On Chasing Brad Through Purgatory

On Chasing Brad Through Purgatory

Stephen Benatar

1

It was shortly after two when we left the party. The year—2005. It was a good party and showed no signs of flagging but Brad had to be up again by eight. Well such is life: I couldn't remember when either of us had last had to make an early start on a Sunday. But his daughter's plane was due in at ten and he was picking her up at Heathrow.

“Still. Always best to leave while you're having a good time,” he said. He took his hand off the steering wheel and laid it briefly over mine.

I yawned. “Oh really? I never heard that one before.”

He looked at me quietly for a couple of seconds and I saw the hint of worry encroaching on relaxed good humour. “You
were
having a good time?” he checked.

“Yes very. Sorry if I sounded tetchy.” The car swerved slightly. “Are you really okay to drive?”

He smiled and nodded. “I truly didn't drink so much. That thar was nothing but a blip.”

The headlights made the narrow country road seem eerie. Trees lined our route on either side, their branches forming a canopy. I thought of smugglers in a secret passage. I had recently read
Moonfleet
.

Normally we would never have driven to a party but the one-man taxi firm in the village had been booked up. I'd already been on my way to the shower when I'd asked at what time John was coming to collect us. Brad had stared and exclaimed and then gone straight to the telephone. The second and third small company he'd tried had also been booked up. “Oh fuck it Danny. I get the feeling someone's trying to tell us something.”

“Yes. That each of us shouldn't always rely on the other to look after details.”

“But I
like
relying on you. And I like having you rely on me.”

He'd held out his arms and I'd walked into them with a well-is-there-any-hope-for-either-of-us type laugh. I'd underlined this: “Despite the obvious pitfalls in such a situation?”

“Yep. Don't be defeatist. The only thing you have to do is brush up on your telepathic skills.”

“Hmm. Or you brush up on yours!”

“I shall of course. Christ! One of us has such a startlingly beautiful nature.”

“And one of us can be such a total pain in the ass.”

Now he said, “Just look at that incredible moon. Both in the sky and on the water.” We were out from underneath the canopy and were passing a great gleaming stretch of lake in which the moon floated in devastating clarity. Brad pulled onto a verge and without saying anything we both unfastened our seat belts and walked across the road. We stood with my arm resting on his shoulders and his encircling my waist.

Eventually he spoke. “If this could only be photographed in any way that would ever do it justice!”

“Perhaps that's why God invented painters,” I said. “And the writers of fairy tales.” I simply meant there was something magical about the scene: geese could turn into princes, witches could be put to rout.

He laughed. “Perhaps that's why the writers of fairy tales invented God.”

“Oh yes? What is?”

Yet after a moment he shrugged. “I may have been
moderately
abstemious this evening but you can't expect me actually to think, can you, as well as try to appear clever?”

“Huh!” I said. But, apart from that, I wasn't in the mood to let him bait me. “And we ourselves could maybe form a part of this painting?
The Watchers on the Bank
,” I suggested.

“Oh, don't let's give it a title,” he said.

“Why not?”

“Cheesy.” He gave my waist a squeeze—I saw it as censorious.

“I don't follow you. But in any case,” I lied, “it wasn't a title. Only a comment concerning our sadly ineffectual place in the whole vast scheme of things. My place anyway.” A person talks such nonsense at half-past-two in the morning, with several fine wines inside him and a substantial amount of one equally fine spirit.

“Ah! You're saying then that we actually
have
a place in the whole vast scheme of things?” Brad's surprise was exaggerated. “Well I ask you now: what could ever illustrate better the yawning gulf between callow youth and worldly-wise maturity and judgment?” The weariness of his sigh was also exaggerated.

So as I say—nonsense, emanating from both sides. I was twenty-six; he was forty-five.

“Worldly-wise judgment,” I scoffed. “Just now you had the nerve to accuse me of being cheesy—”

“No! Never!”

“—and please don't interrupt. I need to make a point.”

“Yes?”

But for the instant I'd forgotten what my point was. Blast! He twisted round and held me in a warm impulsive hug.

Yet I refused to be silenced.

“Ah yes
cheesy
!” We neither of us pulled away. My cheek rested against his and I now grew pleasantly aware of the cologne we both used although I could never smell it on myself. “In this situation,” I said, “wouldn't it take a truly remarkable photographer not to introduce at least an
element
of kitsch? What ought to come out as stunning in its naturalness and beauty just runs the risk of turning cheaply sentimental as soon as you throw in two attractive guys in dinner jackets. And I don't think even a painter could altogether avoid this.” I'd lost sight of the fact I was demolishing my own argument.

And so had he. “Oh, I don't know. When you remember that picture we saw of Narcissus staring at his own reflection in a pool …”

Now I did pull away and didn't wait for him to terminate his pause. “Are you calling me Narcissus?”

“No.”

I wasn't sure that I believed him. “Then you're deliberately confusing the issue.”

“What is the issue? I feel you'll need to remind me. I am sorry.”

“No you're not; you don't look in the least bit sorry.”

“Are we quarrelling?”

“Yes.”

Not very seriously so—as my fist against his cheek suggested—but all the same a wrong note had been struck; and after a minute Brad remembered how late it was.

“There!” I said. “You see? It did remind you of some tacky old Porsche commercial.”

“Shut up. Be good. Take one last look and let the magic fill your soul.”

But already the moon in the lake had lost something of its power. I couldn't admit to this though. It would have been the same as admitting how pathetically shallow I was. Instead I stood at the car door and drew Brad's attention to the stars. “Why should the moon get all the glory?”

“I love you,” said Brad.

“Yes that seems a fitting sort of answer. I love you too by the way.”

We buckled up and Brad switched on the engine. “I agree with you. It's sad: how we come to take the stars for granted.” That was the phrase which had been going through my own mind; he might already have been honing all those telepathic skills. I regarded his well-chiselled profile with its fine classic nose and smoothly shaven skin, his thick head of naturally shiny hair, basically black but touched all over with becoming grey, the deepening crow's-foot at the hazel eye, and I experienced such a powerful surge of affection that it actually brought forth a patina of tears and I was glad his gaze was on the road. With my forefinger I stroked his shapely dark-haired wrist and vaguely hoped my fingertip might exude a love-lyric worthy of Tennyson or Keats.

I was a humble lad. I knew I couldn't aim as high as Shakespeare.

“In fact when I first came here from London,” he said, “I practically made a vow I would stare at the stars in wonder every night. And I was going to buy a staggeringly expensive telescope.”

We looked at one another and smiled. Then suddenly: “Hey!
Tears?
” he exclaimed. “Are you all right?”

“I'm fine. Just tears of happiness.”

Before he turned away, my own wrist—shapely I hoped and fairly tanned but more or less hairless—received an answeringly fond touch from him.

“I bet that's one of the things that'll impress Suzanne,” he said. “I don't suppose she often gets away from Paris. The stars in deepest darkest Sussex ought to come as quite a revelation to her.”

Deepest darkest Sussex was represented just then by tall hedgerows on either side of the road. “And what are the other things you think might be going to impress her?” I was hoping I myself would head the list.

“Are you nervous?” he asked.

“You're damned right I am.”

“I suppose it'd be a bit strange if you weren't.”

“Then why ask?”

“Support. Solidarity. Empathy. I'm feeling nervous too.”

I smiled. “I suppose it'd be a bit strange if you weren't.”

Perhaps surprisingly this was the one aspect of Suzanne's visit we hadn't discussed. Brad and Hélène had split up four years ago when Suzanne was eighteen. A few months afterwards Hélène had taken her to live in Paris. Despite the separation (because of it said Brad) Brad and his wife remained on good terms and Suzanne had twice come to stay with him in London.

But for their third reunion Brad had gone to Paris and that was the time he'd felt he must let them know the truth; had consequently mentioned me. He and Hélène had been sipping Pernods at a pavement café. “So what's new?” she'd inquired, following his initial revelation, and when Suzanne had joined them from a shopping expedition: “Darling we were right; but your father's only just made it official.” Then his wife and daughter had raised a glass to him and had even included myself in their toast. Hélène had been deeply involved by then with a German businessman, but even so, Brad claimed, this must have rated as one of the easiest comings-out on record, both then and afterwards, despite the keenness of his apprehension.

Yet the thing was, Suzanne hadn't seen him here since his removal into Sussex and my own removal into both his home and—we hoped—the rest of his life. What might have seemed wonderfully simple to accept in the abstract could become a good deal more distressful when faced with certain practicalities. For instance would she and I get on? And when she actually saw, or was in close proximity to, someone taking the place in her father's bed which had once belonged to her mother, mightn't the reality hit home in a way that no amount of distant sophistication and good will could ever quite prepare you for? And she was only four years younger than me. Could that in itself be something of a problem?

Besides I had my pride: I hoped she'd like me and wouldn't be carrying back any sneaky little tales across the Channel. However nice her mum might be. My predecessor.

“She will like you,” Brad said. “I shouldn't be surprised if before long she doesn't love you.”

“Uh-huh. So that explains why you too are feeling nervous? Yes I can understand that.”

“Look. Even though one knows something will work it still doesn't stop one being a bit on edge. Think of all those dinner parties we've given. And really Danny she's such a sweet girl, you've no idea, three minutes after she's here you'll wonder why you worried.”

“Why
we
worried.”

“God you're stubborn! You don't ever let go do you? But anyway what's the worst that can happen? You end up loathing each other. The whole week is an unmitigated nightmare …”

“You and I quarrel. Violently.”

“No,” he said, “neither probable nor possible. And as for the rest of it … nobody's life would be ruined. Not even mine. Though undoubtedly there'd be a sadness.” He paused. “But in any case—I repeat—it isn't going to be like that. She's a really sweet girl.”

“And I'm a really sweet guy. Seems we were made for one another. We'll probably fall in love and leave you with nothing but the subject for another play.”

“I don't know if you've noticed. I write comedies.”

He said it with a smile but somehow I again had the feeling there could be some underlying dig. And more than anything else this showed me Brad was under stress despite his allegedly hundred-years-hence sort of attitude: a hundred years hence what will any of this matter? (Before we'd met one of his plays had even been given that as a title.) I thought I made a pretty smooth transition.

“Oh talking of plays you don't suppose there'd be any chance of that new American musical do you?”

“The one which opened at Drury Lane all of three days ago? Well Danny what do you think?”

“Returns?”

“Some hope! And if you even dare to mention ticket touts I'll make you leave this car.”

“As bad as that?”

“Slimy profiteering scumbags.”

I said drily: “I suppose we couldn't find one who was marginally less slimy? Because if it's a question of paying slightly over the odds for an experience which Suzanne may never have again—certainly not while it's new and fresh and being talked about—then I for one feel that it could conceivably be money well spent.”

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