The Fact Checker, Judas
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A guttural bee gargled against the bathroom window. Where the window frame wasn’t quite flush, the wisteria had made an entrance, like a biographer. It glowed with chlorophyll, luminous in the sunlight, a fecund flourish of tendrils. Unstoppable. Invasive.

She was cleaning her teeth. Sharpening her teeth, as she thought of it.

THE NOVELIST’S BEGINNINGS

Lanyard leant forward. ‘I think we should begin at the beginning.’

‘Why?’ She leant back and looked over her depressed clericals at her biographer in his three piece suit. ‘Isn’t that a little bit boring? Why don’t we go at it piecemeal? You could ask me a question about writing. Why don’t you try that?’

Lanyard could already see that she would be difficult. He thought quickly. ‘We could compromise. When did you first think you wanted to be a writer? How old were you?’

‘When I was struck by the importance of words. When I was aware of words. Conscious of them. Conscious of their power to mislead as well as illuminate and explain.’

‘Do you remember when that was?’

She thought. ‘Not precisely, but it must have been early. It was to do with my brother.’

Lanyard put on his receptive face. Wordlessly, it said, I’m listening, I’m being as patient as I can be, you old cocktease.

‘I was eating a piece of angel cake out of the pantry. I must have been six. Thereabouts. And my little brother said, “Gate”. Then he said “Gate” again. It started to sound a little desperate. “Gate.” “Gate.” And I looked at him and said “Gate?” He started to cry. “Gate!” And that was the moment.’

‘I’m sure I’m being a bit slow,’ Lanyard said. ‘But I don’t quite see what you’re…’

‘No slower than me when I was six. “Gate”: he wanted a piece of cake.’ She did a robust imitation of a parrot. ‘Pieces of gate. Pieces of gate.’

She didn’t have a brother. She had begun, without malice afore- thought, to gull her biographer. It was an improvisation, an inspiration, a prophylactic against boredom, a way of enduring this unsmiling career- ist academic with his list of publications. She could see she was a chore. He couldn’t disguise it. So fuck him.

THE NOVELIST’S CHILDHOOD

‘When I was little what I remember is the dark. How dark it was. You couldn’t see your hand groping in front of you’, she said. ‘In the winter. In the blackout. Only the phone box wearing a fur coat of moths.’ She laughed. ‘A fur coat of moths. Brilliant. I’ve still got it. You’ve either got it or you haven’t. And once you’ve got it, you never lose it. That red phone box, I can see it now. I couldn’t open the door. Not enough strength in my arms. Getting in or getting out, you had to be a tomb-raider or a piano mover.’

Lanyard cleared his throat. ‘If it was the blackout, then the kiosk sure- ly would have been switched off.’ His voice rose a little at the end of his sentence to imply a question.

‘Quite right, quite right,’ she said. ‘It must have been later, when folks still had their blackout curtains up, after VJ Day.’

What an irritating man he was.

PICTURE ME IN MY BLOOMERS

She was knickerless in a deckchair, wearing a rose-print summer frock the colour of Eton Mess. ‘Look’, she commanded. ‘Old age. Look at

these bruises on my legs.’ With both be-ringed, angular, arthritic hands, she hitched the material so he could see her inner thighs. The bruises were reddish brown billows. ‘They remind me,’ she said, ‘of the black pudding fights we had when I was a child in Skipton. Picture me in my bloomers, pelting away. Folks were mad in those days. Nobody except me remembers that, I daresay. Gone the way of Powderhall. Completely forgotten. Go on. Write it down.’

‘What’s Powderhall?’ Lanyard clicked his biro.

‘Professional sprint races. Handicapped. Annual. Just outside Edin- burgh. Prize money and betting. Running spikes everywhere, like cacti.’

When he checked on Powderhall, it was so. He could find nothing about the black pudding fights in Skipton.

THE SEX LIFE OF THE NOVELIST

She had chosen him as her biographer because his joint biography of the Brontes appealed to her. But he was so dull, so academic, so safe, so un- impeachable, so earnest, she couldn’t resist tormenting him. So young, so middle-aged, so mulish.

He wore wax in his careful hair. It didn’t make him seem young and stylishly spiky. It looked deliberate. Hair dressing by numbers. And there were two perpetually roseate patches at the corners of his mouth, where some odd configuration made it difficult for him to shave. As if he’d had unsuccessful corrective plastic surgery. She thought about Karl Kraus on the portrait – a painting in which something is wrong with the mouth.

There was definitely something wrong with his mouth – especially when she forbade the use of a tape recorder. ‘I agree with Auden. Any- thing important you remember. Anything you forget is unimportant. So switch that thing off. I never want to see it again.’

And she never did. It turned silently, defiantly, inside the manbag she teased him about. ‘Isn’t a shoulder bag a sign of bisexuality at the very least?’ she said. ‘Don’t mind me, I’m only teasing.’

‘I don’t mind,’ he said. How Lanyard hated her.
‘Maybe this is the moment,’ she continued, ‘to tell you about my sex

life. What do you think?’ ‘Why not.’

‘Well, there isn’t a lot to tell.’ The lamplight discovered the nimbus around her dyed red hair. She wound up her lipstick. ‘First let me mend my mouth. Get this lipstick erect.’ The remnants of supper – two dover sole like the quill bib on a Commanche chief – lay in state on the kitchen table. ‘You stay there so you can take notes. I need to rest my old bones over here.’ She sank into the faded chintz armchair.

‘I wasn’t gifted in that department. I had a fatal detachment Harold always said. It was one of the reasons the marriage failed. Do you know that Russian joke? The one where the man is giving his all, toiling and moiling, moaning and groaning, when he feels something wet on his back? And the woman says, It’s nothing, I’m only peeling a pear. That’s me. Afterwards, I wondered if it was Harold. Maybe I’d do better on my own. So I tried masturbation. My word, it was like homework. Just like homework. Or the washing up.’

‘So you were celibate?’ Lanyard asked.

‘Don’t be silly. I’m a novelist. Sex is central to the novel. Obviously, in the Twentieth Century, but even before that when everyone called it love. I needed it. I didn’t want to be like a painter who can’t draw hands. Yes, I know: there’s always farcical sex and I’m quite good at that in my books. But you want the main attraction too, not just the cartoons.’

‘And?’

‘I went to bed with a woman. Not that I’m a lesbian. She wasn’t either. We were staying in the same hotel in Australia – a little dump in Queensland – where in Australia isn’t a dump? And. Where was I? Yes. One night there was a tremendous storm and the hailstones were so big – bigger than golf balls some of them – that my bedroom window got broken. Glass everywhere. So I went out into the corridor and she invited me in when she saw me there, looking frightened in my nightie. We shared her bed. And she gave me an orgasm. My first. After that it was easier. I knew what I was supposed to be aiming at.’

(In fact, they had taken up positions, unmoving, at opposite edges of the bed. Only the storm was true. She had lain awake fantasising about various possibilities. Including the unforeseen orgasm. And now she was about to visit another fib on poor Lanyard.)

‘I account for my tardiness by the three occasions on which I was sex- ually abused. (I don’t know why I’m being so hideously formal. On which. For godsake.) The doctor at college told me to take off my clothes and lie on his couch. So he could examine me. I was insomniac because of finals and wanted medication. The second time was a woman. Another doctor. She asked if I had sexual relations with my husband. She put her hands on my stomach. The third time, another doctor. Another man.’

‘I don’t want to be unseemly,’ Lanyard began.

‘But you’d like more detail, is that it? I think that’s enough. Always a doctor. The perfect alibi. And you know enough now, I would say.’

‘How old were you when the abuse took place?’ ‘Young enough.’
‘Young enough?’
‘To be traumatised. To understand.’

She fixed him with a look and removed her specs like a soldier finish- ing a salute with a flourish.

She had never been abused.

MARRIAGE TO HAROLD

‘It started to fail when all Harold’s hair fell out. By accident.’

Lanyard looked up sharply from his notebook. ‘But I’ve seen photographs of him and he has a full head of hair. Flourishing, in fact.’ He didn’t say he’d met Harold in Skegness six months previously – to discuss his ex-wife.

‘Photographs never tell the truth, not the whole truth, do they? Look at any author’s jacket photograph. Always a distant relative. Always younger and better-looking.’

She looked at him looking at her, silently. The silence of scepticism.

‘It’s a wig. He had it made in some place in Piccadilly. The Arcade. Or Jermyn Street. So it’s a very good, very expensive wig.’

‘I’ll take your word for it,’ Lanyard said. ‘What did you mean when you said he went bald by accident?’

She started to laugh. Crazy paving at the corners of her eyes. ‘It was my fault. I encouraged Harold to grow a moustache. It was about the time he took up a pipe. He smoked a briar and a Brigham. At different times. I thought a moustache would go well with the pipe. You know: ma- ture man, man of few words, a man accustomed to weighing his words. A thinker. A writer who can’t actually write.’

‘He’s clean-shaven in all the photographs.’ He was clean-shaven in Skegness.

‘I know. It hardly lasted any time at all, the moustache. It didn’t suit him. When he asked me what I thought, I told him, and he decided to shave it off. Fatal.’ ‘Why?’

‘Not invariably fatal, obviously. But in this instance. You see, at the base of the nostrils where the nose joins the upper lip, there’s a nerve that controls hair growth. Just under the nostril partition, or whatever you call it. As Harold was shaving it off, he severed the nerve. And that was it. His hair fell out in handfuls.’ She paused. ‘The septum. Just under the septum. Gone forever.’

An engineer called Pat Boone (like the singer) had told her about this nerve and its function. She had no idea whether he was teasing her or telling the truth. (She decided not to sleep with him.)

HER BOXING

It was at this point that Lanyard knew for a fact that everything she told him was 90%, 100% lies. It was an extended elaborate fiction. The novelist at work.

‘Have you any idea how much boxing gloves weigh?’

Lanyard said he had no idea.

‘A lot. But I got used to it. To them, I should say. That’s why…’ She broke off and flexed her right biceps.

They were outside, taking tea in the orchard.

‘I only went to the gym to get fit. And to imagine Harold was the punch-bag. But actually, I preferred the pear ball. You can’t see it once you get started. You have to listen to the rhythm. De-de-DAH, de-de-DAH. You hit on the DAH.’

She mimed, fist over fist, arms held high, like a kangaroo.

‘But the trainer told me everyone had to get in the ring. It wasn’t an aerobics centre. Well, he didn’t say that: no one had heard of aerobics then. Or pilates. But anyway, the equivalent. I said, but I’m a woman. He said, makes no difference. In the ring or out of the gym.’

‘So you left?’ Lanyard said.

‘No. I went in the ring. With this piece of spaghetti. This noodly kid with white skin, so white he was nearly luminous. Like neon. In a way, I wanted to be like Hemingway. One of those tough writers. The opposite of Virginia Woolf.’

‘And what happened?’

She laughed. ‘Nothing.’ She threw back her head and let out a dirty laugh, rich with phlegm. ‘We pawed at each other like two dogs on their hind legs. For a good two minutes until we realised neither of us had done this before and we led with our lefts both at the same time. He hit me on the nose. I was surprised by how much it hurt. I know what it feels like to be a cymbal. It stings for quite a long time. Longer than you might think. I was cross so I let loose a terrific right cross. And I actually knocked him out.’

She dabbed at the tears in her eyes. She couldn’t speak for laughing. Lanyard was convinced she was laughing at him. She wasn’t.
‘I can see you don’t believe me,’ she said when she got her breath back. ‘On the face of it,’ said Lanyard carefully, ‘it seems a tad improbable.’

‘I know. I know,’ she laughed. ‘After that, I sparred with the light heavyweight. He was called Billy Zoltan, an American. He wore a headguard and Stephanie Bowman slimming garments under his track suit. Elasticated latex harem pants. To make the weight. At the end of training, he emptied the accumulated sweat. A bit like bleeding a radiator. When we sparred, he just let me hit him, while he shuffled around. I don’t think I hurt him. Or maybe he liked being hit by a woman. I don’t know. There wasn’t much left of his profile. The head-guard didn’t seem to protect him that much. He looked like the Elephant Man. Especially with it on.’

Lanyard didn’t believe her. She knew he didn’t believe her. She was telling the truth.

‘Why did you stop if you liked it so much?’

‘I got bored. It took up too much time. I tried judo for a bit and got bored with that. Pulling at opponents’ clothes. Tussling. Getting nowhere. Like trying to clear a paper-jam in the photocopier. Boring.’

Lanyard found no evidence for either boxing or judo.

FIRST DRAFT

When she read his first draft, she sprang her surprise. She sacked him. ‘I don’t want or need a biographer. I withdraw my blessing. I will tell everyone it’s a pack of lies. Because it is a pack of lies.’

He never replied. He made no attempt to publish. He waited. In two years she was dead. He recast his biography and deposited his micro-tapes in the British Library. It was called In the Grip of Genius. Rachel Hibbert: Compulsive Novelist. It explained how brilliantly she had hidden her life behind an intricate, superbly imagined fiction that was her last and greatest creation. He, Lanyard, had enjoyed the great privilege of being the conduit of something that was better than any biography. An imaginative life concurrent with the actual life. As for her motive, it wasn’t boredom, but helpless genius. She was, he wrote, magnificent and maddening. He put her lies (and himself) in a good light and was re- warded handsomely. He won the Samuel Johnson Prize, the WH Smith Award, The Elizabeth Longford Prize, The James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and he hated her more than ever. But not as much as she, in her swift, decided way, had despised him.

By then Lanyard had grown the moustache she had once advised as a possible improvement – a way of hiding the roseate patches. So he never risked severing the nerve at the base of the septum, at the top of the philtrum. But he went dramatically bald all the same about ten years later – the uneven planes of the scalp’s dull polish like a weathered pomegranate.

By then, Rachel Hibbert was riding high. Thanks to In the Grip of Genius, a reservation about her work was laid to rest: she wasn’t a writer constantly re-visiting a single traumatic event in her life, the divorce of her parents and her mother’s subsequent dipsomania (sometimes glamorised as morphine addiction) which featured in all six of her novels – sometimes on the west coat of Ireland, sometimes in the gusts of lavender fields outside Nice, sometimes in a little Venetian pensione on the Fondamente Misericordia. She was obsessed, yes, but she was profoundly inventive.

Twelve years after Lanyard’s ‘biography’ appeared, a young female researcher from Reading discovered a poem by Ruth Skye in an old Poetry Review. It contained the image of a telephone kiosk wearing a fur coat of moths. Rachel Hibbert escaped criticism – she was by now too well-established – but Lanyard’s reputation for scholarship was tarnished. He had been ‘credulous’, ‘gullible’. And the hunt for sources was on.

Ruth Skye was a non-de-plume of Rachel Hibbert. When another doctoral student revealed this, after a further ten years, the damage to Lanyard’s scholarly reputation was complete.

 


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