on pigeon-stained benches which threatened to collapse under one, leaning against tree trunks which bore the marks of malicious penknives - all this and so much more had long ago disillusioned him with the cult of nature-worship, and induced him to turn within instead.

     "I have a theory, actually, for the decline of faith in God conceived from a traditional angle," declared Harvey, feeling it was about time he chimed-in at the expense of Andrew Hunt who, though less bigoted than  Haslam in some respects, was no less irksome to him overall.

     "Pray, tell us," quipped Haslam, his lips glistening with the sherry he had just imbibed.  "I'm always interested in your theories - good, bad, or plain indifferent!"

     "Well, I cannot believe, for instance, that the growth of atheism, this century, is simply attributable to the ongoing influence of men like Voltaire, Diderot, Nietzsche, Marx, or anyone else of a similar unbelieving stamp," opined the photographer, drawing himself up to his full height, which was still a good way short of both Haslam and Hunt, and probably didn't have anything like the effect desired.  "No, the chief cause of contemporary atheism, to my mind, was the Industrial Revolution, back in the early decades of the nineteenth century, and its subsequent transformation of society into the predominantly urbanized affair we see around us.  For any genuine religious attitude to life is founded upon gratitude to God, if you like, for the beauty and splendour of the natural world, a Thoreauesque or Whitmanesque gratitude for the privilege of being born into such a magnificent world as manifested by almighty nature.  Admittedly, one has to cultivate this world to some extent, to keep it within certain bounds.  Even so, most of its beauty is intrinsic, not man-made.  Now in a large modern city, on the other hand, there are all too many things which are anything but beautiful and which engender, in consequence of their plainness or ugliness or dangerousness or whatever, not gratitude but defiance, despair, dejection, rejection - call it what you like.  In the city one encounters so much traffic, traffic noise, pollution, congestion, negative attitudes, together with so many road signs, advertisements, monuments, walls, etc., that gratitude to God for His creations, which are natural, is hardly the most logical response.  On the contrary, one is made predominantly conscious of man's creations, in consequence of which a society develops around man instead of God or nature or whatever else you'd like to call that which proceeds from a non-human source - a society, in short, which is largely and effectively atheistic in its humanistic materialism.

     Michael Haslam's blue eyes shone with what appeared to be unprecedented admiration for the photographer's theory, which was by no means as ridiculous as he had half-expected, even though it tended to belittle the works of man and only confirmed what Hunt had been saying.  "The danger here," he ventured to retort, drawing himself up to his full height, as though in sympathetic response to his intellectual antagonist, "is that one becomes only too ready to equate the works of man with the Devil - with ugliness instead of beauty.  Yet man is just as capable of producing beauty as God, as can be verified by a majority of the paintings in the National Gallery, with their mostly Catholic associations.  Surely you realize that?"

     "Of course!" replied the stocky Scot, more than a wee bit peeved at Haslam's arrogant assumption.  "I didn't for one moment suggest that everything in the city was ugly or evil.  But you can't deny that a lot of things there are such, or that the world of man doesn't predominate over nature.  And this is precisely why we get humanism instead of Christianity, concern with the here and now rather than with the Beyond.  Indeed, I'd go so far as to say that, even these days, rural-dwellers are generally less humanistic and correspondingly more religious, in their overall attitude to life, than a majority of urban-dwellers who, of necessity, live under the dominion of man.  It isn't for nothing that the Labour movement has always failed to make real headway with agricultural labourers, who have never thought too highly of socialism, the proletarian counterpart to the bourgeoisie's liberal humanism.  But let's not criticize either side for an attitude which is, after all, virtually inevitable, under the influence of their respective environments.  It isn't for us to expect the impossible, to expect a majority of human beings who grew-up under nature's influence to be intrinsically atheistic or, conversely, a majority of those who grew-up in the city to be intrinsically theistic.  But, these days, urban-dwellers constitute by far the larger percentage of the total population, and thereby condition what has come to be regarded as the attitude of the age, with its social/liberal Zeitgeist.  So let's not deceive ourselves that the fall of God isn't directly attributable to the rise of man.  For all your Nietzsches and Bertrand Russells are merely a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, a symptom of the modern age, and not a disembodied voice 'crying in the wilderness'."

     Andrew Hunt raised his brows in sceptical incredulity.  If what the photographer said was true, why had he managed to find God in spite of the obstacles man had chosen to put in his way?  Wasn't the Clear Light more important than any transcendent deity which followed from a closeness to nature and tended to induce worship and, as Harvey had said, gratitude rather than self-realization?  Wasn't his mystical affiliation with immanent deity of a higher and altogether truer order than the worshipful enslavements of traditional religion, with their subservience to autocratic power, as personified by the hideous concept of 'the Almighty' - an anthropomorphic extrapolation, in all monotheistic probability, from the most prominent star in the Galaxy, an all-powerful star about which millions of smaller and weaker stars, including the sun, permanently revolved?  Surely neither of the two men in front of him would be able to deny that?

     "From the individual's point of view, the mystical experience may well be of more intrinsic value," conceded Harvey, turning a relatively gentle pair of eyes on the junior sub-editor of 'Arts Monthly'.  "But where the broad masses are concerned, the traditional concept of a transcendent deity was inescapable, given their comparative backwardness and traditional dependence on autocratic power, their worship of strength.  Thus while you, as a more evolved individual, may prefer the latter, there is no justification for assuming the former to be either irrelevant or misguided.  Au contraire, you should realize that without the traditional concept of God, there would be no mystical experience at all, since the latter evolved, through Christ and such-like avatars, out of the former.  Now while Christ appertains to humanism, and thus effectively to the worship of man by man, He doesn't signify a complete mystical break with the Creator so much as an extrapolation from and attenuation of outer divinity which, these days, is broadly compatible with liberal democratic criteria.  Naturally, the Holy Spirit of inner divinity is still there to be realized.  But if you think that Christians should desert their rightful place in life and take-up with Transcendental Meditation instead, then I can only conclude you to be very much mistaken!  They have a prayerful duty to wait upon the Second Coming and the possibility of a more complete salvation than has hitherto obtained, not convert to Buddhism or Hinduism or some other Oriental religion, in pursuit of short-term gain."

     Frankly, Andrew Hunt was quite staggered by this opinion!  He hadn't expected such a lecture from Stuart Harvey, who always struck him as being both heathen and secular in his attitude to life, and not at all disposed to taking Christianity, or its prayerful waiting, particularly seriously.  Before he could launch himself into a defence of meditation at the expense of prayer, however, Haslam had returned to his earlier theme about the Clear Light being only half of God, and then went on to suggest that mystics who lived in more rural times must have possessed a distinct spiritual advantage over those of us who now spent most of our lives cooped-up in the city and refused or were unable, in consequence, to acknowledge God in nature.  "And the same doubtless applies to those of your contemporaries," he continued, "who live in the country and aren't entirely pantheistic.  Granted the requisite enlightenment, they should be able to alternate between God-without and God-within without undue difficulty."  He congratulated himself, with the aid of a gruff laugh, for his verbal acrobatics, and then proceeded to expatiate on what he took to be the imbecility of those who made it a policy to preach universal meditation as a means by which contemporary society could rejuvenate and redirect itself to more fruitful goals.

     At this point Andrew Hunt, who always drank less than everyone else and was accordingly in a less inebriated state-of-mind, vehemently protested that such a policy was by no means imbecile, even granted the fact that a majority of people weren't destined to realize the Godhead, at present, but would have to settle for something less.  "After all, even a few minutes' meditation a day is better than none at all," he asseverated, addressing himself exclusively to the artist, "and would almost certainly result, if everyone could be induced to practice it, in the world becoming a saner, wiser, healthier, and more peaceful place.  Admittedly, I'm not, through force of professional and social circumstances, a full-blown bona fide mystic.  But I do know, from personal experience, that such meditation as I have managed every day has made me a better person than I would otherwise be.  And the same, I suspect, would apply to anyone else."

     Michael Haslam shook his head in unabashed disapproval of an attitude he had heard so many times in life that it was now virtually anathema to him.  If only more people could be got to do this, if only more people could be got to do that, everything would be all right with the world.  All that was needed, apparently, was a crusade for universal meditation, enlightenment, salvation, peace, etc., according to the presumed requirements of the moment.  If we could all be induced to act the same way, human diversity would be stamped out and there would be no cause for anyone to worry about what anyone else was doing.  It was the perennial solution, the one solution which never seemed to desert the world's stage.  And yet, how fatuous and unspeakably naive!  How lacking in proper insight into human beings!  Could one really pretend that this universal remedy, this perennial panacea, should be applied to everyone without distinction, without regard, that is to say, to their temperamental or physiological dispositions?  Really, how ignorant people could sometimes be!

     "I suppose you aren't particularly familiar with W.H. Sheldon's Varieties of Human Physique or Varieties of Temperament" he murmured, after a short but anguished pause.

     "No, I'm not actually," confessed Hunt in a tone of voice designed to emphasize the irrelevance of Haslam's supposition.

     "Neither am I for that matter," admitted Harvey, with an uncharacteristically apologetic smile.

     "Well, I don't intend to convey the entire contents of these two seminal works of twentieth-century psychology to you," Haslam somewhat pompously declared.  "But I do think it expedient to draw your attention to the fact that what may suit one temperament and physique may be quite unsuitable, not to say detrimental, to another, so that any regimen based on the fatuous supposition that all men are the same and have identical or similar wants can only be doomed to failure.  Sheldon distinguishes, you may be interested to learn, between three basic physiological types of human being, viz. the fat, the muscular, and the thin, to use non-technical language, and these three basic types are equated with corresponding temperamental or psychological predilections.  One is what one is, in short, because one's build necessitates it, because one is subject to a given pattern of physiological influence that, to varying extents, determines one's psychology.  Now, I ask you, how can someone who, on account of his build, isn't cut-out for a given philosophical or moral attitude to life, say quietism, possibly be expected to indulge it to the same extent and with similar success as someone whose build is compatible with such an attitude?  How, for instance, can a medium-built muscular person, with a correspondingly aggressive temperament, be expected to regularly indulge in the lifestyle of someone with a predominantly cerebral temperament derived from a thin physique?  Similarly, how can a fat, gut person, with a correspondingly genial or ingratiating temperament, be expected to emulate either of the other two types, and thus discard or overcome himself?"

     "I really don't see what you're driving at," protested Hunt peevishly, an expression of bewilderment animating his pallid countenance in the face of what seemed to him like a dangerously deterministic - and therefore materialistic - philosophy.

     "Precisely the crass imbecility of anyone who imagines that these physiological and temperamental differences between people are irrelevant to an understanding of the world as it is and must, of necessity, continue to be!" Haslam fairly bellowed from a throat specifically designed to accommodate a muscular physique.  "If you imagine you can turn a Napoleon Bonaparte into a Thomas Traherne simply by getting him to meditate every day, then you're grossly mistaken!  And, by a similar token, you'd be no less mistaken to imagine that a Thomas Traherne or a William Law could be turned into a Napoleon Bonaparte or, for that matter, an Oliver Cromwell with the requisite training in the martial arts!  The fact that some people meditate and discover God in themselves doesn't mean that everyone else is wrong to do what they do instead."

     "Not wrong?" thundered Hunt, his eyebrows severely arched in radical disbelief.  "Do you mean to tell me that Napoleon Bonaparte and his ilk were right to engage France and half of Europe in battle after bloody battle of revolutionary war?"

     "From the viewpoint of type, I most certainly do," Haslam firmly replied, "insofar as Bonaparte acted in a way one might expect such a man to act.  If anyone is wrong it's you for expecting people like that to behave in a manner more suited to someone like yourself, for expecting them to transcend their physiological and temperamental coercions."

     "But that's preposterous!" the junior sub-editor of 'Arts Monthly' vigorously objected.  "How can you possibly condone war and violence, greed and hate?  Of course they were wrong!"

     "Only to the extent that they indulged in evil in a world where it's part of the overall set-up of things and can't be entirely eradicated," Haslam countered philosophically.  "If you wish to dream of a time when, through the efforts of the spiritual masters alone, the earth will be populated with people who know only good and never indulge in war or violence or greed or hate or anything else unequivocally evil, that's your  affair.  But if you decide to equate such a dream with reality and sincerely believe it can actually come about, then you aren't merely mistaken; you immediately take your place alongside the greatest idiosyncratic idiots of the age!  For in a world where good thrives upon evil and vice versa, it stands to reason that a one-sided concept of life is fundamentally perverse.  Even your tendency to equate God with the Clear Light of the Void, instead of seeing that as simply a part of Him, is indicative of a singularly partial perspective.  Now if it suits you, fine!  Probably your thin build has something to do with it.  But that's no reason for you to assume it should suit everyone else as well!  There's certainly no one path for everyone to follow, and the philosophy of resignation from life propounded by Schopenhauer is, objectively considered, no closer to being the right path for everyone than Nietzsche's amor fati."

     "No closer to being the right path?" echoed Hunt in stunned amazement.  "Are you mad?"

     Michael Haslam smiled dismissively.  "Perhaps I should have said it's probably the right path for those of a similar temperamental and physiological disposition to Schopenhauer," he remarked, reminding them of his Sheldonian classifications.  "A path, clearly, for which Nietzsche wasn't intended, and not solely on biological grounds, but doubtless on societal and circumstantial grounds as well.  Now what applies to them applies no less to the dissimilarity of outlook between, say, Aldous Huxley and Oswald Spengler, where the physiological differences are paralleled by appropriately antithetical temperamental ones.  To a fair extent Huxley was a spiritual continuation of Schopenhauer, and Spengler a spiritual continuation of Nietzsche.  Now, so far as you're concerned, it might be apposite to see God in the one camp and the Devil in the other.  But insofar as one can be objectively impartial about such matters, one has to conclude that both sides were correct within the limited boundary of their respective types.  Where they'd be mistaken would have been in assuming that what's right for them, their particular type, was right for the other type as well.  But a philosophy suited to an intelligent ectomorph, or thin man, is no closer to being the right philosophy for an intelligent mesamorph, or medium-built man, than it necessarily would be for an intelligent endomorph, or fat man.  You have to bear in mind the physiological and corresponding temperamental differences between people, before jumping to conclusions about what they should or shouldn't be doing.... Which is something that you, apparently, haven't always done, Andy."

     Andrew Hunt shook his head in stubborn disagreement and stared ruefully at the dark-green carpet upon which they were all standing.  He couldn't bear to hear that what he had taken to be The Way was simply relative to himself, his type.  True, he had long ago come to realize that not everyone was qualified to experience the Godhead, that 'Many were called but few chosen', etc.  But he had never before equated the Few with any one type, preferring, instead, to believe it was a completely open matter - one decided by individual choice rather than biological coercion.  And yet, if what Haslam had said was true, how could one avoid equating individual choice with biological coercion?  How could one avoid attributing the former to the latter?  Evidently, it wasn't as open a matter as he had once thought!  "But aren't you over-generalizing when you attribute a specific lifestyle to a given type of person?" he finally retorted.  "After all, not everyone who meditates is thin, any more than everyone who starts and wages war is muscular.  Take Hitler, for instance.  Wasn't he fundamentally a thin man?  And yet he caused even more trouble in the world than Bonaparte.  More trouble, I dare say, than both Mussolini and Stalin put together."

     "Yes, I suppose that can't be too far off the mark," conceded Haslam offhandedly, as he allowed a faintly ironic smile to play about his lips.  "Though I think you'd have to admit that Hitler was the exception to the rule - as is borne out, in some measure, by a comparison with the others you mentioned.  The rule for dictators and tyrants would appear to be mesamorphy, the Spenglerian muscular ideal.  But occasionally one finds an ectomorph or an endomorph in the dictatorial driving-seat and they, being exceptions, are apt to be worse, if anything, than the rule!  Naturally, there are cases where the Sheldonian classifications have to be taken cum grano salis, even with a considerable pinch of proverbial salt.  For there are always exceptions to anything.  But if you mean to tell me that such classifications aren't generally applicable to the nature of their subjects, then you're certainly deceiving yourself - just as you're deceiving yourself when you contend that everyone should follow the same path, and that Nietzsche's and Spengler's dynamic attitudes to life are of an inferior nature, per se, to the passive stance advocated by Schopenhauer and Huxley.  Inferior they may seem to you and your type.  But as for those to whom they apply - that I very much doubt!"

     There then ensued a short but strained silence before Harvey good-naturedly remarked: "Yes, I take your point, Mike."  And, turning to the principal recipient of the artist's lecture, he added: "Being a lean man, Andrew, you tend to forget or conveniently ignore the fact that there are men in this world who rejoice in their bodily strength and use every opportunity they can find to show it off."

     "That's not quite true," protested Hunt, offering the stocky photographer a thin smile.  "One is rarely given an opportunity to ignore that fact!"

     "Well, perhaps not," conceded Harvey.  "But you are loathe, all the same, to admit that they're perfectly justified in behaving the way they do."

     "Yes, you'd certainly like to convert us to your way of thinking if you could," Haslam declared, "and make us sacrifice our ...” here he flexed the muscles of his right arm and bellowed "... mesamorphic potentialities!" - an outburst which paved the way for an explosion of derisory laughter from both Hunt and Harvey, who were rather more ectomorphic and endomorphic respectively.

     Across the far side of the room, a rather bewildered and intoxicated version of Martin Osbourne glanced-up from the middle pages of the September edition of 'Arts Monthly' and mumbled something to Wilder about the strange and pretentious nature of proceedings between the other group.

     "But they're always a little weird, aren't they?" David Turner elected to reply, deputizing for the somnolent correspondent who, due to the large quantity of sherry imbibed, was hardly in a fit state-of-mind to form a rational or objective judgement.  "How differently booze affects different people," he meditatively added.

     "Quite so!" agreed Osbourne, scarcely able to focus his own vision on the trio in question.  "One ought perhaps to ration it more in future."

     "Preferably after we've drunk our fill of it," suggested Turner, leaning forwards over the back of the settee and staring down at the magazine in Osbourne's hands.

     "Quite!" confirmed Wilder, whose personal and moral detestation of Michael Haslam prevented him from saying anything positive about the other group, considering he was of the opinion that the painter was an incorrigible idolater who would always oppose moves towards the sort of decent society which Andrew Hunt and, to a lesser extent, Stuart Harvey wanted to see come about from their respective standpoints -  the one informally and on an individual basis, the other formally and within the collective context of society in general or, at any rate, with reference to those whose 'prayerful waiting' placed them within the Christian mainstream of theocratic tradition in the West.

 

 

CHAPTER TEN

 

Through the open window of Rebecca Tonks' bedroom that evening, a mellow sun could be seen slowly disappearing behind a cluster of beech trees in the horizontal distance, its deep red glow mingling with their branches and bestowing upon them a sort of solar halo of such splendour ... as to transform an otherwise mundane scene into something startlingly supernatural and 'more deeply interfused', in Wordsworthian parlance, than even the deep glow of its own mellow setting.  To Anthony Keating, the view from Rebecca's bed, where he lay with his back to the wall, was indeed enchanting, though insufficiently so, alas, to entirely erase the memory of what had recently happened to him, or to alter his depressed mood to one of passive, quasi-blissful receptivity.  On the contrary, there occurred to him, in the sunset of this particular Friday evening in August, a symbol of his own life - a 'day' which was over and another 'day' which had yet to begin.  Doubtless the Australian continent would soon be flooded by light from the very same sun which, at this moment in time, appeared to be on the verge of extinction.

     But what of his own life?  What sun would initiate a new 'day' there and thus grant him a fresh start, one that began where the offices of 'Arts Monthly' left off?  And would it be a longer or a shorter 'day', one that lasted for weeks or months or even years?  He flinched at the thought of years.  Yet if one could do something one enjoyed doing, of what use would weeks or months be?  As if time was the all-important factor!  Perhaps, after all, tomorrow would be better than yesterday - brighter, fuller, warmer, more encouraging?  No more embarrassing interviews with stuffy atonal composers or last-minute reviews of crazy non-representational artists!  And what a crazy non-representational artist Alan Connolly had been!  Not merely content to indulge in the more traditionally fashionable non-representational developments, but a paradoxical surrealist, to boot!  A nostalgic crank who evidently imagined himself the natural heir of Ernst Fuchs and only succeeded in proving himself no better than a second-rate René Magritte!  Really, it was a wonder he had been allowed to exhibit at all, even given the fact that his work wasn't exclusively confined to Surrealism or, at any rate, to his own rather interiorized and intellectualized brand of it, but also embraced a little Abstract Expressionism and Op Art as well.  But the latter were hardly better, under the circumstances of their unorthodox treatment, than the more blatant anachronisms on display, and only succeeded in disillusioning Keating with the entire exhibition and inducing him, with Rebecca's prompting, to postpone his review until the following day, by which time the telephone call from Wilder had necessitated yet another postponement.  Still, there was something amusing - one might even say gratifying - about seeing the belated review of Catherine Williams' paintings in the latest edition of 'Arts Monthly', particularly in light of the fact that few people outside the immediate college circles from which she hailed would have heard of her, and scarcely anyone took any interest in her work, which was overly representational and thus of a conservatism which made even Connolly's art appear radical, if from a reactionary point of view.

     This last-minute replacement by Webb was really quite diverting!  One couldn't even be certain that Cathy Williams would approve of it.  But, there again, one couldn't be certain that she would care anything about the magazine anyway, since it wasn't exactly a matter of life-and-death to most contemporary artists.  The only people who seemed to take it seriously stemmed, as a rule, from the commercial bourgeoisie; people who only turned to the arts in their spare time, as a substitute, more often, for the absence of spiritual creativity in their lives, a sort of surrogate culture, if you will, and even they weren't beyond writing abusive and sometimes threatening letters whenever opinions or philosophies contrary to their own appeared in print, which, unfortunately for the magazine, happened all-too-frequently!  Yet, as far as Keating was concerned, all that was a thing of the past.  As also, thank God, was the humiliating experience with Webb, even though it lingered-on in the memory and slightly poisoned his feelings.  What mattered now was the new 'day' that had yet to begin, and whether or not Webb would approve of it didn't matter a jot!

     He smiled faintly as the thought of his new freedom suddenly dawned upon him with the sun's final setting.  The branches of those trees in the distance which, a short while ago, had been wreathed in a red halo of almost supernatural significance ... were slowly returning to their customary twilight appearance - devoid of even the slightest transcendent connotations.  Within a little while they would disappear from view altogether, like the sun itself, swallowed-up by the impenetrable camouflage of night.  And so, too, would the contents of Rebecca's room, if he didn't switch the light on.

     Yes, what a pleasant room it was really, even more pleasant with the light bulb shining and the curtains drawn on unacceptable darkness!  The armchair, table, bed, dressing-table, and wardrobe all seemed to him so reassuring at this moment!  It was impossible to imagine them apart from Rebecca, to conceive of them as belonging to anyone else.  Everything in the room appeared to have been fashioned specifically for her, to bear the hallmarks of her personality, to be in league with her against the outside world, which even included the rest of the house.  There could be no question of one's confounding Rebecca's bedroom with anyone else's.  It was virtually a work of art - the kind of art which, in its domesticity, mostly appeals to women.

     The creaky sound of the door handle turning startled him from these smug reflections and brought him the reassuring sight of Rebecca re-entering a room she had vacated some fifteen minutes ago.  He smiled his approval of her return and moved a little to one side in order to make room for her on the bed.

     "I'm sorry my friend kept me so long on the phone," she murmured, as she scrambled up beside him and threw an arm round his neck.  "Unfortunately, she's such a chatterbox that I always have to listen to her for at least ten minutes, especially when I haven't seen or heard from her for a few days."  She was of course referring to Margaret, the blonde whom Keating had seen in her sunbathing company that first afternoon he arrived at the Tonks' residence.  "Incidentally, my father would like to see you before you leave for home this evening," she added.

     "What-on-earth about?" exclaimed Keating, suddenly becoming a shade apprehensive, since the prospect of seeing Mr Tonks again gave him what might be described as the honky-tonks blues.

     "He didn't specify, but I suspect it has to do with the cancellation of that interview you told me to tell him about yesterday."

     Keating reluctantly nodded in regretful agreement and simultaneously permitted a faint sigh to emerge from between his lips.  Yes, it would almost certainly be about the interview, the cancellation of which could hardly be guaranteed to flatter a man who had put so much time and effort into giving it!  Here was yet another inconvenience for Mr Tonks to live with, yet another insult to his professional reputation.  As if what he had already experienced wasn't bad enough!  And, to cap it all, Keating had been unable to break the news of Webb's decision to him face-to-face but had relied upon Rebecca to do so, and to do so, moreover, as late as the day before, since he had spent the greater part of the Tuesday and Wednesday evenings deliberating over whether to break any news at all.  Only when she had telephoned him at his Croydon flat, late Thursday evening, and asked why she hadn't heard from him in the meantime, did he permit himself to confess to what had happened and then request her to inform her father.  So it was with some reluctance that he accepted an invitation to visit her the following day, accepted it under the understanding that Mr and Mrs Tonks had given her permission to invite him.  For, much as he wanted to see her again and secretly flattered though he was that her parents were resigned to his returning, he felt distinctly apprehensive at the prospect of what Mr Tonks would say to him about the cancelled interview when he actually arrived.

     As it transpired, however, Mr Tonks hadn't said anything, being otherwise engaged when Keating was admitted into the house just over an hour ago.  Nevertheless, he evidently had something in mind, and Rebecca's guest wasn't particularly happy at the prospect of having to hear it.  Quite the contrary, he was convinced that this further blow to the composer's self-esteem wouldn't serve to improve relations between them.  It might even result in his being prohibited from ever setting foot in Tonkarias again.

     "Don't look so worried, Tony," murmured Rebecca, lightly stroking his nearest cheek.  "He didn't seem that annoyed when I mentioned it to him."

     "He didn't?"

     "No, he was simply sorry to learn that you'd been dismissed from the magazine," she revealed.  "Besides, it's my entire fault anyway.  My fault from the beginning.  Had I not lost my heart to you, none of this would have happened."

     "I don't regret anything," Keating hastened to assure her.  "It was worth being dismissed over you - worth every damn minute of it.  In fact, I'm confident that, if one could reverse time, I'd do exactly the same thing again - even with a foreknowledge of the outcome."  He smiled boldly and, catching hold of her hand, kissed it tenderly.  "Yes, I would," he repeated, staring affectionately at her.

     Rebecca reciprocated his smile.  "You're an incorrigible romantic!" she opined on a note of gentle reproof.  "But I still love you."

     He squeezed her boldly against himself and applied his lips to hers.  It was some consolation that they were together and that she loved him.  He had always wanted to be loved by someone he thought it would be possible to love in return, someone he respected as an equal.  Until then, he had never had that luck.  Women there had of course been, but not the sort of women, alas, with whom he could have fallen in love!  Here, at last, was the promise of what circumstances had hitherto denied him, and he was grateful for it - more grateful than words could express.  For without love for another person, life was scarcely worth living.  What did it profit one if one climbed to the top of the professional ladder in a prestigious concern like 'Arts Monthly', only to return home each night to an empty and loveless room?  What was the point of achieving one's professional ambitions if they weren't justified by concern for someone else?  Did one work for the mere sake of working?  No, of course not!  Work-for-work's sake was fundamentally as perverse and self-defeating as art-for-art's sake or power-for-power's sake, and eventually led to the same barren dead-end.  It was indeed an ironic commentary on his life that, all the while he had been diligently slaving for Webb, he was  without love, love for another person, and had lost his job primarily over the very thing that would have given meaning to and justified it - namely, Rebecca.  And now that he was on the verge of discovering love ... yes, how paradoxical life could be!  One of these days he might understand its convoluted logic.  Meanwhile there was the fascination of Rebecca's lips, the sweet scent of her perfume, the soft resilience of her skin, the gentle warmth of her body.... He would rather have a love and no job than a job and no love!

     "Anthony!" protested Rebecca playfully, as his desire for her lips began to expand into a desire for other, more fleshy parts of her anatomy and resulted in her feeling ashamed of herself for encouraging such a thing while her parents were indoors.  "Not tonight," she added, by way of reminding him of the situation.

     "I'm sorry," he said, blushing slightly.  But he had to admit it was only too easy to forget the situation when one had a beautiful young woman like her in one's arms!  Especially when the lower half of her dress wasn't exactly in the most modest of positions, and one found oneself confronted by the greater part of what it ordinarily concealed!

     "So when are you going to see my father?" Rebecca wanted to know, after Keating had considerately and apologetically given-up the pursuit of further carnal pleasure and duly returned the hem of her tight black dress to its former, more orthodox position.  Her tone-of-voice was light and gentle, almost playful.

     "Not yet," he informed her on a more serious note, his honky-tonks blues returning to haunt him.

     Rebecca smiled up at him from where she lay.  "I hope he gives you a good caning," she teased.

     But Keating wasn't in the mood to be amused.  His bad conscience over the cancelled interview just wouldn't leave him alone.  It was obviously something Rebecca wasn't in a position to experience.  And neither could she know to what extent his growing fondness for her made him desirous of establishing himself on the best possible terms with her father - a thing which could hardly be guaranteed by this latest setback!

     "Did you say goodbye to the editor today?" she asked, growing bored with the silence which had fallen between them, like a psychological wedge, and giving voice to the first seemingly pertinent thought which entered her restless head.

     Keating raised incredulous brows.  "I could hardly do that!" he replied.  "Particularly when you bear in mind the nature of my dealings with him on Tuesday.  I was on the verge of throwing my attaché case at his head, you know.  Yes ..." And he mentally congratulated himself for having had enough sense to restrain the impulse at the last moment.  "In point of fact, I only saw him once, after he'd officially fired me, and that was on Wednesday afternoon, just as I was returning from lunch and he was on his way out.  We crossed uncomfortably in the entrance hall."

     "How embarrassing!" exclaimed Rebecca, screwing-up her facial features by way of emphasizing her assessment of the situation.

     "More humiliating than embarrassing," Keating averred with philosophic detachment.  "I guess that was the only occasion when our mutual endeavour to avoid each other broke down.  But I said goodbye to most of the others," including, he remembered, both Neil Wilder and Martin Osbourne.

     Yes, it was a pity, in a way, that he wouldn't be seeing either of them again, even though he had been invited to continue attending Osbourne's Thursday-evening 'stag parties'.  The invitation had come to him, he now felt obliged to admit, as quite a surprise after what had happened.  But he didn't much relish the prospect of endeavouring to be sociable towards people he was subsequently destined to have little or nothing to do with and who had, moreover, played a part in his journalistic downfall.  Besides, he didn't want to be informed, every week, of what was happening at 'Arts Monthly', as would almost certainly transpire if he continued to visit the senior sub-editor's flat.  Now that he was no longer one of its correspondents, he wanted a clean break, not an incentive for nostalgia, regret, or sentimentality, as might result from further contact with such people as one usually encountered at Osbourne's.

     Moreover, he was only too familiar with the various arguments regularly bandied about, on a variety of subjects, to be greatly thrilled by the prospect of hearing them all again, albeit with minor variations, to the glory of the general aura of drunkenness which invariably transformed a relatively innocuous gathering into an asylum of raging lunatics hell-bent on one-another's intellectual destruction.  Wasn't it better to be free of all that, free of the oppressive pretentiousness which invariably descended on the participants before the alcohol had taken effect?  If, occasionally, a worthwhile discussion emerged from the conflicting personalities, it was indeed something for which to be sincerely grateful!  Under the prevailing circumstances of progressive inebriation, however, worthwhile discussions were rather the exception to the rule, materializing, with luck, about once a month, and only lasting until such time as the sherry or wine or whatever decreed otherwise.  No wonder that people frequently got bored with it all and either relapsed into their former vices or graduated to different ones instead!  One could hardly blame them.

     Still, there was something agreeable about meeting other people once a week and indulging one's tongue for better or worse.  It had a kind of therapeutic effect, after all, which it was unwise to underestimate when one had been shut-up in the prison of oneself for too long.  True, the conversation might not always have appealed to one's higher judgement, the fruit of private reflection.  But on a physiological level it could certainly provide the basis for a useful catharsis against the dangers of prolonged repression.  Yes, indeed!  And who knew that better than Michael Haslam and Stuart Harvey?  One had to admire the tenacity with which they depended upon each other for mutual therapy in the face of an indifferent and largely ailing world!  No female could have served their cause more thoroughly!

     "So what are you going to do with yourself next week?" asked Rebecca, as soon as she realized that Anthony had nothing further to add to his previous comment.

     "At the moment I'm not absolutely sure," he replied meditatively, "though I've thought of doing some freelance journalism for a while.  Fortunately, my financial position isn't too precarious at present, so I needn't rush headlong into another full-time job - assuming I could get one right now.  I have also thought of going to Paris for a couple of months to complete the novel I've been struggling with this year.  But, since you're so fond of me and I'm loathe to be away from you for any length of time, I suppose I'll remain in Croydon and finish it there.... Not the most romantic of towns admittedly!  Although it did have some connection with D.H. Lawrence, if I'm not mistaken."

     "While he was a schoolmaster and part-time novelist," confirmed Rebecca, recalling to mind what she had read about the great writer's early life teaching at the Davidson High School from 1908-12.

     Keating nodded and smiled.  "Yes, and it was the birthplace, moreover, of both Malcolm Muggeridge and Havelock Ellis," he informed her.  "I dare say you've heard of them?"

     "Who hasn't?"

     "Yes, well, it's currently serving as the birthplace of my novel - one which, as I think I may have told you last week, follows the vicissitudes of a young man who is unfortunate enough to fall madly in love with a beautiful lesbian without realizing the situation until it's too late."

     Rebecca laughed aloud.  Frankly, she thought the idea hilarious!  Of all the odd tricks fate could play on one, that would certainly be among the oddest!  Why, if Tony could conceive of such an implausible plot with a moderate degree of equanimity, what was there to prevent him from delineating the converse possibility - that of a young heterosexual woman unlucky enough to fall madly in love with a homosexual?  Or was it that such a prospect would fail to appeal to his wayward imagination on account of the probably one-sided, stand-offish nature of its protagonists?  For, with the lesbian scenario, there was always the possibility that the man, growing impatient with his predicament, would take her by storm and thereby at least gratify his carnal desires to some extent, whereas, with the converse situation, a young heterosexual woman could hardly be expected to initiate sexual relations with the homosexual victim of her love - least of all in England, where women were traditionally so reserved, if not prudish, on account, in no small measure, of its puritanical legacy.  On the contrary, a rather tedious unrequited passion would seem to be the only possible outcome.  Thus, in relation to Tony's choice of subject-matter, there was evidently a method to his madness, albeit a method, Rebecca felt, that it was perhaps wiser not to inquire into too deeply, since feminine modesty forbade.  Doubtless she would find out what became of the incompatible couple in due course, when he had brought the misadventure to its tragic denouement - whether through anti-climax or otherwise.  In the meantime, however, she was content merely to laugh and shake her head in feigned disbelief.  Croydon's latest literary foetus could hardly be expected to develop into a best-seller.  With a parent like Anthony Keating, it was bound to remain on the shelf!

     "Aren't you being a little harsh on my genius?" the budding novelist expostulated, by way of facetiously commenting upon her response to his literary revelation.  "After all, it isn't very often that the reading public get an opportunity to sympathize with one or other of the victims of such an anomalous relationship.  Most of the relationships they read about, in this sex-obsessed society, are frightfully predictable - so predictable, in fact, that one wonders why they even bother to read about them in the first place!  But at least the novel I'm currently writing has the charm of novelty, which is no small distinction these days.  It may not be the type of literature to appeal to someone like Malcolm Muggeridge, what with his rather strait-laced heterosexuality, but I'm quite confident that Havelock Ellis would have derived some profit from it, which would probably have supplemented his knowledge on the varieties of sexual relationship, and perhaps even  induced him to further expand his Psychological Studies."

     "Really, you're quite incorrigible!" Rebecca hastened to remind him, playfully slapping his backside.  "You'll end-up writing like the Marquis de Sade, if you're not careful."

     "To the extent that he was one of the best writers of his time, I shouldn't be at all ashamed or disappointed," Keating blandly asseverated.  "He liberated literature from more mental shackles than the rest of his generation put together.... Which is only to be expected, I suppose, from a man who spent most of his adult life in prison and duly felt obliged to seek compensation in mental freedom.  Had he been less physically constrained, it's doubtful that we would care anything much about his writings these days.  Our interest in his books - assuming he'd have written anything radical in freedom - would be either negligible or, more probably, non-existent.  Even D.H. Lawrence seems rather tame by comparison.  One can read Lady Chatterley's Lover without a single blush.  Try doing that where the Marquis' most notorious works are concerned!  You'll soon spot the difference."

     "It's not a difference I'd particularly care to spot," admitted Rebecca, smiling coyly.  "My literary tastes are really quite prim.  Nothing stronger than Pride and Prejudice."

     "That's strong enough," Keating assured her, grimacing at the mere thought of its title.  "Though you might as well settle for Wuthering Heights, if you're prepared to read Austen.  All great literature begins with the pen and ends with the sword.  Anything that ends with a dagger is second-rate."

     "Don't exaggerate so!" Rebecca light-heartedly chided him.  "Great literature needn't always be tragic.  It sometimes ends happily.  What about Camus' A Happy Death?"

     Keating knit his brows in pensive consideration a moment, as he sought in his memory for what he could recall about the novel in question.  "I'm not absolutely convinced of its greatness," he at length confessed, mindful of the novel's radical brevity, a consequence, he had always believed, of Camus' generally dilettantish commitment to literature in view of his various practical commitments elsewhere, including politics and journalism.  "Besides, the fact of the leading character's death doesn't make for a genuinely happy ending anyway.  In fact it's really quite depressing that a young man should be whisked away from life just when he was beginning to enjoy it.  But if I was wrong to say that all great literature ends tragically, I don't think you can deny that a happy ending tends to be the exception to the rule.  We expect the tragic, and in nine bloody cases out of ten we damn-well get it!"  He paused a moment, as though for dramatic effect, before continuing:  "Occasionally, however, a work of value ends happily, as in the case, for example, of Hermann Hesse's Narziss and Goldmund.  For the most part, however, Madame Bovary is the rule.  And it's the rule I'm attempting to stick to where my own novel is concerned, even if, under the prevailing decadence of contemporary society, it will never attain to true literary greatness.  If I cannot achieve a tragic consummation with the sword, I may have to settle for the dagger.  Or maybe even the metaphorical penknife," he added wistfully.

     "I fear you'll lacerate my heart with your tongue if you're not careful," protested Rebecca, while gently stroking the back of his head with the hand that, a moment before, had served her better use elsewhere.  "You'll shatter all my illusions about great literature."

     "I'm sorry," rejoined Keating, responding to her fingers with a deftly placed kiss on her brow.  "You must think me a frightful egotist."

     "More delightful than frightful, actually."

     "I'm sincerely relieved to hear it," he admitted and, taking her nape in his right hand, lovingly applied his lips to hers in a renewed spate of kissing.

     The minutes passed quickly as they lay together on the bed, arm in arm and lip on lip.  It was almost blissful for Keating to lie there like that - basking complacently in Rebecca's bodily warmth.  But not quite.  For at the back of his mind the consciousness of his impending meeting with her father refused to disappear, refused to budge, and he was aware, too, that he would have to see him fairly soon, before it grew too late.  Rebecca's bright-red alarm clock was already indicating 9.45pm.  It was quite a long way between Hampstead and Croydon, north and south London, and if Mr Tonks kept him talking longer than thirty minutes he might well miss the last train from Victoria Station and have to resort to a taxi instead - a prospect which didn't particularly appeal to him.  But would Mr Tonks have much to say?  Unfortunately, that was a question he had no way of answering while he lay in Rebecca's arms.  It was regrettable that he should have to break away from her so soon.

     "Yes, I suppose you'd better go," she agreed, after he had disengaged himself from her body and reminded her of his obligations to her father.

     "Will I see you tomorrow?" he asked nervously, putting on his zipper jacket.

     "I can't see why not," she replied.  "After all, I'd like to hear about what dad has to say to you."

     Downstairs, in front of the door to Howard Tonks' study, Keating hesitated, suddenly becoming apprehensive as to what lay beyond.  On the immediately discernible level, it was apparent someone was playing the piano in a honky-tonks manner.  But it wasn't that level which particularly worried him, even though he didn't much like the idea of barging-in on the player and interrupting his performance, no matter how disagreeable the music.  He felt sure that whatever happened between himself and Mr Tonks, after he crossed the threshold, would be disagreeable.

     "Go on!" Rebecca urged him from the stairs to his rear.  "He won't bite you!"

     This dramatic last-moment reassurance sufficed to goad Keating's fingers into turning the doorknob as, with reluctant resignation to his fate, he pushed open the study door and walked straight in.  His heart beat wildly as he closed it behind him again.  When he turned around, however, the man at the piano wasn't Mr Tonks but someone he hadn't seen before!  And the room was otherwise empty!  His heart almost came to a standstill.  He couldn't believe his eyes.

     Catching sight of him standing where he was, the stranger immediately ceased playing and stared intently at him a moment.  It was evident to Keating, by the look in the grey eyes now confronting him, that his entrance had come as rather a surprise.  Perhaps he had come to the wrong room?  But just as he was about to apologize and take his leave of it again, the grey-eyed man politely asked him what he wanted.  He explained.

     "Ah, so you're Mr Keating!" the man enthused, raising himself from the piano stool and holding out a friendly hand. "Delighted to meet you!  My name's Roy Hart, a friend of Howard's."

     Keating nervously advanced towards the outstretched hand and allowed it to shake his own.  He was still somewhat apprehensive about what lay in store for him.

     "Take a seat," Hart advised, drawing attention, with a well-directed nod of his head, to the nearest armchair.  "Howard went to the kitchen to make some, ah, coffee, so he'll be back any minute."

     "Oh, right!" responded Keating, hardly knowing whether to be thankful or resentful for this perfectly straightforward information.  The two men sat down simultaneously on their respective supports.

     "I hear you recently conducted an interview here?" Hart commented, following a short pause.

     "Yes," admitted Keating, feeling slightly hot-under-the-collar all of a sudden.  He didn't want to dwell on that subject now.  "An aborted one, alas," he added.

     "So I hear," Hart sympathized.  "Not one of your lucky weeks, eh?"

     "Indeed not!"  It was evident to Keating that Mr Tonks wasn't the only person who had something to say about the affair.

     "Were you at 'Arts Monthly' long?" asked Hart, clearly aware of more things than the young man had suspected.

     "Only a couple of years, I'm afraid," confessed Keating, turning red.

     "Ah, so you probably wouldn't know anything about the interview they did with me a few years back," conjectured the pianist, changing tack.  "One of the worst interviews I've, ah, ever given."

     Keating was fairly nonplussed.  "Really?" he said. 

     "Quite dreadful!" Hart insisted.  "I swore that would be the last one I ever gave.  But I succumbed, a couple of months later, to a German magazine, and since then it's been the same old story.  I should imagine I've appeared in just about every, ah, serious arts or music publication in the Western world - with the possible exception of a few in America.  But I'm not boasting, don't think that!  On the contrary, I'm really quite ashamed of my, ah, weakness for publicity.  It has brought me more pains than pleasures."

     "I'm very sorry to hear that," declared Keating, though, in reality, he was personally somewhat relieved that the older man had switched to talking about himself rather than asking embarrassing questions.  Any number of autobiographical confessions would have been preferable to them!

     Such confessions, however, weren't to continue.  For at that moment the door was thrown open and in walked Howard Tonks, carrying a tray with two mugs of steaming coffee on it.

     "We've a visitor," Hart informed him, drawing attention to the occupied armchair.

     "Ah, so we have!" exclaimed Mr Tonks, before carefully depositing the tray on the small coffee table in front of him.  "I'm delighted to see you again," he added, and he extended a hand for his rather startled visitor to shake.  "But I was sincerely sorry to hear you've lost your job.  It must have come as quite a shock to you."

     "Not as bad as I thought it would be," admitted Keating, blushing anew.

     Meanwhile, Roy Hart had helped himself to his coffee and returned to the piano stool, from whence a gentle cultured sipping could now be heard.

     "By the way, would you like some coffee, Anthony?" asked Mr Tonks.  "Had I known you were here, I'd have made another one."

     "No, I'm fine thanks," Keating assured him, reminding himself of the time.  It had already gone 10.00pm.

     "Well, since you're here, I suppose I'd better bring you up-to-date about the interview," said the composer, who picked up his coffee, walked a couple of yards in the direction of his mini-portraits of Ives and Varèse, and sat down in the remaining empty armchair.  "From what my daughter told me last night," he continued, putting his coffee to one side, "it would appear that the interview was annulled because of your dismissal."

     A horrible feeling of dread now launched itself into Keating's soul.  It seemed as though his worst fears were about to be realized.  "Yes, I imagine so," he confirmed.

     "Well, you might be interested to learn that I received a letter from Mr Webb this morning, informing me that it will now be published in the October edition of his magazine and that he, personally, is going to edit it."

     "You what?"

     "Here's the letter," declared Mr Tonks, extracting from his trouser pocket a crumpled piece of paper which he uncrumpled and handed across to the stunned occupant of the other armchair.  "Read it for yourself."

     Nervously Keating did so.  It categorically stated that the publication of the interview was going ahead as planned.  There was no mention of him, nor any reference, not altogether surprisingly, to his dismissal.  "I can't understand it," he gasped, re-reading the letter and becoming more incredulous with every line.  "The editor made it perfectly clear to me on Tuesday that he had no intention of publishing the thing.  How could he have changed his mind?"

     "How indeed?" Mr Tonks rejoined.  "I can only conclude that he lied to you in order to make your dismissal more painful.  Lied to you in order to pay you back for having previously deceived him."

     "The dirty rotten bastard!" erupted Keating, unable to restrain the impulse to resurrect his former hard-feelings.

     "You needn't feel too badly about it," Mr Tonks assured him, smiling sympathetically.  "For, believe it or not, I've taken your side in the matter and refused Mr Webb permission to press ahead with his intentions.  I phoned him this afternoon and personally invalidated the interview, threatening him with legal action should he proceed."

     "You what?"

     "He did what I suggested he ought to do, under the circumstances of Rebecca's, ah, fondness for you," interposed Roy Hart, momentarily desisting from his coffee.  "From what I gather, she takes you quite seriously.  So it would seem that the pair of you are destined to spend a lot more time in each-other's, ah, company.  Now, under those circumstances, it would have been quite unfair of her family to treat you badly.  And to submit to Webb's intentions would have been to do just that!  Besides, it was this very same man who interviewed me, and the impression he created at the time was, ah, anything but favourable!  As I intimated to you earlier, I was less than satisfied with the result."

     "Webb interviewed you?" exclaimed Keating, his eyes opening like wild flowers under pressure of this latest and most astonishing of the pianist's revelations.

     "He did indeed!" Hart confirmed.  "And did so, moreover, in a manner which I found highly insulting.  But when I eventually read the published material, I was even more insulted.  His editing took so many, ah, liberties with what I'd actually said, that the interview was barely recognizable to me.  It was virtually a caricature, a grotesquely sordid travesty of the original, for which I ought to have sued him.  Unfortunately, due to my involvement in a series of, ah, foreign concerts, I didn't get round to reading the interview until my return to London, approximately five months after its publication.  By which time it was too damned late to take action, even to protest.  So, if my experience counts for anything, I believe I was justified in advising Howard to, ah, cancel what might well have become, in Webb's devious hands, a similar caricature.  Of course, with you conducting and presumably editing the interview, he was confident that things would turn out relatively well.  But now that that arrogant bastard has his dirty hands on it, however, I thought it appropriate to, ah, remind him of what befell me."

     "A reminder which might have gone unheeded, had it not also been for Rebecca's influence on me," Mr Tonks confessed.  "She, too, had a desire to thwart Webb, albeit one motivated by rather different reasons from those elicited by my good friend here."

     Keating was even more nonplussed than before.  "You mean, she knew about Webb's letter as well?" he gasped.

     "She did indeed!" Mr Tonks revealed.  "For I showed it to her first thing this morning, before I phoned his office."

     "And she wasn't very keen on the way he'd said one thing to you on Tuesday and written an entirely different thing to Howard on Wednesday," declared Hart, drawing Keating's attention to the date on the letter.  "Had she not phoned you when she did, yesterday evening, it's highly likely that Webb would have got away with his, ah, cruel intentions and made a bigger fool out of you than anyone else has probably ever done."

     "Instead of which, he has been made to look a pretty big fool by us," averred Mr Tonks smilingly.  "But I must say, Anthony, you certainly left that confession to my daughter rather late!  Had she not immediately told me about it, yesterday evening, I would almost certainly have given Webb the go-ahead today.  As it happens, I've prepared, in addition to my telephone conversation of this afternoon, a signed letter absolutely forbidding publication of the interview.... Or perhaps one should say potential caricature?" he added, deferring to Hart.

     Keating was bluntly amazed.  He hadn't expected anything of the kind, and it was as much as he could do to prevent himself from bursting into tears of gratitude.  No wonder Rebecca had teased him about his pessimism with regard to the impending meeting with her father!  How amusing it must have seemed to her, to see him making a mountain out of a molehill, a tragedy out of a comedy!  Wasn't that typical of him anyway?  Hadn't he always instinctively feared the worst?  Well, for once, his pessimistic preconceptions were unjustified.  He had been his own worst dupe!

     "I don't suppose you saw Mr Webb this afternoon, by any chance?" Hart nonchalantly inquired of him, returning his half-empty mug of coffee to its resting-place beside the piano.

     "No, unfortunately not!" cried Keating, whose face suddenly became illuminated by a radiant smile at the thought of Webb's deceitfulness being invalidated by the telephone call from Howard Tonks.  To be sure, it was remarkably therapeutic, incredibly cheering!  How gratifying it would have been to see the bastard's face when the news had first invaded his mind and shattered his deceitful strategy to pieces!  How dumbfounded he must have looked!  And, having no means by which he could hope to change the composer's mind, not being in a position whereby he could see his correspondent again and offer to reinstate him, how frustrated he must have felt!  Now Keating knew this, he was almost sorry he hadn't done the unspeakable and said goodbye to his former boss, before leaving the firm earlier that day.  The look on his face could only have been pathetic!

     "Incidentally, what do you intend doing with yourself, now you're free?" asked Mr Tonks, breaking the silence which had fortuitously fallen between them.

     "That's something about which I'm not absolutely certain at present," confessed Keating, his feelings rapidly changing course and descending to a less-exultant level.  "I've got a novel which I intend to complete during the next few months.  But after that ...?"  He shrugged his shoulders in perplexity.

     "Do you think you could write a biography?" Mr Tonks suggested.

     "A biography?" echoed Keating.  "Why do you ask?"

     "Well, as a matter of fact, my good friend here is of the opinion that it's about time someone made a serious attempt at writing my biography," declared Mr Tonks, nodding in Hart's smiling direction.  "Now if, Anthony, you think you might be able to manage the job and, no less importantly, feel that you'd be able to tolerate a fair amount of my company in the process," he continued, ignoring Hart's ironic burst of laughter at this remark, "then I can see no earthly reason why you shouldn't undertake it.  Since you're a pretty intelligent young man with some experience of professional writing, I can't see why you shouldn't make an attempt at it, especially if you haven't got any specific plans for the future.  The fact that, thanks to the interview, you already know quite a lot about me should facilitate further inquiry.  And if you intend to continue visiting Rebecca, then it would be to your advantage to also make what use you can of her to acquire additional information on me.  Thus by being an intimate of the family, you're in the best possible position to undertake the task.  So what do you say?"

     Keating was too bewildered by this unexpected offer to know quite how to respond.  The possibility of writing a biography of Howard Tonks had no more crossed his mind than had an autobiography of himself.  It was almost unbelievable.  And yet he was being asked, and by no less a man than the composer in person, not only to believe it but to actually get on and damn-well do it!  Had Rebecca known about this, too?

     "Well?" pressed Mr Tonks engagingly.

     "Okay, I'll have a go at it," agreed Keating, breaking into a smile of acquiescent relief.

     "Excellent!" the composer enthused.  "My family and I will provide you with whatever help you may require.  Even if you're obliged to do some freelance journalism whilst working on the project, there's every chance that, providing you do it well, you won't have to work as a drudge-ridden correspondent or journalist ever again, least of all for a clown like Nicholas Webb!  As yet, no biography of me has appeared, but when one finally does, you can be pretty confident that it will sell hundreds-of-thousands of copies the world over.  So don't waste this unique opportunity to make a name for yourself!  Given the necessary determination, you must surely succeed."

     "And if you succeed with a biography on Howard, you might well feel inclined to tackle one on, ah, me," Hart remarked humorously.  "Even though I'm slightly less famous than my, ah, eminent friend here."

     "But none the less controversial!" opined Mr Tonks, and he picked up and commenced drinking his neglected mug of coffee.

     "Oh well, I think I'd better be taking my leave of you now," concluded Keating as he consulted his watch, and, getting up from his armchair - the very same armchair he had sat in during the course of that first afternoon at Tonkarias - he thanked and shook hands with each of these great men in turn.  It was indeed a long way to Croydon but, in the joyful mood he was in, he could have walked there.  Or even spent the night on Hampstead Heath.  Provided he got home before Rebecca telephoned him the following morning, what matter?  The whole night was ahead of him and tomorrow, after all, was a new day ... in every sense.  He had nothing to fear!

 

                          

LONDON 1979 (Revised 1980-2014)

 

 

AN INTERVIEW REVIEWED

 

 

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