It was almost roses, roses, all the way. The fans kept on laughing and joking, even into the asperities of JFK Airport.
Speak to us Green Mouth, cried their noble banners, in priceless fan embroidery, too overwhelmed to give punctuation a single hem-stitched thought.
RAZZMATAZZ FOR TAZZ.
"Don't leave us! We'll make ya President!"
What measure was the unit of laughter? The ha? A million units of ha were expended as the admiring throng gladly, proudly, lugged Green Mouth's luggage to the First Class Check-In. Every one of the faithful needed to lay a plump hand on the sacred suitcases.
More units, as baggage moved on the metal loop away into concealed realms, piece by precious piece. More units, as the throng shuffled slowly towards Duty Free Zone and final farewells. More units, pained now, before they could possibly say goodbye to her. A little chorus of units trickled among the streams of ha-less humanity filling the lounges.
Green Mouth was always at the centre of the chorus, triumphal, regal. Almost silent herself, the catalyst against whom the ha-units she generated beat in vain. It was a fine performance, Dr Clement Winter told himself. He should not worry. There was no real cause for worry.
The noise, the banners, the nervous mirth, provoked Green Mouth continually to smile her grim smile, and to chuckle her grim chuckle, which even the most admiring could not effectively imitate. Laughter was not for her but for the acolytes. Chuckles were power-based, laughter was weakness. She floated slowly towards SHOW PASSPORTS, stately as a cinema butler, be-ringed hand up to shoulder to adjust green cloak.
Some of those jostling near asked her questions, harmless things intended as no more than tribute. To these questions, Green Mouth tossed remarks of some brevity: "We'll have to see about that." "That's one for my agent." "What do you think?" "We'd all like to know that."
Each little coded reply provoked more units of ha. The throng loved, thrilled to, such effortless arrogance. They ate them like dog biscuits. And of course there was grief in every ha, for Green Mouth was about to desert them.
Green Mouth was deserting them. She was now leaving the United States of America behind, leaving it forsaken to make out on its own as best it could. The mere idea was ha-inducing. So Clement told himself, squeezing out his amusement as the throng elbowed him.
The fans had a fantasy ready to account for the desertion. Green Mouth had been Called. Tazz of Kerinth had called her on telepathic beam. A New Cause awaited Green Mouth. So she was about to leave Planet Earth for another galaxy, wrapped in her ample green cloak, wearing that neat little tiara--handmade by admirers in Churubusco, Indiana--in among her blonde curls. This was what they told each other, among has, to console themselves for the cruel facts of life.
No wonder the mundane passengers, outside the charmed ha-ing circle, turned momentarily to stare. Envy must account for those surly looks.
At the inescapable moment of parting, a group of the laughingest fans, calling themselves the Inner Circle of Kerinth, who had travelled with Green Mouth and Clement all the way from Boston, unfurled their largest banner. It bore the slogan featuring in the publisher's current publicity campaign: GREEN MOUTH SEZ IT ALL. A bugle ha-haed, sky high.
Clapping, cheering. Ha-ing, weeping. Other passengers pushed out of the way. Special people only in this throng--men and women, or rather, boys and girls, weighty around stomach and hips, protuberant of buttock and breast, most having achieved, if not maturity, avoirdupois, all be-badged if not actually in fancy costume, all addicts of Green Mouth's pre-pubertal planet. Cameras and videocams at the alert, all clustered about their heroine for the last shot, a last kiss, an embrace or, failing those, a mere touch.
How fortunate that she was, in her forty-sixth year, so statuesque that she could withstand their ardour, like a rock in a surging tide, or perhaps Brunnhilde standing in for Andromeda on her rock. She could recall all the names of the faithful--all their first names. She had a word for each personally, even if it was only '"Bye." Her little Hispanic editor from Swain Books Inc. was thanked last and with greatest warmth. Against his lips, as he stood on tiptoe, were crushed most enthusiastically those pursed green lips. Clement turned away. When he looked again, she and the camp-followers were parted. The desertion was made flesh.
The ha count dies. The fans are swept aside by brisk business passengers equipped with the latest brief-cases. They look deflated, tawdry, as they furl up their banners. Alcohol and drugs and hangovers increase their sorrow. Some weep, some begin to skip or dance.
None of this matters. The hall is already peopled with eccentrics, drawn to this parting of the ways like cats on a quayside. Some speak out for various religions, thrusting pamphlets on the unwary. Some tout lost or mislaid causes. Some cry aloud injustices in various distant homelands. Some merely try to sell earrings. Big blacks skate grandly by on wooden wheels, Flying Dutchpersons able to ignore the world, their ears plugged with microsound. Although accustomed to the U.S.A., Clement remains amazed at how busy airports are on Sundays.
The Kerinth fans are lost now. Mother has gone away, her sons and daughters are scattered. They drift off to drink calorific shakes in nearby bars, pink, green, brown, or Your Choice.
A last imperial wave of braceletted wrist and Green Mouth is through the final barrier. Clement follows humbly, given status by being i/c documents. Green Mouth seats herself on a plastic seat. Two nearby English passengers shrink away.
"Buy a bottle of Smirnoff, Clem--to take home to Michelin," says Green Mouth. She is not above such mundane details, but she stares ahead as if she had not spoken. He moves towards the Duty Free. He understands she wishes to be alone with her carbonated emotions. She has to come back to Earth before she can leave terra firma.
Clement Winter was a thin man, which suited his self-effacing qualities. There was about him an air of one for whom life has been slightly insufficient, or who has been slightly insufficient for life. He wore a striped light jacket with matching tie, a white shirt, and a pair of blue trousers. His hair was not chestnut enough to notice and now, in his fiftieth year, somewhat frayed about the edges. His hands hung from his sleeves. Only in his face, running a little to fat, was there a lively darting thing; it was as though his head had generally had more luck than the rest of him.
He purchased the vodka his wife wanted and returned to her via the bookstall, where War Lord of Kerinth was in the No. 2 Bestsellers slot. War Lord of Kerinth had 1.5 million copies in print hardcover, each wrapped in its sizzling jacket by S.S. Bronbell and stamped with the legend cooked up at Swain by the little Hispanic editor, "Green Mouth Sez It All". As he passed the stall, Clement saw a middle-aged woman in a smart ice-blue suit take a copy over to the checkout point. She did not even glance at the price. The volume, bulked up as it was, resembled a glutinous box of chocolates.
No one could mistake Green Mouth. She sat upright in her plastic seat, a dowager duchess at least, her ample mouth that brilliantly repellent green, the same shade echoed about her eyes, her eyelashes tinted gold. He sat beside her, tucking the vodka into a carrier. Her distinctive hand-luggage, bearing its open green mouths, came between them.
"Sheila," he said.
The name, he considered, was like a projectile, a component of some vast SDI programme of the mind, bursting into her personal umwelt, carrying with it unwelcome news of her ordinary humanity. She responded only with a grunt, possibly a grunt of pain, completely ha-free.
"You were wonderful," he said. Using the past tense on her like a can-opener. She had to start getting back sometime. There was jet-lag. There was reality-lag. Best to keep them separate.
"Wonderful," he repeated, choosing more of a dying fall this time. And then their flight was called in an electronic voice as soft as the cooing of doves.
On the Boeing, muzak was playing: "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina". As Clement hung the green cloak on a rail, he glanced through into Economy, where the hordes were fighting to stash away liquor in overhead lockers, mussing each other's hair and tempers in the process. Every year, as civilisation ticked by, thousands of gallons of alcohol were ferried back and forth across the Atlantic, each precious bottle of the stuff requiring a human attendant. It was one of the paradoxes of modern living which kept living modern.
Clement hoped that when the hostesses had seen to his wife's minor problems, which always cropped up, and preferably had recognised her, and more preferably had read all her books, she would remove the viridian lipstick and deflate back into being Sheila Winter again. She always said she liked to travel anonymously; and that was fine, as long as everyone knew who you were.
Sure enough, as he returned to his seat, or armchair as Pan-Am liked to call it, the hostesses were flocking round with the champagne, professing to be fans of Kerinth, every one. 1.5 million copies hardcover certainly wasn't hay. And to think the first Kerinth novel, Brute of Kerinth, had been published originally in a paperback edition of no more than sixty thousand copies. Not so much wonderful as a miracle--their personal miracle.
Green Mouth was gracious as always. Sure, she'd love to visit the flight deck after dinner. Sure, she always flew Pan-Am. Champagne was poured again. They drank. Clement drank. Good for Kerinth; it stood between him and Economy.
She still retained her Green Mouth face even when her eyes closed. She must be tired after four days in Boston of constant limelight and the tour before that. Never more than six hours' sleep a night. Much drink, taken without flinching. Saying nice things about Swain. Hearing nice things from Swain. All energy-sapping. But never a word of complaint.
Her face, under its paint, was large, brown, homely, and lightly creased. The teeth had been fixed so that she did not look as once she had like something that had just run in the Grand National. Sheila Winter was rather a handsome woman, though there was a heavy jaw, speaking of determination, perhaps of rather a glum kind. In her ears were little mazooms of emerald, designed for her by a French fan in California. Not so little, either. They threatened to execute a pincer movement along the planes of Green Mouth's cheeks, just as--how often--mazooms had menaced the World of Kerinth before brave Tazz had tamed one of them.
Without opening her eyes, she ran her green nails along his jacket sleeve. "Wonderful," she said.
Once the plane was airborne, the captain spoke over the intercom, telling the passengers at what height they would be travelling and at what time they were due to hit the coast of Ireland--at which announcement all the English passengers looked alarmed. But the champagne came round again, and the feline hostesses, and Green Mouth began to talk without looking at Clement. She was delivering a monologue. Clement felt no need to reply; he understood. The weary brain was off-loading like a computer. Sheila had been travelling round the States for twenty-three days, promoting the latest Kerinth novel from coast to coast in eighteen cities. And for the last four days she had been incarcerated in the Luxor Hotel in Boston (where Clement had joined her), as Guest of Honour at the XIX Fantacon, known in her honour as the Kerincon, the constant target of attention for five thousand fans, many of them attired only in leopard skin and sword.
She had gone without sleep. She had lived on pills. She had rarely ceased drinking or talking. She had given interviews. She had answered endless questions--often the same questions--with good grace. She had received gifts. She had signed many of the 1.5 million copies of her book. She had made a two-hour long speech, full of attractive pathos about her happy childhood and not lacking in ha-quota either. She had thrown a wildly expensive party in her hotel suite for publishers, friends, and special fans. She had been laid more than once by her diminutive Hispanic editor, all in the spirit of fun. She had posed for photographs for Locus and anyone else who asked. She had smiled her grim smile most of the time. She had smoked almost incessantly, showered often, and accepted with an amusing speech the High Homeric Fantasy Award for being Top Priestess of Epic Fantasy.
No wonder her brain wanted to talk. The sump had to be drained, the gurge regurgitated.
High above the grey and tedious Atlantic, she paused once to emit a simultaneous yawn and belch.
"But how are you feeling?" Clement asked.
Her hand sought his, and then she looked at him through cloudy eyes. "Fucking awful, darling," said Green Mouth.
She was returning to reality. He summoned the hostess for some more champagne.
Monday morning. Home again. Shoes off time. Safe. Secure in the Victorian brick wilderness of North Oxford. Their square-windowed house in Rawlinson Road was shielded from the gaze of passers-by by an enormous horse chestnut tree which some absent-minded builder had forgotten to destroy while he had the chance, possibly during the celebrations attendant on Queen Victoria's Jubilee.
The hired chauffeur stacked their luggage in the hall and left.
Sheila went into the front room and reclined with care on the sofa under the lace-curtained window. Her green lipstick and eye shadow had been removed in the toilet of the 747. She now looked merely pale, merely enervated, merely English.
"Are you going to make us a cup of tea?" she called.
Clement was taking the cases upstairs.
"Good idea. Hang on a moment." Michelin, who lived with them, was out.
The time was 10.50. Or alternatively, 5.50 New York time.
His head rang.
In their bedroom, he set down the cases and opened one of them. In it, approved by Customs, lay Green Mouth's latest prize, the High Homeric Fantasy Award, sculpted in fibre glass.
To please her, possibly to revive her, he took it downstairs and placed it on a table before her. She smiled wanly.
"Oh, that!" said the Top Priestess of Epic Fantasy. It is magnificent. It consists of a bust of Homer with two little cupid wings sprouting from his grey locks, just above his ears. This is no mere ha flim-flam. This is a literary award, bestowed by earnest young judges of the various sexes. On the back of the revered Greek story-teller's head are etched the titles of the ten Kerinth novels and the one collection of short stories, with their dates of publication.
What's more, this award is electronic. Inside the skull is concealed a lithium battery smaller than a dime. Clement switches on. Homer's blind eyes light up. The wings flap at a dignified pace. Homer nods.
Sheila smiled. "Wonderful, but ... tea?"
He brought her tea in her Libra mug, accompanied by two Hedex, and sat on the edge of the sofa clutching his own mug.
"You could go up and lie on the bed."
She nodded, clasping the mug between stubby fingers, looking down into the tea. "I wonder if Michelin made any biscuits."
After they had sipped for a while in silence, she yawned and looked rather sullenly round the room, as if to orient herself.
It was not a remarkable room, except that successive owners had spared the elaborate Victorian fireplace, before which an electric fire now stood. Sheila had chosen a blue, green and gold decor, and had not pushed the green too heavily. The wallpaper was a dark blue, the chairs and sofa were green and gold. Gold birds fluttered in the folds of blue and green curtains. A large rococo-framed gilt mirror hung above the mantelpiece. To the left of the fireplace stood a glass cabinet housing some of Sheila's awards for fiction, including the International Otherworld Fiction Award sculpture of Tazz riding a mazoom. In the bookcase to the other side of the fireplace, above the sets of Dickens, Galsworthy, and Dornford Yates, her own books were on display, with Brute of Kerinth, the first in the series, facing outwards into the room.
Postcards from all over the world were ranged along the mantelshelf, like illustrations from other people's lives lived under bright blue skies. Photographs of Green Mouth mixing with important people hung framed on the wall behind the door. Beneath them was a small eighteenth-century side-table bearing a large Chinese vase converted into a table-lamp. Similar conversions involved the mock gas brackets which projected from the wall over the fireplace. The white leather rhino which served as a footrest--present from a grateful and enriched publisher in Germany--had never seen the forests of Sumatra.
The stillness in the room was also in a sense man-made. The Winters had had all the windows double-glazed, to shut out noise from the street.
To the rear of the room, by a curtained archway leading through to the conservatory, a music stack with discs, records and cassettes waited in an alcove. There hung an enormous gouache, painted for a bygone dust jacket, of Gyronee, Queen of Kerinth, standing bolt upright with a spear and a sort of dog, gazing into the purple future.
Beyond the queen stood a bureau at which Sheila often sat to answer her fanmail. Her study suite was upstairs on the first floor. Clement's little study was up another flight, on the second floor, under the eaves that pointed in the direction of the University.
"Back to reality," she said, setting down her mug. "I suppose Michelin is in Summertown shopping."
"She'll be back soon. Shall we have a snort of something?"
"Shall we? Just wine for me."
"Wine it is." He went through to the kitchen and uncorked a bottle of Mouton Cadet, whistling as he did so.
Michelin had collected up the mail and piled it on the dresser. As he put the corkscrew back into the drawer, Clement looked it over. Most of the letters were for Sheila, addressed to her under her famous pseudonym; most of them came from the United States. Sorting casually through the collection, he found some bills and a small package addressed to him. He recognised his sister Ellen's writing.
The package was registered. Evidently Michelin had signed for it. He frowned, but made no attempt to open it just yet. Like Sheila, he felt a reluctance to allow the real world back in: the world of bills. On Kerinth, bills were never presented or paid; no-one worked, except peasants. Sisters, if they sent packets, sent them by hand--probably by a messenger on a telepathic erlkring. The messenger would arrive in a lather, perhaps seriously wounded, and the packet would contain something portentous. A lover's heart, perhaps, as in The Heart of Kerinth.
Was Ellen sending him something equally vital?
He suppressed such questions, left the package on the dresser, and went back into the front room to Sheila, carrying the bottle and two glasses.
After the first glass, she fell asleep. He spread a tartan rug gently over her. He stood regarding her. With her eyes closed she looked characterless, despite the noble nose and noticeable chin.
Taking the opportunity, Clement went quietly upstairs to his study. There his dead brother's papers awaited him, stacked on the desk, tumbling out of boxes on the floor; the mortal remains of Joseph Winter in folders and old brown paper bundles. For all practical purposes, Joseph in death had taken over Clement's study.
When Sheila had made her remark, commonplace enough, about coming back to reality, she had spoken, Clement thought, with contempt as well as resignation. Reality for him meant something different, something with the texture of puzzlement, for to enter his study was to feel himself entangled in the affairs of his late brother.
Some time soon, he would have to drive over again to his dead brother's flat. It was two months since Joseph had suffered his final heart attack. His flat remained, ensconced in that limbo of small London streets where
Chiswick subsides ignobly into Acton amid a welter of little furniture dealers, junk shops, discount stores, and auto repair shops. There Joseph Winter had lived in his semi-academic obscurity with a succession of women, while books and documents had piled up round him.
Clement felt only mild curiosity about the women. The books and documents, willed to him, were his responsibility. He had collected some, almost at random, culling them from wardrobes and mantelpieces. He was also engaged with a series of secondhand booksellers, trying to screw from them a tolerably fair price for Joseph's old volumes, some of which, dealing with Joseph's subject, South East Asian history, were of value.
The question of the books could be resolved. They were the subjects of a mere financial transaction. It was the unpublished work, particularly that dealing with Joseph's private life, which presented more than a problem, a challenge, which made Clement feel that his own life was being called into account.
Clement slumped in his chair, forearms resting on his knees, so that his hands dangled in space.
"Joseph," he said aloud--quietly, bearing in mind that Sheila was asleep--"what am I going to do about you?"
Since the brothers had never known what to do about each other in life, it appeared unlikely that the question would be resolved now, when one of them had folded up his mortal tent and stolen away.