Notes from the Underground » The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth by William Boyd
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The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth by William Boyd

Submitted by admin on November 3, 2009 – 4:16 pmNo Comment

by William Boyd

Illustration: Owain Thomas

Illustration: Owain Thomas

Bethany Mellmoth steps forward and takes a bow. “Big round of applause for my beautiful assistant, Bethany!”  Hunter Doig cries. A few people clap dutifully but they are more interested in Hunter in his top hat, balancing on his unicycle, managing to keep it upright without moving. Bethany picks up the Indian clubs and hands them to him one after the other trying to keep the smile fixed on her face as she thinks to herself – is this as low as I’ve ever been? Have I hit the bottom now and the only way is up?  She turns and goes to fetch the oranges.

* * * *

Hunter Doig’s best trick is to juggle six oranges simultaneously.  Bethany now knows that even for a competent juggler five balls in the air is a challenge – the fact that Hunter can do six while riding on an immobile unicycle puts him in a different juggling league.  The Indian clubs hit the cobbled paving of the Covent Garden piazza with a dull clatter  as Hunter lets them fall. The crowd whistles and cheers. “Bethany – the oranges!” Hunter calls and Bethany steps forward in her silly Pierrot costume with the plunging neckline and throws the orange artlessly over Hunter’s head. Laughter.  She runs around and picks it up. She was never good at throwing and Hunter milks her ineptitude for a lot of random hilarity before the finale of his act.

* * * *

It is amazing, Bethany thinks, to see the near-blur of six oranges passing through Hunter’s whirring hands and circling in a tall oval in front of his fiercely concentrating face. He can only keep it going for a few seconds and as he tires he heads the oranges into the crowd until he’s just left with two, and then one.  “This is still juggling, you know,” Hunter yells. “Juggling with one orange,” throwing it with one hand up into the air and catching it with the other. “Try it at home.”  More laughter.  Bethany feels the dread mount in her like vomit in her throat as she knows what’s coming next.  Hunter flings the last orange into the crowd and takes off his top hat to genuine, admiring applause. Then he spin-throws the top hat, like a strange kind of Frisbee, to Bethany and of course she drops it.  Yes, whoop, laugh and boo at the inept assistant, Bethany thinks to herself, keeping her smile in place and hoping she isn’t blushing too much. She always blushes as she moves amongst the people collecting their donations, the coins and occasional notes falling into the dark sweaty crown of the topper. I’m really no more than a kind of beggar, Bethany realizes, as she collects the money – I can go no lower than this.

* * * *

Bethany has told her various friends that Hunter is her new boyfriend (after Sholto, after Kazimierz) and that she has “moved in with him”.  This is true, she supposes, but the reality is that she has moved in with Hunter and his brother, Calder. They share a large ground-floor front room in a house in Stockwell.  She unlocks the door of the room and dumps the unicycle and the bag of juggling gear on the floor. Hunter has gone to an audition.  Bethany vaguely resents having to cart everything back to Stockwell from Covent Garden but Hunter has given her £40 – her share of the day’s take – so she reckons it would have been graceless to have refused.  She’s still feeling obscurely down so she goes to the house’s communal bathroom on the first floor landing and, locking herself in, indulges in a brief cry. She sits on the toilet seat, dries her eyes and gives herself a talking to.  You’re a photographer, she says, you have self-published a book of photographs. Art isn’t easy. Many artists struggle, have to do other jobs before they are recognized.  She looks at herself in the mirror, drags her fingers through her hair, releasing it, making it big and full, pouts, puts on some lipstick.  She points her finger at the mirror: You’re not only talented, girl, you’re fucking beautiful, she says to her reflection.

* * * *

Coming down the stairs she can hear the TV is on in the room. Hunter must be back, she thinks, and goes in feeling better, wanting to hold Hunter’s stocky muscled body to her, wanting to go to the pub and spend some of her money on powerful alcoholic drinks.  But it isn’t Hunter, it’s Calder, sitting slumped in front of the TV.  Calder is in the street theatre business, also. He’s a living statue. His speciality is “Man in a Hurry”, standing frozen for minutes as an urgently striding man, his face a white mask of make up, his long thick hair lacquered like stone, streaming in unmoving horizontal curls off the back of his head, his stiffened tie whipped around his neck, his stiffened jacket fronts folded back as if he’s walking into a fresh breeze, as he stands there trapped forever in mid-pace, a rolled-up clutched newspaper in one hand as if he’s rushing, late for a train.  It’s a very effective living statue — so different from the boring, immobile grey or gold simulated public statuary that is the norm.  Calder makes a lot of money playing “Man in a Hurry” and Bethany admires the mental discipline that he has to summon up to hold that pose, minutes on end, that petrified dash going nowhere. Story of her life, she thinks.

* * * *

Hi, Calder, Bethany says. He grunts, eyes on the news.  He’s still in his full “Man in a Hurry” get up. Stiff hair streaming back from his head, white face, tie whipped around his neck.  He seems reluctant to change from this persona and clean himself up – he’ll sit around for hours like this — a fact that annoys Bethany, she has to admit. Bethany isn’t sure if Calder welcomes her presence here in the room he used to share with his brother. He has put a kind of hospital screen around his bed.  When she and Hunter make love – as quietly as possible – Hunter assures her Calder wouldn’t mind, anyway, even if he could hear what was going on. Which he can’t.

* * * *

Bethany makes a cup of tea.  They don’t have a kitchen in the room but there is an electric kettle, a toaster and an electric ring on top of a scarred chest of drawers that allows them to make snacks.  Most of the time they eat out or bring home take-aways.  Bethany pours in the milk (having thoroughly sniffed the carton first) and stirs her mug of tea, sensing an extraordinary lassitude spread through her.  “Bethany?”  She jumps — Calder has silently appeared by the scarred chest of drawers with his white face and horizontal hair, his stiff tie around his throat.  Hey, Calder, Bethany says — gave me a shock there, mate. “Sorry,” he says, touching his stiff hair and tie.  Fancy a cup of tea? Bethany asks.  “No, thanks,” he says.  Bethany picks up her mug, sips her tea and holds it to her chest.  So how was your day, Calder? She asks.  Calder thinks, his white, mask-face utterly deadpan. “I love you, Bethany,” he says, softly, his voice cracking. “I love you,” he repeats as Hunter comes in the door.

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