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       Bliss, p.1

           Peter Carey
 
Bliss


  BLISS

  The author of eight novels, Peter Carey was born in 1943 in Australia. In 2001 he became the second author to win the Booker Prize twice. He lives in New York.

  by the same author

  MY LIFE AS A FAKE

  TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG

  JACK MAGGS

  THE UNUSUAL LIFE OF TRISTAN SMITH

  THE TAX INSPECTOR

  OSCAR AND LUCINDA

  ILLYWHACKER

  THE FAT MAN IN HISTORY

  COLLECTED STORIES

  for children

  THE BIG BAZOOHLEY

  non fiction

  30 DAYS IN SYDNEY

  PETER CAREY

  Bliss

  First published in 1981

  by Faber and Faber Limited

  3 Queen Square London WClN 3AU

  Reprinted 1989

  This paperback edition first published in 1991

  Reset in 2001

  Photoset by RefineCatch Limited, Bungay, Suffolk

  Printed in England by Mackays of Chatham PLC

  All rights reserved

  © Peter Carey, 1981

  Acknowledgement is made to John Mavrogordato,

  and translator, and Hogarth Press, the publishers,

  for permission to quote from

  'Waiting for the Barbarians', from Poems by C. P. Cavafy.

  The right of Peter Carey to be identified as author of this work has

  been asserted in accordance with Section 77 of the Copyright,

  Designs and Patents Act 1988

  This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this

  condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

  A CIP record for this book

  is available from the British Library

  ISBN 0–571–22591–8

  2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1

  PART ONE

  Knocking at the Hellgate

  page 1

  PART TWO

  Various Tests and Their Results

  page 55

  PART THREE

  The Rolls Royce of Honeys

  page 129

  PART FOUR

  Some Unpleasant Facts

  page 167

  PART FIVE

  Drunk in Palm Avenue

  page 221

  PART SIX

  Blue Bread and Sapphires

  page 315

  PART ONE

  Knocking at the Hellgate

  Harry Joy was to die three times, but it was his first death which was to have the greatest effect on him, and it is this first death which we shall now witness.

  There is Harry Joy lying in the middle of that green sub-urban lawn, beneath that tattered banana tree, partly obscured by the frangipani, which even now drops a single sweet flower beside his slightly grey face.

  As usual Harry is wearing a grubby white suit, and as he lies there, quite dead, his blue braces are visible to all the world and anyone can see that he has sewn on one of those buttons himself rather than ask his wife. He has a thin face and at the moment it looks peaceful enough. It is only the acute angles struck by his long gangling limbs which announce the suddenness of his departure. His cheeks are slightly sunken, and his large moustache (a moustache far too big for such a thin face) covers his mouth and leaves its expression as enigmatic as ever. His straight grey hair, the colour of an empty ashtray, hangs over one eye. And, although no one seems to have noticed it, a cigarette still burns between two yellowed fingers, like some practical joke known to raise the dead.

  Yet when the two fingers are burnt, he does not move. His little pot belly remains quite still. He does not twitch even his little finger. And the people huddled around his wife on the verandah twenty yards away have no justification for the optimistic opinions they shower on her so eagerly.

  Harry Joy saw all of this in a calm, curious, very detached way. From a certain height above the lawn he saw the cigar-ette burning in his hand, but at the same time he had not immediately recognized the hand as his. He only really knew himself by the button on his trousers. The lawn was very, very green, composed of broad-leaved tropical grasses, each blade thrillingly clear, and he wondered why everyone else had forsaken it for the shade of the verandah. Weeping came to him, but distantly, like short-wave signals without special significance.

  He felt perfectly calm, and as he rose higher and higher he caught a fleeting glimpse of the doctor entering the front gate, but it was not a scene that could hold his interest in competition with the sight of the blue jewelled bay eating into what had once been a coastal swamp, the long meandering brown river, the quiet streets and long boulevards planted with mangoes, palms, flame trees, jacarandas, and bordered by antiquated villas in their own grounds, nobly proportioned mansions erected by ship-owners, sea captains and vice-governors, and the decaying stuccoed houses of shopkeepers. Around the base of the granite monolith which dominated the town, the houses became meaner, the vegetation sparser, and the dust rose from gravel roads and whirled in small eddies in the Sunday evening air.

  Ecstasy touched him. He found he could slide between the spaces in the air itself. He was stroked by something akin to trees, cool, green, leafy. His nostrils were assailed with the smell of things growing and dying, a sweet fecund smell like the valleys of rain forests. It occurred to him that he had died and should therefore be frightened.

  It was only later that he felt any wish to return to his body, when he discovered that there were many different worlds, layer upon layer, as thin as filo pastry, and that if he might taste bliss he would not be immune to terror. He touched walls like membranes, which shivered with pain, and a sound, as insistent as a pneumatic drill, promised meaningless tortures as terrible as the Christian stories of his youth.

  He recognized the worlds of pleasure and worlds of pain, bliss and punishment, Heaven and Hell.

  He did not wish to die. For a moment panic assailed him and he crashed around like a bird surrounded by panes of glass. Yet he had more reserves than he might have suspected and in a calm, clear space he found his way back, willed his way to a path beside a house where men carried a stretcher towards an ambulance. He watched with detachment whilst the doctor thumped the man on the chest. The man was thin with a grubby white suit. He watched as they removed the suit coat and connected wires to the thin white chest.

  'My God,' he thought, 'that can't be me.'

  The electric shock lifted his body nine to ten inches off the table and at that moment his heart started and he lost all consciousness.

  He had been dead for nine minutes.

  Harry Joy was thirty-nine years old and believed what he read in the newspapers. In the provincial town where he lived he was someone of note but not of importance, occupying a social position below the Managing Director of the town's largest store and even the General Manager of the canning factory; he was not known to the descendants of the early pioneer families or members of the judiciary, but when he entered the best restaurants in his grubby suit and dropped his cigarette ash everywhere he was humoured and attended to, and pity help the new waiter who did not know that this was Harry Joy.

  'Mr Joy, how good to see you. This way please.'

  The lank figure with its little pot belly passed between the tables and left smiles and whispers in the air behind him.

  'Are you happy, Mr Joy.'

  'Yes, Aldo, perfectly.'

  And indeed he thought himself happy, and why shouldn't he? He had a wife who loved him, children who gave no trouble, an advertising agency which provided a good enough living for a man with an almost arist
ocratic disdain for mercantile success, and, most important of all, the right to the best table in Milanos.

  Here on the outposts of the American Empire, he conducted his business more or less in the American style, although with not quite the degree of seriousness the Americans liked. Telexes which began their journeys in Chicago, Detroit or New York found their way to him up river, where he interpreted these requests in a manner which, he would explain (ash dropping down his sleeve), suited local conditions.

  'Someone is joining you, Mr Joy?'

  'No, Aldo.'

  'A half bottle of claret?'

  'A full bottle, Aldo. You choose something.'

  His great talent in life was to be a Good Bloke. He could walk· into a room and sit down and everybody would be happy to have him, even if all he ever did was smile, for they imagined behind that moustache, behind the smile it hid, something sterner, more critical and yet, also, tolerant, so that when he smiled they felt themselves approved of and they vied with each other to like him best.

  It all came down to the feeling that he was intelligent enough to be critical of you, but was not. He laughed too, a rich deep brown laugh which made the laughs surrounding it or following it sound slightly too thin. He was something of a story-teller and no one ever thought to say that the way he told a story, his deep drawling confidence, his refusal to be interrupted, might have been a sign of selfishness or self centredness, for to criticize Harry only had the effect of making the critic himself appear somehow mean-minded.

  For his part, Harry was never heard to criticize anyone (or for that matter, anything). He exhibited a blindness towards the faults of people and the injustices of the world which should have been irritating but which seemed to have almost the opposite effect: his very blindness reassured those around him and made them feel that their fears and nightmares were nothing but the products of their own overwrought imaginations.

  They choose to love his grubby white suits, the way he lounged, dropping his ash everywhere, let himself be seduced by women (which he did, with rather appealing vanity) and accepted their praises without embarrassment. Even when he began to grow a belly it did not stop the women, who could never understand how he had married Bettina, who always seemed to speak badly of everyone and everything.

  Bettina, for her part, had infidelities of her own, although she did it so less cleanly, so less gracefully. For if Harry, drunk, adopted an almost feline grace, a looseness so loose that you felt that if he collapsed it would be like a big cloth toy designed to do it, Bettina was louder, coarser, with rips in her stockings and lipstick smeared on her face, and her aggressions, normally so well hidden beneath a pancake make-up of niceness, cracked and broke on the third martini. Her choice of lovers was never good, limited as she was to men who were prepared to be unfaithful with the wife of a Good Bloke. Even this (particularly this) made her angry, this conspiracy of men, this almighty brotherhood of frauds, as she secretly called them.

  Harry Joy was not particularly intelligent, not particularly successful, not particularly handsome and not particularly rich. Yet there was about him this feeling that he belonged to an elite and for no good reason (none that Bettina could see) he was curiously proud of himself.

  When the patrons of Milanos saw his empty table on Monday lunchtime they already knew the news. They felt a gap, an emptiness, as if something very important was missing from the place.

  When the table in the corner was taken by Joel Davis, his junior partner, and Harry's wife, there was (although they could not express it) something not quite decent about it.

  Aldo would not have given them the table, not that particu-lar table, but the woman tricked him into it, and then, of course, it was impossible to take it away from her. She arrived first, by herself, and how was he to know she was lunching with that person.

  'Ah, Mrs Joy.' He beamed. He held her hand. He had not been told. Other people had been told.

  'For two, Aldo.'

  'For two. Mr Joy will be joining you?' (He groaned, remembering.)

  'Mr Joy will not be here.'

  She did not tell him. Of course she was upset (possibly she was upset). No one told him. He, Aldo, was the only one who didn't know. It was a Monday, a difficult day to know things.

  His mistake (when he discovered it) offended him throughout lunch, made him scowl to himself, and while he made sure that the service was scrupulous, he sulked behind the bar, preoccupied and uncertain.

  When Joel came up the stairs, the penny dropped. But it was too late to shift them to another table.

  And still he did not know about Harry! It would be another minute before he would know, and then from a winewaiter. Now he merely looked at Joel with a sour sort of contempt. He smiled, a baring of teeth.

  Joel bared his teeth in return and checked his cufflinks, a salesman's habit he would have done well to be rid of. He did other American things (for he was an American), like insisting on iced water at table and then drinking spirits throughout the meal, which was noticed by everybody and not always approved of. The town had an ambivalent attitude towards Americans, envying their power and wishing to reject it and embrace it all at once. In business you could never be sure whether it was an asset or a liability to be an American.

  Joel was only twenty-six but there was about him the sense of something over-ripe and gone to seed. He was not tall, and not exactly fat. But one noticed, immediately, those large red lips, which hovered on that balancing point where sensuality becomes greed. His fleshy face was a trifle too smooth and the skin glistened like a suspect apple which had been waxed to give it extra sales appeal.

  He saw Bettina waiting, noted Aldo scowling, and instinctively, with no calculation, chose a route through the pink tablecloths which would take him past a prospective client, who would, he assumed, be eager for news of Harry.

  Bettina watched him with qualified pride. She saw that the client liked him but that other people at the table were offended by his over familiar manner. He had no real idea of the impression he made. He would never understand why he offended people, why they thought him too pushy, too loud, or why they would also think him refreshing and clever.

  'Hello, Mrs Joy,' he said.

  'Mr Davis.' She did not smile. She felt the disapproval of the restaurant, like a slightly off odour, collectively generated. There was discomfort. A glass of wine was spilt at one table, a fork dropped at another.

  Joel was busy searching for a waiter.

  'It's O.K,' Bettina kicked his shin gently. 'I ordered you a daiquiri.'

  He pulled a face. 'You know I don't like daiquiris.'

  'How are they at the office?'

  The office, like the restaurant, had displayed a certain mute hostility towards Joel as if the whole business had been his fault. They had detected signs of a new pomposity in him. He had 'borrowed' the little Birko jug Harry had kept in his office to make coffee and this, although he didn't know it, had created a minor scandal.

  'It's O.K. in the office. Alex is looking for another job already. He doesn't trust me and if Harry ....'

  He didn't say 'dies' and she lowered her eyes as if he had imprudently complimented her on the smoothness of her skin.

  ,And a couple of the girls were crying.'

  'Which ones?'

  He looked at her and laughed maliciously.

  The daiquiri arrived. He sent it back and asked for a martini. He explained to the waiter how he would like the martini made.

  'You bastard,' she said.

  'What?'

  'I ordered the daiquiri for you.'

  'I don't like daquiris.'

  'I would have drunk it,' she said.

  Only after the food arrived did he ask her about Harry, and, just as in any business lunch the entrée is reserved for small talk-and the main course signals the commencement of serious business, it was at this point they began.

  'Well ....?' he said.

  'He thinks he's going to die.'

  'And ....'

&nb
sp; 'The doctor says he'll be fine. It's a dangerous operation, but he's confident it'll be fine.'

  'But he thinks he's going to die? Why?'

  'You know Harry, it's like his hives. He decides he's going to get them and ....'

  'When he decides he's getting hives, he gets them.'

  'I didn't mean that. He looks good.'

  'Good.'

  'The doctor says there's nothing to worry about.'

  'Marvellous,' he said, but kept looking her in the eye, his knife and fork lifted, as if looking for some secret sign. Joel, sometimes, lacked all subtlety.

  Neither of them had the will or the strength to actually murder someone, although Bettina would certainly grow in leaps and bounds over the following year, and nor did they have the strength to say they would have liked Harry dead. In truth they wouldn't even look the idea in the face. Instead they flirted with it. They saw it pass sexily out of the comer of their eyes but did not, for a second, turn their heads to stare. They did not allow themselves' to know what they wanted or why they wanted it. They were blind-worms pushing forward, entwining in the dark. One could, unfairly perhaps, imagine them as the instruments of someone else's pleasure.

  'Here comes the little monkey.'

  He knew she was talking about Aldo and didn't look around. Joel had long ago given up trying to make Aldo like him.

  'Mrs Joy,' Aldo looked at her reproachfully, his small dark head on one side, 'you didn't tell me ...'

  Aldo did not much care for -Bettina Joy but he admitted to himself that she had something, a strength, a sexiness that was very rare for a slightly dumpy woman with fat legs. Her face was round and smooth and olive-skinned, her hair straight and dark, her eyes impenetrable.

  'I'm sorry, Aldo.'

  'I understand, I understand.'

  'He's in the General. They'll be operating this week.'

  'Such a young man. He'll be better though, soon. My brother had a heart attack twenty years ago. He's been healthier since he had it.' He laughed. 'It's probably the best thing.'

  'Coronary by-pass surgery', Bettina said firmly, 'is very dangerous, but we all hope it will be fine.'

  'Now perhaps he will give up those cigarettes.'

 
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