I>Editor’s note: Anthony Fawcett’s “Ghostwriting by Choirlight” is a rites of passage novel set in mid 1980s in England, Ireland, India and Tibet. It describes the journeys of four young people as they emerge from university into adulthood.The chapter below is titled “The Girl from Ipanema” and closes part one. Ben Pearce, the central character, decides to leave England for India. However, the world is about to be blown apart by an event which no one in his circle could have foreseen. The pain and anxiety of their reactions to it launches them all onto paths they could never have anticipated before its occurrence. The text maintains its original British English spellings.
The Girl from Ipamena
So this is it. I’m jobless. Barely one year into work and I’ve been fired. I know that I’m supposed to say that I’ve been made “redundant” or describe how I am part of a programme to reduce the headcount due to a diminished need for personnel resources (this latter description courtesy of Harvey’s parody of US business jargon). But, as far as I’m concerned, I’ve been fired.
I am sitting in the library with Ernst. He is gazing with gloomy guilt at the table. According to John Cranston the production department will be axed as well and possibly one or two editors, depending on the nature of their lists. Ernst is giving me a lame and long-winded explanation about how he had never planned it like this but it was the way that it had turned out. He keeps fidgeting with his pen. “Make him feel bad,” John told me before I went in. “That way you stand some chance of getting at least something out of him. Otherwise you’ll get nothing because you’ve not been here long enough.”
“I feel bad,” I find myself saying. “I feel that I’ve failed.”
Ernst looks startled. “No, no, you mustn’t feel that, dear boy. It’s not your fault and it’s nothing to do with your performance. It’s just…now what was that phrase they used…?,” he begins to mumble to himself, “…anyway the new company will have too many people doubling up in the same jobs. Ours, as you know, is a small list and your opposite number in Fenwick and Royalton is very experienced and what with…um….economies of scale and so forth…” His voice falls to a half-whisper.
“Look him directly in the eye,” John Cranston said.
I stare at him.
“Look, dear boy, you’re still very young and there will be no question that I will give you an excellent reference and I know that with a lot of these takeovers it seems that there are less jobs around but in a way you’ll see that as things change new jobs will be created and I think that if you stayed in publishing you would have a great future…..”
I continue to stare at him.
Eventually we end up sitting in silence. I am gazing out into the dark of an early evening over Great Pulteney Street. The scaffolding has now finally been removed. Just in time for the takeover, I think. Ernst takes a red polka dot handkerchief out of his pocket and blows his nose.
“I feel very bad about this,” he says, after fidgeting around for a while longer, “and as a demonstration of my own gratitude for your work here I’m giving you a gratuity payment. Please note that this is not something which we are obliged to give but I do feel honour bound in the circumstances to accord you some recognition of your work. Also I would be grateful if you didn’t mention it to anyone else.” He rummages in his desk for a moment and takes out his cheque book.
I smile and thank him. When I have departed I take a look at the cheque. It is drawn on a personal account held at an exclusive and small London bank, one of a dwindling band which still print their name in flowing, copperplate script rather than the prosaic upper case lettering used by the main clearing banks. It’s for the sum of £500. Better than a kick in the teeth, I think to myself. At least it means that I gain something out of this fiasco.
I run into John Cranston on the stairs. “Just had the last rites?” he asks.
He looks at me. For once he seems to be speechless. His hands drop to his side in a gesture of helplessness. “I’m sorry,” he says.
“Maybe it’s for the best,” I reply.
“That’s not a bad attitude to have, I suppose. But still, these things are always tough. You’ve heard that Dickinson’s hung on to his job?”
I raise my eyebrows.
“Interestingly they have made all the reps redundant but they’ve kept him — apparently he managed to wrangle a deal where he will look after special sales — wholesalers and book clubs…that sort of thing.”
“I doubt that’ll go down well with the reps.”
“You know Paul Dickinson, he’s a survivor if nothing else. I am not sure, to be fair to him, how much influence he had on the outcome. I think that he would far prefer to be running a rep force. In a way this is a demotion for him.”
Before I leave the building I poke my head around the door of Dickinson’s office. He’s at his desk frowning slightly, his lower lip curled into a characteristic grimace of preoccupation. He looks up.
“Oh,” he says guiltily. “Ben…how are you?” How the bloody hell do you think I am? I think bitterly.
I’m in a blunt mood. “As you might imagine, I’m terrible”.
He gives a nervous half-laugh. “What? Oh, has old Ernst just given you the bad news?”
“Yes.” I am feeling sullen and irritable. It may not be Paul’s fault but I intend to make him feel at least some remorse about this. “It doesn’t look as if your blazing guns cleared the way for the rest of us,” I say sarcastically.
He looks affronted. “Ben, listen to me,” he walks across the room and closes the door behind me. “I know that you’re feeling bad about this but believe me I did my best and I’ve been bloody lucky to hang on to my own job. As it is, from January I’ll be managing no one. Since management is what I enjoy most then this is a big blow for me. I haven’t been here that long and I was promised all sorts of things when I came, none of which have materialised. If you want to blame anyone you should be blaming Ernst, not me.”
I gaze at the carpet silently.
“I’m not entirely sure about this but I think that Ernst may be giving you some form of compensation.”
“I’m not entitled to anything by law apparently.” I say, remembering Ernst’s words and mindful of the fact that he seems to have paid me out of his own pocket.
Dickinson looks uncomfortable. “I’m sorry,” he says eventually. “There’s not a lot else I can say really.”
I sigh. I suppose that there isn’t. My mind drifts back to the first time we met. We had gone out to lunch together. “Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?” He had asked. To which I had replied, “Alive, preferably.” I knew from that moment that we would never see eye to eye. However, I wonder how he now feels about his own five year strategies. Presumably they must be in tatters.
I think of ringing Harvey but I know that, although he’ll be sympathetic, there’s little he’ll be able to do about it. Also, in a way I feel that I have failed while he has succeeded. He seems to have established a career just by being himself. He has a way of shooting straight from the hip and not caring about the consequences which appears to be serving him well as a journalist. He has this knack of being able to impress people — it doesn’t seem to make a difference if he’s at work or not — he’s always the same confident character.
I telephone my father to tell him. “You were expecting this in a way, though, weren’t you?” he says.
“Yes but it’s a peculiar thing. Although you can predict that something will happen, or that it is very likely to happen, it still doesn’t seem to stop it from making you smart when it does, even though you think that you’ve prepared yourself for it. It’s like being trapped on the wrong side of a level crossing and seeing that there’s a train coming. In some ways being able to see it before it happens makes it even worse.”
“Good grief! You’re sounding very gloomy,” he says, “I am sure given your qualifications that you’ll be able to find another job without too much difficulty.”
“Yes, but at one stage I was very certain about this career and now I’m not so sure — I feel lost. It’s difficult to see what options I have. The only area that’s booming for graduates is the City and I can’t say that I’m particularly interested in that.”
“I could suggest politics but I have to say that I don’t think you’re very suited to it and I am not sure that I would wish this sort of life on anyone in any case.”
“How’s it going?”
“Easier since the furore died down. I knew that the first week or so would be difficult because the spotlight would be on me. It’s taking me a while to find my feet, though. Life looks very different from this angle. Ultimately I think that I will be more at home here but everybody tends to look askance at somebody who switches sides. I’m a turncoat to many people. On the one hand I am not yet trusted by my new party but on the other I am still hated by my old.”
“I’m thinking of taking a long break,” I say. “I have some money saved and Ernst gave me something extra as compensation so I thought I might fly to India for a few months.”
“Good for you,” he replies, “will you go and see Jenny?”
“I hope to, although I am not sure how keen she is to see me.”
“Oh, I’m sure she’ll be fine. You’ve agreed to remain friends, haven’t you?”
“Yes but I’m not sure what that means exactly. I’m so used to…”
At that point he cuts across me. “Sorry, Ben, I don’t mean to cut you short but I have a meeting that I need to attend. I’ll speak to you soon. You must come up to Blaxton before you depart.”
I mutter my assent and with that he is gone, swept back onto the hub of a busy political day. For a moment I wonder whether he is disappointed in me. He has had such a successful career himself that it must be frustrating to watch one of his sons floundering around like this. Then I dismiss it. He has enough on his plate in any case. And anyway I won’t get very far if I over-react to what has happened.
I return to the flat in Battersea, trailing back through the traffic jams on the Wandsworth Road to the sound of the 6 o’clock news. At least this winter I won’t have to commute from Oxford again. The memory of trying to clear ice from the windows in the early morning and then enduring the hair-raising drive to London is still acute enough to make me feel grateful for the fact that I survived last winter intact regardless as to any mishaps this year. I have a clear memory of losing visibility as a thick residue of grit and snow gathered on the windscreen. I would find myself trying to peer over the steering wheel onto the road, my head craned forward, the wind-screen wipers oscillating rapidly in my face, as I despairingly tried to see what was happening in front of me. To add to this there were no petrol stations on the motorway which meant that for those 60 or so miles there was no place where I could pull in, gather my wits and clear up the windscreen. On one occasion, which rapidly entered the “mythology” of stories which would circulate among our friends, Brendan decided to hitch a ride with me because he needed to meet someone in London. He moaned incessantly about having to get up early but as soon as he hit the passenger seat he settled into a deep slumber. He then awoke half-way down the motorway (“I felt as if I had landed up on a dark planet somewhere in outer space”) to find me cursing to myself as I tried to negotiate the road. He began screaming:
“I can’t see! I can’t see!”
“Neither can I,” I had replied through gritted teeth.
When I get back to the flat there is a letter from Jenny for me. She tells me that she will be leaving the biosphere reserve soon and flying north to Ladakh to get involved in a project relating to energy conservation. Her tone is friendlier than in her previous letter and I sense a desire for reconciliation which compounds my determination to go out and see her.
I spend the rest of the evening working out how long my money should last and how much my flight will cost. I get an early night and I have the strangest dream. I have a vivid sense that I have returned to the house of old Marie near the O’Rourkes. The dream gives me the strangest sense that I am both watching myself and that I am myself at the same time. She is talking to me about flying. “Jenny’s flying, isn’t she? She’s flying and there’s danger.”
“She’s not going to die is she? If she flies she’s not going to die?” I ask.
Marie rolls her head back and laughs at me. Broken teeth and a stained tongue protrude from her lips. I start to shout at her. She must tell me. She must tell me whether Jenny will die if she flies. She’s flying to Ladakh, I tell her. I must know whether this is the danger which she has warned me about. But Marie just laughs and laughs and opens her mouth so wide that eventually it fills my entire field of vision.
Then I awake to the preternatural silence of night, black and brooding as if it somehow knew that a strange event had happened and that I was now lying in a small wooden bed in a large capital city immobilised by terror. I lie on my back staring at the ceiling. I can hear nothing. A sense of premonition flutters inside me like a caged bird. I get up to fetch myself a glass of water, feeling so unhinged that I half-expect Marie to leap out from behind the door at me. Christ! This is bloody awful, I think.
I sit down at the kitchen table and start to argue it out with myself.
“Right,” I think “let’s be rational about this. You’ve just had a bad dream and that’s the end of it.”
“But,” I then think, “what if some terrible accident is about to happen? Aren’t there examples of people foreseeing the future? Couldn’t this be one of them?”
“Don’t be sodding ridiculous – you’ve just had a nightmare and you’re now letting yourself get carried away by it. These things aren’t real, they’re just projections of your imagination. Pull yourself together, go back to bed and get some sleep.”
“But it isn’t just you — it’s the fact that Marie’s predicted this already. The dream’s just made it clearer.”
“For God’s sake, knock it off will you?! Have you completely taken leave of your senses? It’s just a dream and no more.”
“But what if it’s true? What if Jenny takes this flight and there’s some terrible accident and she dies? You would never be able to forgive yourself. Even if it does seem irrational you must try to delay her in some way…get to her…warn her. Even if she thinks you’re mad, it won’t do any harm and it might just save her life.”
“This is the most melodramatic nonsense I’ve heard in my life. For God’s sake, grow up. It’s ridiculous. What are you going to say to people ‘oh I’ve got to fly out to India at once coz I’ve had this premonition that my ex-girlfriend is about to die and I’ve got to warn her’? And what are you going to say to Jenny? You won’t be able to contact her by telephone so you’ll have to fly out to see her in person. You know what’s she like — once she’s made up her mind to do something, then she’ll do it. You’ll never persuade her not to get on the plane. She’ll just think you’ve gone mad. You’re behaving even more strangely than Brendan did last summer.”
Eventually I decide to go back to bed but I cannot sleep for the rest of the night. Next morning I am supposed to visit some booksellers in north London but I decide to ring and cancel. To be frank I am past caring about the job now. I only have three weeks left in any case and I hardly feel the need to be loyal in the circumstances. I have decided that I have to reach Jenny at all costs. Even if this dream is no more than the reflection of a fevered mind exaggerating the spurious ramblings of some old witch I would never forgive myself if something happened. I telephone various travel agents to attempt to find an immediate flight. I pick one up for Saturday. Then I telephone Paul Dickinson at the office.
“I’m flying to India on Saturday,” I say to him.
“I have some urgent business there.”
“What sort of business? Look, Ben, you can’t just go tearing off because you feel like it. You’ve used up your holiday entitlement and you still have three weeks to work. I honestly can’t accept this.”
“I don’t see what difference it makes to you in any case. It’s not as if you’re my manager now that we’ve been taken over.”
“Oh yes it is. The old line of reporting remains until you depart. In any event, if I were to let you go, I would end up taking the blame. It’s just not acceptable.”
“Paul, I’m going and that’s all there is to it.”
“But why can’t you go later, what’s all the hurry for? You’ve only got three weeks left and then you’ll be free to do as you choose. I don’t understand this.”
“Jenny, my girlfriend, is very ill, I’ve got to see her. She may die at any moment.”
“Ben, I have to tell you that this just won’t do. I won’t let you go and that’s all there is to it. And you’ve got to bear in mind that you’ll need a reference from us at some stage. It won’t look great if I have to say this on any report.”
“I don’t care. I’m going,” I say and hang up.
I then telephone Schloesser again (I should have thought of this the first time, I think to myself). I get hold of Ernst and tell him that Jenny’s in a critical state and I need to get out and see her at once. I apologise for the fact that I am leaving work earlier than anticipated but I say that it’s a matter of life or death.
He sounds slightly flustered but says that he entirely understands and that if I feel I must go, then go I must. He wishes me luck and apologises again for the fact that the takeover has meant that my job has been lost.
The next few days pass in a flurry of activity as I try to obtain last minute visas and inoculations. I try to tell as many people as possible that I am going. Nobody questions my motives and I comfort myself that, to the extent that I am lying, it is a white lie.
The only person who sounds suspicious is Jane.
“This doesn’t make sense,” she says. “I had a card from her recently. She seems fine. But if she is ill, then I want to come as well. My studies can wait for a while. In fact I’m finding them frustrating at the moment in any case. A break would probably do me good and I’d really like to see her again.”
“No,” I say hurriedly. “I don’t think that’s appropriate.”
“Appropriate?! What the hell are you talking about? Come off it, Ben. You may be my elder brother but you’re not going to tell me what is and isn’t appropriate.”
“All right, I didn’t quite mean it like that. It’s just that I am not sure she wants to see many people and I think it’s better if I go out alone, at least for the time being. You can join us later.”
“Look, Ben,” she says suspiciously, “I hope this is not some ruse designed to ensure that you get back together again, is it? It just won’t work. I’ve told you. She isn’t interested.”
“No, no, that’s got nothing to do with it,” I say crossly. “If I’m being loyal, it’s only as a friend, no more and no less. And we’ve agreed that we will stay close friends whatever happens.”
“Mmmm…,” says Jane. “All right, if you fly out on Saturday I’ll follow you out in a few weeks. There are one or two things that I need to clear up here first but they shouldn’t take up too much time.”
I am hesitant about this. However, there’s little I can do about it and anyway the important thing is to ensure that Jenny doesn’t get on her planned flight. Once I’ve done that I suppose it makes little difference whether Jane’s around or not.
“Sure,” I say. “Let’s try and meet up in Delhi or something.”
“Have you spoken to her parents?” Jane asks.
I haven’t thought about this one. “I’ll telephone them before I go.”
“Presumably if she’s this ill they’ll want to fly out to see her themselves.”
“Yes…..well, I think that they know and they’re trying to get flights as we speak,” I say. This is getting tricky, I think.
“Do you want me to call them?”
“Stay cool,” I think to myself. “No,” I say nonchalantly, “I don’t think that there’s any need for that.”
After a certain amount of probing and questioning she seems to accept what I say and hangs up.
Finally I speak to Brendan. He remains as taciturn as he has been in recent months. I still have this sense that I am talking to somebody whom I barely know. His conversation is a sequence of monosyllabic answers and long silences. I ask him how his studies are going and I get a non-committal reply. I tell him that Jenny’s ill. He says that he’s sorry to hear that. I ask him how his parents are. He says that they’re fine. Eventually I run out of questions and tell him that I will see him some time next year when I return. Then it’s the end of the conversation. I sit in silence afterwards, wondering again whether we will ever manage to renew the warm friendship which we once had.
Saturday comes and I trail out to Heathrow in the morning to check in. The plane is due to land in Delhi in the late afternoon. I then have to criss-cross the country by a network of rail and road until I reach Jenny’s reserve. I check in and walk through customs to the departure lounge. It all seems so mundane. Travelers mill around purchasing their duty-free goods (FMCGs, I find myself thinking, a train of thought immediately followed by: God — now I’ve left Schloesser I hope I’ll be able to forget some of these acronyms which Paul was so addicted to). I am reminded of a conversation with my father when I was up at Blaxton earlier this year. “Wherever you go these days somebody is trying to sell you something.”
I make my way to the gate. Everybody’s eyes seem glazed over with that tranquillised state of somnolence that long-haul flights induce. My thoughts keep nagging away at me, telling me how foolish this will seem to Jenny. I’ve sent her a postcard to say that I’m arriving but I know that there is no realistic way in which it will reach her before my arrival. What on earth will she say? How will I persuade her? I sit gloomily on a tubular steel chair in the departure lounge thinking, this isn’t going to work; even if you reach her in time she’ll be completely incredulous. But it’s too late. The fire of the dream has waned but it burned sufficiently brightly a few days ago to illuminate a course of action which now seems foolish. I guess that I don’t have to contact her when I arrive. I could just lie around and do some sight-seeing. However, I know that this does not make sense. If I have started this journey, no matter how mad or eccentric, then I must complete it.
Eventually our flight is called. I find my way to my seat. I smile to myself as I hear the muffled sound of “The Girl From Ipamena” coming over the aircraft loudspeaker system. Harvey has a theory that there is only one tape and that all the airlines have it and play it constantly upon take-off and touch-down. It consists of “The Girl from Ipamena”, “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” and “Moon River”. “I wish I could discover what sort of equipment they use to record this crap,” I can hear him say the last time we flew together, “…then I’d be able to destroy it all. It’s got to be a particular sort of equipment since you hear the same ghastly sound everywhere you go. Every time you’re on the move you hear this stuff — in elevators…in hotel lobbies…in aircraft. It drives me nuts. It’s so terrible. Why doesn’t somebody realise that we’d all feel more comfortable in silence or that if they have to pipe music at us then they should respect our tastes enough to give us the original versions? And why can’t we have more variety? I appreciate that they want something restful but why can’t we have some Van Morrison or something — how about ‘Moondance’ for instance?” At which point, of course, a bowdlerised version of “Moondance” had started to play. “Oh fucking hell, give me a break,” he had said, pulling the cushion over his head.
They make the announcement about the captain for the flight (“Oh no!” Harvey would have said at this point “not Captain Stewart” or whatever the name of the captain was — I think he has now given up making this joke because an airline threatened to sue him for libel).
I settle back for the long, tedious hours of air travel. As the plane takes off, my mind is echoing to the sound of the miners singing “Here We Go”. The miners’ strike has ended a while ago but I still find that it replays through my mind on occasions such as this. “Here we go, here we go, here we go,” they sing. My ears pop and I feel a certain pressure in my forehead as the plane races up into the sky. Then we’re airborne and cruising.
About an hour passes and I fall asleep. The dream seems to be returning. Again Brendan and I enter Marie’s house and she gazes at me with a look of malevolent mischief. This time, though, she says nothing but merely begins to laugh at me.
I awake with a start. I can’t have been asleep for more than twenty minutes. I am thirsty. The blinds in the aircraft have all been pulled down. A child wails in the background. The flight seems smooth. The seat belt sign is not illuminated. The roar of the aircraft seems louder than ever. One of the stewardesses brings me some water and I settle down again.
Several more hours pass. I eat some food and watch a dull movie. Eventually I drift back into sleep and again I slip into a dream. This time the dream is a memory of an event which occurred some years ago, a memory so vivid that it acquires the force of the present.
I am 11. I am walking into the drawing room at Blaxton. The French doors are flung open wide and the sound of Bach is drifting out into the summer evening. It’s the double concerto for two violins, my mother’s favourite piece of music. She used to love it. She would repeatedly play the second movement, its plangent sound echoing around the house. She would sit on the floor, her back against one arm of the armchair and her legs pulled up to her chest, her eyes glistening with passion. This time she sits staring out of the window, almost as if she is so far away that it is not possible that she can be listening to the music. She looks up and notices me. She does not speak but beckons me to come and sit down beside her. She is dressed in a light cotton frock with flower prints. Her dress seems to be at odds with her mood because although I sense that she wants to speak she seems unable to do so. I can see that she has something to tell me and that she is struggling to find the right words. I say nothing but I take up position beside her with my back against the other arm of the chair, letting the sound of the two violins dip and swirl around my thoughts. The last movement plays, then the stylus finds the final groove of the record and sticks, repeating itself over and over again until the sound of its constant clicking becomes nothing more than a background noise, merging with the sound of the mower outside on the lawn where my father is sweating up and down in the July heat, frowning in concentration as he tries to hold the machine in a straight line. From where we are sitting I feel as if I am watching him in a film, as though he is an image on a screen. Eventually my mother’s hand comes down on my shoulder and she begins to speak.
“Ben….” I remain silent. There’s a long pause. She gets up to put the record on again, returning to the second movement. She pauses by the table, looking out onto the lawn.
“Listen,” she says, “it’s as if he has managed to distil all the suffering, all the sadness in the world into six minutes of beautiful music. It’s the yearning of the soul to be happy and free; it’s the call of one soul to another, longing for a response, a reply, and finding it but still the two voices can only be joined in sadness.” She hangs her head. The long reach of evening throws her features into a profile on the wall behind her. “It has always made me cry and yet I feel that it’s right to cry, right to accept suffering, that in many ways….” she clasps her hands together, “it’s necessary to feel like this and to embrace the feeling fully when it comes rather than trying to shut it off.” She turns her face away from me and, standing up, she walks to the window.
“Ben,” she says, her voice quaking a little. “We are all going to have to be very brave.” But she halts again, obviously struggling to put her thoughts into words. Tears are now running freely down her face. She puts her face in her hands. I sit, immobile by the chair, staring up at her, trying to fathom what she is trying to say to me. Her mood seems more intense and powerful than any that I have seen before.
I get up and walk across to her. “Are you all right Mummy?” I ask awkwardly.
She looks at me for a moment as though she suspects that I know what she is about to say. Her face softens and the tension goes out of her. She wraps her arm around my neck and pulls me close to her.
“No, Ben,” she whispers. “I’m afraid that I’m not. I’m going to die soon. I have cancer.”
We stand together for a long time, mother and son clasped to each other in the evening shadow. I cannot cry, not at first. Dusk falls. The record finishes again. The impact is so powerful that it dulls any immediate sense of pain. I knew that something strange had been happening in the house because I had heard my mother and father whispering together conspiratorially on previous occasions that summer. I knew that she had gone into hospital several times. But I had no idea that something like this was about to happen. It is only later that I cry long and deep sobs, my pillow soaking with tears and my heart thumping with anguish. I am upstairs in my room and I feel as if the whole world is exploding. I can hear a roar and a ripping sound of disintegration.
Then I am awake and I am no longer back at Blaxton all those years ago. I realise that everybody in the aircraft is screaming. Oxygen masks are dropping down. My mind is befuddled — still smothered by sleep but rapidly ruptured by terror. The aircraft is lurching all over the place. Windows are smashing. Luggage is crashing out of the overhead lockers. Items are hurtling down the gangways. My hair is blowing across my face. Something has clearly gone disastrously wrong. My ears are making me scream with pain. Every inch of my skin is being stretched. My tongue is being forced out of my mouth. I feel a huge force on my chest and lungs. Then everything goes black.
— Anthony Fawcett worked in a publishing house in the mid-1980s before becoming a lawyer at the end of the decade. He has lived and worked in London, New York and Tokyo. This is his first novel.