Beyond the Labyrinth (forthcoming)

At the very moment when prima ballerina Léonide Papamelindros, known to her admirers as “la Meli”, gets her steps wrong in full view of the audience on the stage of the opera house, the head of the baby which her dear friend Princess Calasipari is giving birth to emerges between its mother’s legs. What is the explanation for this peculiar coincidence? And even more important, who is the father of the baby? The Princess’s vapid, immensely rich husband is at the opera, together with the dashingly handome Irish engineer Daniel O’Hara, currently designing the capital city’s first underground railway, and widely reputed to be still a virgin despite having reached his mid thirties. Beside him sits his dear friend and sidekick, Hungarian lighthouse keeper Sandor Toth, who unwittingly becomes involved with a band of Polish revolutionaries on hearing shots ring out in a neighbouring room of the brothel in which he spends his Sunday afternoons. At the christening party, Madame de la Poupillinière, whose private life is rendered scandalous by lesbian amours, has just presented her gifts when the pram containing the baby is revealed to be empty. Who can have run off with it? This is where the novel Kevin Doyle was working on when he disappeared breaks off. Everything suggests a suicide. His agent Fenella Whillingham contacts Lydia Feenan, a lonely university academic in a windswept Scottish seaside town, proposing she should interview four of the people closest to Doyle in the hope of finding out how the story was meant to continue. Convinced Doyle is not dead at all, Lydia not only manages to discover his whereabouts but also to recover the remainder of the novel, complete with ending.
“Are you sure you didn’t write these pages?”
I was determined to be frosty with Fenella, not least because of an underlying, barely articulated fear. What frightened me, I think, was the notion that, as the originator of all this, she might also have the power to pull the carpet from under my feet, to call things to a halt, shutting me out from the further history of the novel and the fate of as much of it as I had managed to recover. What actually happened made my worries thoroughly irrelevant. A surprise I could never have predicted lay in store.
‘Lydia,’ she said, placing the folder containing the new material to one side of the table, in the brief interval before they brought our starters, once the wine had been chosen and our glasses filled, ‘did you write these chapters yourself?’
I had never seen her look so beady-eyed or grim. As I said, I treated her coldly when we met at Waverley, but could not prevent myself thawing out as the taxi ferried us down to Leith. Fenella talked with disarming openness about the books which were going through her hands, several of them by well-known authors I had seen on television or at readings, or had scanned reviews of in the Sunday papers. I was reassured by the way, when she came to speak of Doyle’s book, she viewed it on the same level as these, rather than as a tiresome distraction she had to squeeze into available corners of time. It sounded more like a problem constantly at the back of her mind which could at last come forward, bringing her relief. There could be no doubt she developed a close relationship with each of her authors. Though she had come to consider his death a fact, Doyle remained vividly present to Fenella, a presence, moreover, towards which she experienced a genuine responsibility. Nothing had prepared me for the question she now put. I had raised the wine glass to my lips but luckily not taken a sip. Otherwise I might have choked.
‘What?’ I spluttered. ‘What on earth do you mean?’
Reassured by my reaction, she reached across the table and took my hand.
‘I can see there is no basis for suspicion. Don’t worry, the horror written all over your face is sufficient to convince me.’
‘But,’ I went on, trying to gather the implications of what she had said, ‘doesn’t it read like Doyle’s writing? Do you believe me capable of continuing a book he hadn’t finished?’
Fenella chuckled.
‘I overestimate the cleverness of academics, that is all. My brother-in-law has said so more than once. Your essays on Doyle’s writing were remarkably perceptive. It would not be beyond the bounds of possibility for you to have penetrated so deeply into his style as to be capable of reproducing it at length. To have you complete the novel was one solution that did not occur to me.’
Now that I had calmed down I started getting angry.
‘But the plot? The development of the story? Did you think I would go so far as to manufacture the details of the interviews? That I would lie to you about those as well?’
She turned more serious.
‘Don’t talk about lying, Lydia. If you had written those chapters, and I can see how preposterous the suggestion must sound, it would be evidence of an enormous talent. It’s as if they went beyond Doyle, beyond what he had done so far. They have an unprecedented quality, something new, unhinged, as though he had shaken off fetters that shackled him for years. Authors never get prizes for their best work. That is a rule of thumb, but an absolutely trustworthy one. His fourth book was his poorest yet. It left me truly worried. That was why, when I read the start of the new one, I felt such relief. It made the fact of his disappearance, the whole suicide thing, much harder to accept. What I said was not an accusation. Look on it as a kind of test. And you have no reason to feel insulted. Quite the reverse.’
‘I am not a forger,’ I insisted.
‘If you had written those pages you would also have been a genius, after your own fashion. I could even say I am disappointed you didn’t write them. Just think. If you had been guilty, and had confessed, we could have commissioned the rest of the novel from you, for a fee, naturally. Doyle only received a small part of his advance. There was plenty more to come. It wouldn’t be the first time it’s been done. The whole thing would be absolutely above board. Did you read the recent fuss about the man who completed Elgar’s Third Symphony from sketches? There’s a recording out now. Think about it, Lydia! Wouldn’t anybody be justified in feeling sceptical? Months after Doyle disappears, you come up with more than he had written of the book! All the stuff about dyslexic viola players, about e-mail attachments getting lost, then being recovered, is hard to stomach. It belongs in a novel of its own. Surely you won’t deny that.’
She could see I was getting angry again.
‘Put it down, if you want, to me having read too many playful postmodern books with vagrant chapters, contested authorship and multiple endings. No, Lydia, honestly, I believe you. The look on your face says infinitely more than words could. I’m amazed, that’s all. The most I was looking for when I put you onto the job was an extensive concluding note. It would have stopped readers being too horribly frustrated when the narrative suddenly breaks off. I also hoped it could stir up a bit more interest in the fragment. We even talked with the publishers about announcing a competition, asking readers to propose how it would have finished. Now I feel I’ve hit the jackpot. You will write all this up, won’t you? Your discovery and how it came about have to be part of the book we publish. That goes without saying.’
Ever wary, I scrutinised her carefully to make sure she was not buttering me up. But as always, Fenella was simply acting herself and was perfectly sincere. She was even less capable than me of lying.
I could not think what to say. The emotions inside me were too conflicting. I could see that Fenella was ill at ease, more upset than I had ever seen her. She had left a significant portion of her main course on the plate. All of a sudden her glamour evaporated. It occurred to me that a day travelling north to Edinburgh, with a top class lunch on her expense account could not be such a frequent occurrence in her life. I was worried that my awkwardness, my reticence might be spoiling the meal, so I insisted we ask for the dessert menu. I could also say I felt guilty at withholding a piece of news that would have transformed her mood, the news there had been no suicide. Though I had no facts on which to base my conviction. The menus arrived, a festive air returned, and we chatted superficially about the range of sweets on offer and which cheeses we wanted to wind up with. I was even able to tell her about the variety of oatcakes available in Scotland. Heartened, as far as I could see, Fenella, who was infinitely more discreet in her disclosures than superficial acquaintance might suggest, chose to share a significant piece of information.
‘It’s a bit spooky, Lydia. Did you know that someone has been withdrawing money from Doyle’s account?’
My body went cold and then warm again, all at once, leaving goosepimples down my back and on my forearms. But I was determined to give no clear sign of emotion.
‘How strange,’ was all I said. ‘Tell me more.’
‘Obviously one of his cards has gone astray. The peculiar thing is for them to wait so long before making use of it. It was in Paris, you know. Just think!’
Feeling dizzy, I put my spoon down on my plate. Fenella was tucking lustily into the apple and almond crumble they had brought. She was not after all, concerned with me. Telling me of these phantom withdrawals relieved her own unease.
‘The bank was very awkward about the whole question of freezing his accounts. You see, when there is no next of kin, and Kevin had none, no-one has the authority to step in. At first they said a disappearance, or the suspicion of suicide, was not sufficient to justify blocking access. It took a while for them to agree to stop his cards. This one got through the net. Come to think of it, the only time I lost a card, the bank blocked all of them except the right one. They can be so inefficient.’
‘And have the police been put onto the matter?’
‘My dear Lydia, have you any idea how many cash and credit cards go missing every day? As long as there are no definite indications of foul play in Kevin’s death, they will take a limited interest in the whole affair.’
Try as I might, I saw no way I could present Fenella’s news as evidence that Doyle was still alive. Why would he wait for months before making use of a card? Why would he do that anyway if, as must be the case, he wanted to disappear from his previous life leaving no traces behind?
“Am I making love with a man, or with a woman?”
That was also the night on which Daniel lost his virginity. Their lovemaking had an ambiguity which never quite vanished from his relations with the Princess, even when many years had elapsed. The kind of tranquillity he had achieved on the evening when Julien began his long narration was based on a conviction that, if he loved another man, there was no point in resisting that impulse, provided it was unsullied and ennobling, characterised by kindness and compassion rather than a mere urge to possess. If he had no clear idea of what sort of behaviour would be appropriate in such cases, he repeatedly tried to picture the body he would discover once Julien’s garments had been laid aside. Though they shared the same sex, it would be subtly different from his, a difference which was also the expression of the souls which animated them, and which would therefore be manifest in whatever means they devised for enacting and appeasing their desire. Julien made no use of perfume, and the days of journeying had banished any traces of the sophisticated scents the Princess was in the habit of using. Her skin had a distinctive fragrance of its own, one that had not changed significantly since her years upon the road, when an evening meal around the campfire followed by retreat to a bed of bracken was the norm.
That fragrance had made the Prince wild, when at last he got the opportunity to explore his wedded wife’s body without restraint. Daniel, on the other hand, had only just managed to identify his travelling companion with the mother of the infant they both sought. That body’s fragrance belonged to a creature of an indefinable nature. If his conscious mind knew that she was a woman, his unconscious part was prepared for her to revert, at any moment, to the young man he saw her as until that evening.
This meant that, when her breasts were at last set free from the constraints that had imprisoned them for more than a week, and Daniel was able to observe, with soft murmurs of alarm and deprecation, the bruising of the skin, or when, between her legs, he came upon a triangle of dark hair, and next an already damp passageway which was an invitation to his fingers first, then to his mouth, then to his member, it all seemed to belong, not to a man or a woman, but to an intermediate and marvellous creature, one whose physical manifestation was capricious, unforeseeable and therefore, in a precise sense, irrelevant. On awakening the following morning, it would hardly have surprised Daniel to discover that, while they slept, the being next to him had changed back, so that the lovemaking they engaged in heartily as soon as she, too, had awakened, would bring new discoveries, necessitating new inventions.
The Princess, on the other hand, retained a clarity of perception throughout the proceedings which contrasted sharply with the indeterminate multiplicity of Daniel’s sensations. To say she was monogamous by nature may sound ridiculous. After all, Daniel was the third man she had taken as a lover. The child she had set out in pursuit of was in all probability the fruit of an adulterous liaison, concerning which she felt not a shadow of compunction. Making love with Daniel was, however, the effect of a conscious decision on her part, of a choice she did not make lightly, whose consequences she was prepared to accept in full. She meant what she had said about Daniel alone, of all three candidates, deserving to be the father of her child. She was all but certain that her infertile relations with the Prince derived from a lack on his part rather than on hers. It crossed her mind, even before she laid aside the wrappings that enveloped her breasts, that if what happened with Tadeusz could be taken as a precedent, then before many months had passed, she might well find herself carrying the Irishman’s child.
Her acceptance of this fact gave a pondered weight to her lovemaking that nicely balanced Daniel’s throwing of caution and prejudices to the winds, his resolve that, perversion or no perversion, he would abandon himself without more thought to the cravings which tormented him. The Princess appraised the Irishman, observing and assessing his body with care, though under circumstances very different from those of his bath earlier that evening. She knew she was comparing him with both her husband and Tadeusz. What she found confirmed her decision. Indeed, it astonished her that he should kiss so well and so instinctively, should know how much pleasure can be derived from a mere brushing of the lips, how investigating the rim of one’s lover’s lips and the skin beyond them with one’s own can give a special edge to that soft receptiveness. She already knew that kissing is a kind of talking, and her conversations with Daniel in this form made her so impatient to talk to him conventionally, to discover his views on an entire range of subjects, that she was tempted to interrupt the lovemaking and replace kisses with words, at least for a while.
She had to show him how to enter her. In the end, it was simplest to put him on his back and mount him. He came at once, of course, as an adolescent would. That gave her the chance to study the expression on his face. By a luck of angles, the candlelight fell directly on it. The expression was duplicated in no other activity, and became familiar to her with the passage of the years, though its appearance never failed to surprise and affect her. She noted the twitching of the double peak of his lips at moments of acute excitement, which the splendid whiskers she had already decided he would have to trim were insufficient to conceal. Though she had not the same exclusiveness to offer, it pleased her to think that no other man or woman alive knew of that expression, or that tell-tale indication of arousal. And if she felt confident that no-one else would ever know, it was a confidence devoid of arrogance or presumption, merely a noticing that something is the case. Daniel was too fully present in all he did, too alien from considerations of prowess or performance, to show distress at having reached an end so rapidly. Within a matter of minutes, he was ready for more. The Princess reflected that here, too, she appeared to have struck lucky. She had in truth made a thoroughly wise choice.

‘Combining two narratives into a single novel was always going to be a challenge’.

© 2021 Christopher Whyte. All Rights Reserved | Designed by Jarka Jones

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