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       Armadillo, p.1

           William Boyd
 
Armadillo


  PENGUIN BOOKS

  ARMADILLO

  ‘Unabashedly enjoyable’ Observer

  ‘Darkly comic, beautifully paced, the novel is crammed with an almost Dickensian sense of atmosphere and turbulence, yet blessed with the deftness of Waugh. Full of great moments, it also succeeds in being momentous’ Tom Adair, Scotsman Weekend

  ‘An outstanding comic novel… with some characters who are masterpieces of grotesque invention’ Andrew Biswell, Literary Review

  ‘Boyd barely puts a foot wrong – the flat, blowy wastes of Silvertown, pretentious city wine bars, the prosperous squalor of Pimlico are all cleanly caught… a book that is a pleasure to read’ Robert Hanks, Independent on Sunday

  ‘As entertaining as anything he has written… brisk farce and dialogue that can be finger-licking good’ David Profumo, Spectator

  ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  William Boyd was born in 1952 in Accra, Ghana, and was brought up there and in Nigeria. He was educated at Gordonstoun School and at the universities of Nice, Glasgow and Oxford. Between 1980 and 1983 he was a lecturer in English literature at St Hildas College, Oxford. He is the author of A Good Man in Africa, which won the Whitbread Literary Award for the Best First Novel in 1981 and a Somerset Maugham Award in 1982; On the Yankee Station (1982), a collection of short stories; An Ice-Cream War, which won the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize for 1982 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize; Stars and Bars (1984), The New Confessions (1987); Brazzaville Beach, which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for 1990 and for which William Boyd was awarded the McVitie s Prize for Scottish Writer of the Year; The Blue Afternoon, which won the 1993 Sunday Express Book of the Year Award and the 1995 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction; The Destiny of Nathalie ‘X’ (1995), a further collection of short stories; Armadillo (1998), which he adapted for television; and Any Human Heart (2002). He has written numerous screenplays, including The Trench, which he also directed. All of his books are published by Penguin.

  William Boyd is married and lives in London.

  WILLIAM BOYD

  Armadillo

  PENGUIN BOOKS

  PENGUIN BOOKS

  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

  Penguin Books Australia Ltd, 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia

  Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2

  Penguin Books India (P) Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi – 110 017, India

  Penguin Books (NZ) Ltd, Cnr Rosedale and Airborne Roads, Albany, Auckland, New Zealand

  Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank 2196, South Africa

  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  www.penguin.com

  First published by Hamish Hamilton 1998

  Published in Penguin Books 1998

  35

  Copyright © William Boyd, 1998

  All rights reserved

  The moral right of the author has been asserted

  Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, 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

  ISBN-13: 978-0-140-27944-3

  for Susan

  Armadillo. (āɹmădi.lo). 1577 [– Sp. armadillo, dim of armado armed man, so lit. ‘little armed man’: –L. armatus, pa. pple. of armare ARM v.]

  We and other animals notice what goes on around us. This helps us by suggesting what we might expect and even how to prevent it, and thus fosters survival. However, the expedient works only imperfectly. There are surprises, and they are unsettling. How can we tell when we are right? We are faced with the problem of error.

  w. v. QUINE, From Stimulus to Science

  Chapter 1

  In these times of ours – and we don’t need to be precise about the exact date – but, anyway, very early in the year, a young man not much over thirty, tall – six feet plus an inch or two – with ink-dark hair and a serious-looking, fine-featured but pallid face, went to keep a business appointment and discovered a hanged man.

  Lorimer Black stared aghast at Mr Dupree, his mind at once clamorous with shocked alarm and curiously inert – the warring symptoms of a form of mental panic, he supposed. Mr Dupree had hanged himself from a thinly lagged water pipe that crossed the ceiling in the little anteroom behind reception. A small set of aluminium folding steps lay on its side beneath his slightly splayed feet (his tan shoes needed a good clean, Lorimer noticed). Mr Dupree was simultaneously the first dead person he had encountered in his life, his first suicide and his first hanged man and Lorimer found this congruence of firsts deeply troubling.

  His eyes travelled reluctantly upwards from Mr Dupree’s scuffed toecaps, pausing briefly at the groin area – where he could discern no sign of the fabled, impromptu erection of the hangee – and moved on up to his face. Mr Dupree’s head was hunched too far over and his expression was slumped and sleepy, like that worn by exhausted commuters who doze off in overheated railway carriages, propped upright by badly designed banquettes. If you had seen Mr Dupree snoozing opposite you on the 18.12 from Liverpool Street, his head canted over in that awkward position, you would have ached presciently for the stiff neck he was bound to experience on awakening.

  Stiff neck. Cricked neck. Broken neck. Christ. Lorimer carefully placed his briefcase on the floor, stepped past Mr Dupree and moved quietly to the door at the end of the anteroom. He opened it and peered out over the devastated expanse of the factory. Through the blackened and carbonized joists and beams of the roof he could see the low, unrelieved pewter of the sky; the floor was still covered with the charred and melted naked bodies of a near-thousand plastic mannequins (976, according to the documentation, a consignment destined for a chain of stores in the USA). All that mangled and ruined ‘flesh’ provoked a shiver of ersatz disgust and horror (ersatz because they weren’t real; after all, he told himself, no pain had been suffered) but here and there was preserved a head of cartoon handsomeness, or a tanned girl smiling a smile of preposterous welcome. The unchanging good nature of their expressions lent a certain touching stoicism to the scene. And beyond, Lorimer knew from the report, lay the torched workshops, the design studios, the clay and plaster sculpture rooms, the moulding lines. The fire had been unusually fierce and typically thorough. Apparently, Mr Dupree had been insistent that nothing would be touched, not a melted model budged, until he received his money and, Lorimer could see, Mr Dupree’s word had been steadfast.

  Lorimer exhaled and made little popping noises with his lips. ‘Hmmm’, he said out loud, then, ‘Jesus H. Christ’, then ‘Hmmm’ again. He realized his hands were shaking slightly, so he thrust them in his pockets. The phrase ‘a bad business’ began to repeat itself moronically, man-trically, in his head. He speculated vaguely and reluctantly about Hogg’s reaction to the Dupree suicide: Hogg had told him about ‘toppers’ before and Lorimer wondered what the procedure was…

  He closed the door, worried for a second about fingerprints, and then thought: why would they dust for a suicide? It wasn’t until he was back in reception and reaching for the phone that another thought entered his mind that possibly, just possibly, it might not have been suicide after all.

  The detective who came as the result of his call to the police, Detective Sergeant Rappaport, seemed not much older than Lorimer but called him ‘sir’ regularly, and
a little needlessly, all the same. ‘Dennis P. Rappaport’ it had said on his ID.

  ‘You say you had an appointment with Mr Dupree, sir.’

  ‘Yes. It had been booked for over a week.’ Lorimer handed over his business card. ‘I was here promptly at 10.30.’

  They were standing outside now, beneath the cursive red plastic sign that read ‘Osmond Dupree Display Mannequins est. 1957’. Police and other officials busied themselves with Mr Dupree’s mortal remains inside. A constable diligently wound fluttering striped tape around lamp-posts and railings, notionally sealing off the front of the factory and banning access to half a dozen cold, expressionless bystanders curiously looking on. Waiting for the body bag, Lorimer thought: charming. Detective Sergeant Rappaport carefully studied the business card and then performed a histrionic pouching mime.

  ‘May I, sir?’

  ‘By all means.’

  From his leather jacket Rappaport produced a fat wallet and slipped Lorimer’s card inside.

  ‘Not your average beginning to your average sort of day, sir, I would imagine.’

  ‘No… Most distressing,’ Lorimer agreed, watchfully. Rappaport was a burly fellow, beefy and blond with cornflower-blue eyes, the sort of looks unsuitable in a detective, Lorimer thought, for some reason, thinking instead that Rappaport should have been a surfer or a tennis pro, or a waiter in a Los Angeles restaurant. Furthermore, Lorimer wasn’t sure if Rappaport’s deference was meant to unnerve, reassure or to be subversively ironic in some way. On balance he thought it was probably the last: Rappaport would have a chortle about its effect later in the mess or canteen or the pub or wherever it was the detectives gathered to natter and moan about their respective days.

  ‘Now we know where to find you, sir, we won’t trouble you any further. Thank you for your assistance, sir.’

  More than ironic, the blatant overuse of ‘sir’, Lorimer thought, was clearly and deliberately patronizing, there was no doubt about that, but at the same time a conversational irritant, a covert sneer, impossible to protest against.

  ‘Can we run you back anywhere, sir?’

  ‘No thank you, Detective Rappaport, my car’s round the corner.’

  ‘The “t” is silent, sir. Rappapor. Old Norman name.’

  Old Norman smug bastard, Lorimer thought, as he walked back to his Toyota in Bolton Place. But you wouldn’t be quite so pleased with yourself if you knew what I had in my briefcase, he reflected, cheering himself up somewhat as he turned into the square. The improved mood was transitory, however. As he unlocked his car door he felt a depression settle on him like a shawl, almost physically there, across his back and shoulders, as he considered Mr Dupree’s desperate, humble demise: what drove a man to tie a washing line to a water pipe, slip a noose around his neck and kick away the aluminium steps that supported him? It was the memory of his scuffed shoes hanging three feet off the ground that stayed with Lorimer rather than the grotesque loll of the head. That and the miserable January day – bleak and dull – and Bolton Place. Its naked plane trees with their Gulf War camouflage, the struggling, tarnished light, the cold – a wind had freshened – and the morning’s rain had left the sooty brick of the entirely acceptable Georgian houses almost charcoal-coloured. A child in a padded moss-green jacket tottered here and there on the central rectangle of lawn, vainly seeking distraction, first among the sodden cropped flowerbeds, then with a wily thrush, then scuffing up a few remaining dead leaves and flinging them aimlessly about. In a corner on a bench its nanny or child-minder or mother watched, smoking a cigarette and swigging something from a lurid can. City square, venerable buildings, a patch of tended green, an innocently happy toddler, a concerned supervising adult – in any other context these ingredients might have conspired to form a more joyous symbolism. But not today, Lorimer thought, not today.

  He was pulling out of the square on to the main road when a taxi passed a little too close to the front of his car and he was forced to lurch abruptly to a stop. The wobbly diorama of Bolton Place slid along the taxi’s glossy black side and his oath caught in his throat as he saw the face framed in the rear window. This happened to him from time to time, occasionally several times in one week – he would see a face in a crowd, through a shop window, going down the escalator of the Underground as he went up, that was of such luminous, transfiguring beauty that it made him both want to shout in exultant surprise and weep with frustration. Who was it who said that ‘a face in the Tube can ruin an entire day’? It was the glance that did it, the glance with its swift, uncertain apprehension, its too hurried analysis of the optic phenomena available. His eyes rushed to judgement; they were too keen to see beauty. Whenever he had a chance for a second look the result was nearly always disappointing: the studied gaze was always a severer arbiter. And now, here, it had happened again – but this one, he thought, would survive sober reassessment. He swallowed; he recognized the authentic symptoms: the slight breathlessness, increased pulse, the sensation of a packed thoracic cavity. The girl’s wan, perfect, oval face – the woman’s face? – had been eager, hopeful, leaning forward to the window, long-necked and wide-eyed with pleasurable anticipation. It came and went so rapidly that the impression, he told himself, so as not to ruin his entire day, couldn’t fail to have been an idealized one. He shivered. Still, it had been a form of benign random compensation, erasing the image of Mr Dupree’s suspended scruffy shoes for a moment or two.

  He turned right and headed for Archway. In his mirror he could see that the small crowd around Dupree’s Display Mannequins lingered on balefully. The girl’s taxi had become stuck behind the ambulance and he saw a policeman gesticulating at the driver. The rear door opened – but that was all, because he was away, off down Archway and Holloway Road, down Upper Street to the Angel, along City Road to Finsbury Square to see, soon appearing ahead of him, the rain-lashed, jagged towers and dripping walkways of the Barbican.

  He found a meter near Smithfield Market and strode briskly back up Golden Lane to the office. Some sort of stingy, sleety rain was falling diagonally – he could feel it, despite his bowed head, smiting his cheeks and chin. Freezing, foul day Shop lights glowing orange, pedestrians hurrying, heads down like him, suffering, clenched, concerned only about reaching their destination as quickly as possible.

  At the door he keyed in his code and stamped up the pine stairs to the first floor. Rajiv saw him through the reinforced glass panel, the door buzzed and Lorimer pushed through.

  ‘Brass monkeys out there, Raj.’

  Rajiv stubbed out his cigarette. ‘What’re you doing here?’

  ‘Hogg in?’

  ‘What d’you think this place is? Holiday camp?’

  ‘Humorous, Raj. Very satirical.’

  ‘Idle damn bastards.’

  Lorimer hefted his briefcase on to the counter and clicked it open. The neat rows of new bills always gave him a small shock – their unreal latency, their strange mint purity, unfingered, not crumpled or folded, yet to be exchanged for goods or services, yet even to function as money. He started stacking the trim wads on the counter top.

  ‘Aw, fuck,’ Rajiv said and strolled to the back of his den to open the big safe. ‘Police called, asking about you. Thought it might be trouble.’

  ‘Not the best start to the day.’

  ‘Bleater?’ Rajiv filled his palms with money.

  ‘I should be so lucky. Topper.’

  ‘Ouch. I’m going to have to get security back, aren’t I? Doesn’t make Rajiv happy.’

  ‘I’ll take it home, if you like.’

  ‘Sign here.’

  Lorimer signed the money back in. £500,000. Twenty wads of five hundred fifty-pound notes, fresh with their astringent, chemical, paper smell. Rajiv hitched his trousers over his belly and lit another cigarette as he checked the docket. As he bent over the page the overhead strip light was reflected down the middle of his shiny, perfectly bald pate. A lucent Mohican, Lorimer thought.

  ‘Want me to call Hogg?’
Rajiv asked, not looking up.

  ‘No, I will.’ Hogg always claimed that Rajiv was the best accountant in the country; he was even more valuable to the firm, Hogg said, because he didn’t know it.

  ‘Damn bore,’ Rajiv said, slipping the docket into a file. ‘Hogg was expecting you to have this one sorted, what with the new chappie coming.’

  ‘What chappie?’

  ‘The new director. For God’s sake, Lorimer Black, how long’ve you been away?’

  ‘Oh, yeah,’ Lorimer said, remembering.

  He waved vaguely and airily at Rajiv and headed down the corridor to his office. The set-up here reminded him of his college: small, identical, boxy rooms off an overlit corridor, each door fitted with a rectangle of reinforced glass so that absolute privacy was denied. Pausing at his hutch, he saw that Dymphna was installed opposite, her door ajar. She looked tired, her eyes weary, her big nose blown raw. She smiled lethargically at him and sniffed.

  ‘Where’ve you been?’ he said. ‘Sunny Argentina?’

  ‘Sunny Peru,’ she said. ‘Nightmare. What’s up?’

  ‘Had me a topper.’

  ‘They are bastards. What did the Hogg-man say?’

  ‘Haven’t told him yet. I had no idea it was likely. Never suspected. Hogg never told me anything.’

  ‘He never does.’

  ‘Likes surprises.’

  ‘Notour Mr Hogg.’

  She made a knowing, resigned face, hoiked up her heavy bag – one of those squared-off ones with many internal compartments reputedly favoured by airline pilots – and set off past him down the corridor, homewards. She was a big, solid girl – haunchy, buttocky – lugging her heavy bag with ease. On her feet she wore surprisingly fine, high-heeled shoes, all wrong for this weather. She did not turn round as she said, ‘Poor old Lorimer. See you at the party. Wouldn’t tell Hoggy straight away, though, he’ll not be a happy camper, what with this new director coming.’ Rajiv laughed in loud agreement at that. ‘Night, rascal Raji,’ Dymphna said, and was gone.

 
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